Thanksgiving in Korea

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. WordPress has pointed out to me that some readers have been from outside the US, so to you folks I say ‘thank you’ for stopping by and the story to follow will shed some light on what to me is the best American (and Canadian) holiday. While I prefer summer over any other season, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. The food shared is always the best, both in taste and in variety. The mixing of traditions and sharing of experiences leaves treasured memories. The very idea behind the day, to reflect on what to be grateful for and vocalize your thanks, is something that should be done every day of the year. Thanksgiving, to me, is a day that stands out in American culture as an example of who we are at our best. One of the nicest things about living in western NY is that it’s very easy to travel north and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving as well, a double dip of gratuity. Ironically the True North version falls on Columbus Day in the US, a holiday that is now somewhat controversial due to the atrocities inflicted upon the indigenous tribes.

Thanksgiving is also tops in my book for another reason. With Thanksgiving comes one of my favorite Army (really military wide) traditions. Army chow halls are typically thought of as having food so bad it is the butt of classic military humor. Griping about the lousy food is something of an official pastime for troops. While I experienced some food that would back up those jokes, I’ve also had absolutely fantastic meals served up by Army cooks. The top culinary teams in the Army compete within their field each year. I was lucky to be a part of this during my first stint at Fort Hood. While that’s a bit off topic for today, I promise to revisit that one. These cooks deserve the recognition for their good work, doubly so because of the shit-on-a-shingle stereotype. OK, back to my point, the tradition I speak of is that of officers and senior NCOs donning their dress blues and serving chow to the soldiers. The formality of wearing dress blues is something missing from modern life. I really think we could all do with a bit more pomp and circumstance sometimes. The act of serving food to our soldiers was always something I enjoyed as it got to the heart of the idea of being a servant leader. This day gives any leader who is worth their salt a chance to show compassion, to bond, and to take care of their subordinates in one of the most basic ways – serving food. This also pulls at my Franciscan heartstrings. Thanksgiving is a day that I truly miss the Army.

Now that you have the set up, here’s a story of my most memorable Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving day 2007, Camp Casey, ROK. This was a different twist on serving dinner. I drew an early shift at the DFAC (dinning facility) that was right across the street from my quarters. For some reason we wore ACUs instead of dress blues, something that bummed me out. I lugged that damn uniform over 7,100 miles and one of the rare occasions to wear them was being pissed away. They also cost me around $700 and I wanted to get some use out of them! Anyway, I went and did my shift, got to serve some of my own platoon and other soldiers from my battery. That was also the day that I met my newest platoon sergeant. Due to the typical 12 month rotation we all had, I had already gone through two platoon sergeants in five months. So now came #3. The constant changes posed a big challenge, but I had been told by a couple of the NCOs in my battery that the guy coming in to be my new PSG was top notch. So that was an interesting way to meet someone who I would be working hip-to-hip with for the next several months.

With all that done I walked back to my odd flat, it was more than a room, but not really an apartment (I washed my dishes in my bathtub), got changed, and hopped the train down to Seoul. I had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of my former ROTC instructors, Reed. I was a bit nervous about this as Reed was then a major and I knew all the other guests would be a bit higher ranking than me. This left me wondering what that dynamic would be like. Little did I know that this would become one of my best memories.

A holiday spent so far from family is always weird. Let’s just be up front about that. When you’re 23 and not very well traveled it’s an even more daunting prospect. Then again I had spent Thanksgiving 2006 eating shitty chicken parm by myself in a Village Inn restaurant in El Paso. THAT is easily my worst Thanksgiving (which is saying something since my Aunt Angeline died one Thanksgiving). So once I found Reed’s building and got reacquainted with his wife Janice and their children things got a lot easier. Reed and Janice made me feel like part of the family and I watched them treat everyone else with the same hospitality. I learned a lot about making the best of every situation, how helping to build the community around you (even if it’s just the other neighbors on the floor) is vital to being happy. All the other people at dinner were far from their homes too. While they all had their spouses and children with them in Korea, there was a shared sense of treating each other as an extended family as a simple matter of fact. This is an interesting thing learned from overseas assignments and years of semi-nomadic living. With ever shifting environments and unrelenting moves, building out this extended family was partly done out of survival, partly for maintaining sanity, and partly love.

