BILL HOGAN’S MUSINGS: Let’s Give Thanks for Thanksgiving

I believe it is beautifully ironic that my favorite holiday is identified with the unglamorous turkey. I remember that when we were training for the Peace Corps on Saint Helena’s Island off Beaufort, S.C., we had a turkey raising project, and those birds didn’t get much respect. They were so dumb, we had to teach the chicks how to drink water, then we had to watch them during heavy rainfalls so they wouldn’t drown themselves by pointing their open beaks toward the sky.

While living in Benin, West Africa, about 10 or so Peace Corps volunteers from around our section of the country gathered at our place for a big Thanksgiving dinner. A couple brought a live turkey for the feast. This was about a weeklong affair because of the elaborate preparations. Our village neighbors got caught up in the spirit and brought us chairs and plates and silverware; a plate from here and a fork from there, their treasured possessions. Our Beninois neighbors put a new straw roof on our paiillote, where the feast was set up to accommodate our Peace Corps friends, four German volunteers who had no idea what Thanksgiving was and native friends at a long table cobbled together, borrowing tables from the buvette across the street. The days-long affair was a joyous happening with the PC volunteers explaining the American holiday to our native neighbors and friends. The table was set using pagnas (strips of printed cloth, one meter by three meters, with which women wrapped themselves as clothing) as a tablecloth, so the table was very colorful. The vast majority of our neighbors ate sitting or squatting on the ground, so this was a very exciting experience for them. The turkey was guarded day and night to ensure that it wasn’t eaten prematurely by uninvited animals or snakes.

Susan transported the turkey, which we dubbed the National Bird of Benin, on her motorcycle to the Germans’ house, who had an oven for the cooking. We didn’t tell our guests that the weight of the turkey caused the basket to slide off the back en route. The sand was washed off and, after a few hours, she brought the finished product back the same way. The rest of the feast was cooked in our kitchen on our two-burner propane stove. The cooking was done in shifts because of the heat.

All was set for the feast. We were cozily seated and I, the father figure at 59, carved the bird at the table. After everyone was served, no one ate, and all eyes were on me. Susan whispered, “They are waiting for you to say ‘grace.’” All these fiercely independent-thinking young people, our fellow volunteers, were waiting for “Dad” to give thanks as he always did at home.

It was one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. Our PC buddies talked of home and family and what they would be doing on this Day of Family back in the states and how lucky we were to be able to celebrate here in Benin. Our Peace Corps director played his guitar.

It was one of my most memorable Thanksgivings. Our PC buddies talked of home and family and what they would be doing on this Day of Family back in the states and how lucky we were to be able to celebrate here in Benin.

This Thanksgiving, Susan and I went to Kate Marshall’s House of Hagar, where she and a small army of volunteers, Susan being one, prepared and served the food. There were five 24-pound turkeys and all the trimmings served to all comers from four o’clock on. It was served buffet style, and the folks of all descriptions ate at a beautifully decorated long table that stretched from the dining room into the living room. There were people sitting and casually eating from china plates, real silverware (where does Kate get this stuff?), then leaving to make room for the next. No one rushed or was rushed, some chatted, others ate in the silence of their own worlds.

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A pretty young woman sat down opposite me. Before sitting, she peeled off a large hooded cotton sweater and then another sweater, which she tossed on the couch behind her. She wore a thin sleeveless summer blouse. She set her plate of food down, picked up the fork left with food on a plate next to her, finished the food on the abandoned plate and then began eating from her plate. She pleasantly chatted with everyone and when she was finished, turned and sat on the couch where a man was sleeping. Some moments later, I saw that she was sound asleep leaning against the stranger. She was safe.

A tall, good-looking fellow around 45, give or take a couple, sat next to me on my left. He talked to Kate, who was seated to my right, so I heard the whole story. He had driven from Cambridge, Ohio, spent the night at the Salvation Army in Martins Ferry. He wanted to tell Kate that he has been sober for over a year; that the last and only time he was there, he was all “f*****up” on drugs, booze anything he could get his hands on. He doesn’t know why, but that day, he made the decision in his confusion in her home, to straighten up. And he did.

He was a three-tour vet of Afghanistan and was blown up by a roadside bomb hidden by trash and remotely triggered. He has a piece of shrapnel in his head that is inoperable and may blind him in the future. He has physical and mental scars. He told Kate that his disability was finally approved, and he will get a check next month for a little over $5,000. He wanted her to know that when he gets it, he will send her $1,000 of it. He still cannot believe she “took him in” in his outrageous condition, didn’t judge nor try to change him. Just took him in.

Paul and Sherry Schafer, both ministers in different Lutheran churches were there, and Paul, with a great voice, accompanied by their son Robert on piano, sang Christmas carols to an enraptured audience. Those carols seemed to me to be so appropriate in this setting. Here were the homeless, many with mental illness ranging from mild to severe, a very unpredictable mix, and the usual addicts of booze and drugs, and the one thing they shared was their loneliness. And in this special place, knowing deep inside of them that they were wanted and cherished here at this moment.

Out of the fleeting sight and sounds in this home, there is an overlay of peace that seems to calm the desperation and loneliness of all of us present in this Stable disguised as a home on 14th Street.

Bill Hogan, born and raised in Wheeling, W.Va., is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and worked in the worlds of finance, real estate and alcoholism rehabilitation. Bill has six children and three grandchildren. He and his second wife, Susan Hogan, served in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1987-90 in Benin, West Africa. Now retired, he is a trustee of the Schenk Foundation, an artist, a writer and self-proclaimed “highly skilled dispenser of bull.”