The older men and women there (really only about 10 years my senior) seemed much older and wiser to me. I was the odd man out for sure. The only one there on my own, the only one with nowhere else to go, the only one with no other family to be with. I was taken in by all and saw Army life at its best. The companionship, sense of community and shared troubles, these experiences brought a bunch of strangers together and made us family for a while. I can’t say I experienced this at every duty station, and for me it was the exception not the rule. I think for anyone to make a career out of the military you need to have this on a consistent basis otherwise the lifestyle breaks you.

I also learned that day that my former instructor was a phenomenal cook! I would have never had guessed that, but Reed is a culinary wizard. Not only with the main course and side dishes, but dessert too. As he explained to me, when you’re a single guy you either learn to cook or you eat crap. Janice also pointed out to me the extra points scored for having said skills. I took note and put these lessons to action later on. No longer my instructor, but still my teacher.

So I look back on this day, taking time to remember it each year, and a smile always comes to my face. I was very lucky to be part of Reed and Janice’s family. I am forever grateful to them, and thankful to count them as friends. Thinking of them I can’t help but think of how our lives are so strongly shaped by people we sometimes only see briefly, whose paths we crossed for a short time. Two hairs and a whisper of a touch refine us as humans, blending in the adjustments of our character. Each Thanksgiving, every day, Thank you, Reed & Janice.

Matters to clarify and classify

It’s been a few days, so I need to check in and write. I’m struggling with thinking of too many topics to write about, but seemingly not very much to say. The best antidote for indecision is action, so I’m going to write a little about the purpose and structure of this blog. In time, as this posts gets buried deeper and deeper, I’ll add some of this into the About page to keep it easy to access.

So, if you’ve visited the About page then you know that I am incrementally working on a book. This is somewhat of an abstract goal I’ve had for many years, one that I could never seem to advance on. I was a history major my first time around at St. Bonaventure University. As such I developed a necessary habit of reading 4 or 5 different books simultaneously and pumping out lots of pages of writing. Write drunk, edit sober was a lifestyle. Since then I’ve maintained this habit of borderline ADD reading. This likely contributes to my several piles of books and magazines scattered throughout the house (this drives my wife nuts). The writing part of that ledger dropped off to near zero (an imbalanced double-ledger is very un-Franciscan) and I’ve missed it. Here and there I would write a short essay to submit to blogs like Doctrine Man. Seeing my ideas being published, even on such a small scale, reminded me of how rewarding it is to see someone value the scattered thoughts I put to pixel.

It was with a couple of these samples I contacted an author who has a fantastic blog dedicated to empowering other writers. Marissa’s feedback was exactly the kickstart I needed. She helped to confirm some of my ideas, such as focusing on short story or memoir formats, and also encouraged me to be more emotionally expressive. That is admittedly something I have a hard time with. My post “I always wanted to drive a big truck” was an attempt, but I suspect it could have been better. So here is where I ask you, True Believer, to leave some comments and TELL ME when I follow through on this, when I suck at it, and what you want to know from me! That’s a desperate plea and it is critically important that I hear from you. Why, you ask? Here’s why…

This book I’m dreaming up is going to be a memoir in short story format. Think of the movie Big Fish, but with more 4-letter words. With that in mind I drew up a rough outline of major time periods in my so-far-short life (33 trips around Sol). That’s why the categories you see on my posts are titled “Episode I”, “Episode II”, “Episode III”, and you get the idea. This will help me to write with more freedom (fuck you linear time-space) and still be able to look back on my past posts and compile them properly. The categories and tags will also help me gauge what time periods and topics you all enjoy reading the most. See why all the reader feedback is so important to me?

Ok, now you all know how important you are to me. Let me give a quick run down of the outline. So far I’ve come up with 8 Episodes that will cover my time from college/pre-commissioning & my time as a LT going through different Army schools, Korea, Fort Hood Part 1, my time on a Border Transition Team, Fort Hood Part 2 (that place is a fucking black hole), Transition – the first 3 years post-Army, Transition – the second 3 years, and finally where I’m currently at in life, to include my exploration of Stoicism. Right now I’ve been out of the Army for just over 6 years. I felt it was sensible to break that time into two 3-year periods as there was a lot going on. This will also allow me to make a definitive break between that period of transition and the time between the start of this blog and publication (I’m expecting this to take a few years).

That’s a lot to talk about, hopefully enough to fill a few hundred pages with interesting stories that people will enjoy, but also with substance. Personally, I disdain reading purposeless memoirs. I don’t want to read someone’s diary, and I sure as hell don’t expect anyone to want to read mine. Here we are going to create something important, something of value that adds to society by diving deep into the civil/military divide that exists in the United States. We’ll also get into how to find our place as individuals within society (transition out of the military can be a real bitch), and also our responsibility to each other. Writing needs to be more than mental masturbation. While I enjoy it and see value in keeping a journal, I also think that writing is a powerful tool we all have for putting well thought out ideas out there for all to benefit from. We don’t always have to agree (that’d be weird) but we need to remember how to have civil discourse. In a time when 140 characters about what Kim K. is wearing, or superficial statements from “leaders”, I say at the top of my lungs “FUCK THAT NOISE”.

Let’s get to business.

My first blog post, be gentle

Here we go. My very first ever blog post. No pressure. It’s not like this has to be absolutely perfect, share world changing insights, or lay the cornerstone of my legacy.

Actually, that’s exactly right. This doesn’t need to be perfect, it can just be good or even decent. A post doesn’t need to change the world or blaze a direct path forward. These are things I’ve only recently accepted. See, for years I was stuck on the anxieties listed above. While in grad school I kept telling myself “you’re going to start a blog between semesters.” Well, three years of that went by and still no blog. It’s been another three years since graduating and I’m finally here. So what changed?

Over the last six months I’ve started to dive into Stoicism. By no means am I very well versed in the philosophy, but it did make an immediate impact. What got me to buy into Stoicism is  that it is a philosophy of action, not just a worldview of how to live righteously. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy as an academic matter. Personally, I need a guiding philosophy centered around deeds not words. The actions are the philosophy, and in doing even small things to improve yourself each day you become a better Stoic.

OK, so what exactly does that have to do with starting to blog? Don’t go running, I’m not here to preach from a soapbox to you. As an exercise in taking small, incremental actions to improve myself and achieve a goal, this blog is a step along my path. The idea of writing a book has been on my mind since I was an undergrad. I majored in history and loved the writing that was involved in that study. I’ve often missed the exercise of writing but always struggled with finding a topic. And if I had such a hard time with just starting a blog, how would I ever write a book? That’s where the Stoic teachings come into play. I have a general idea of something I want to achieve. I even have some outlines.  The roadmap for getting to my destination starts here, with this blog.

What I’ll write about here will help me form the basis of said future masterpiece. It’ll even help me to accept that the book probably won’t be a masterpiece (Mark Twain, I am not). This is also a great way for me to engage in the Stoic practice of routine self examination. The cool thing is that you are a part of this too. By coming here, reading my brain dumps, and hopefully leaving some comments and engaging in discussions you will be helping me in my good journey. I offer my sincere and whole hearted thanks for that.

The photo below is a default picture from WordPress. I kinda dig it though and it seems like a somewhat fitting picture for what we are starting here. So I’m going to leave it.

Till next time, pax et bonum.

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