24 December, 2006

Christmas Spirit at the USO

I can't vouch for the whole country, but the Spirit of Christmas and love for our troops is alive and well in my corner. How do I know?

As you're probably aware, shutting down the Denver Airport for 2.5 days had a cascading effect, wreaking havoc on the entire transportation system. Locally, it left about 150 Sailors and Marines stranded at the airport USO on Friday night, along with thousands of fellow travelers.

In typical fashion, the stranded servicemembers instantly devoured every scrap of food in sight. But word went out on the 11 o'clock TV news that night that 150 Sailors and Marines were stranded at the USO and food had run out. The phones didn't stop ringing until 1 a.m. At least two people had a total of 80 pizzas delivered (they eventually lost count on the pizzas), a retired Sailor dropped off 80 hamburgers, another patriot left 50 sandwiches. People walked in the next morning with bags of chips and cases of soda and water. And it kept on coming...

I arrived to fill in for someone later that morning (Saturday). Marines were napping all over the floors and couches, and moving about the room meant navigating a maze of sea bags, along with the legs of those who had staked out a patch of floor. Pizza boxes were still stacked in the kitchen, and the overflowing trashcans outside the building testified to the feast.

But people were still calling and offering help, and so I ended up in the kitchen most of the day, serving food and coordinating the incoming donations. A homemade smoked turkey was delivered, and a young family offered up the gourmet glazed ham they had ordered by mail for their Christmas Dinner. Grandmotherly types came by with pot pies fresh from the oven and tins full of cookies and brownies. A local deli donated 40 delicious sandwiches and a gourmet pizza parlour said they'd deliver the next time people got stranded.

The servicemembers going through the food like a swarm of locusts were amazed and appreciative. I overheard a young Marine fresh from SOI talking on a cell phone to his family. He ended the call and turned to me, "My mom is gonna be so mad at me." Surveying the spread in front of him, he explained, "She's been spending the day cooking because she thinks I'm starving. But I'm gonna already be stuffed before I even get home!"

We told callers we were okay now and suggested either monetary donations or bringing food at a later date. But some didn't call: they simply arrived with bags of fruit, boxes of instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, crackers, hot chocolate, pudding cups... it was endless. Both fridges and every cupboard in the kitchen were literally packed, and we started stashing things in a side room.

Some of the most touching things were reasons people gave. Many had stories of what the USO had meant to them during their service, or they had children who were either in training or now serving. Others said things like, "They do so much for us, how can we not help at a time like this?" Wives called and said their husbands had always talked about the USO and so they knew "how important what you do is for those boys."

I stayed on for my regular afternoon shift. At 5:10 the news station rebroadcast the story from the night before, leaving the community with the belief that we still had 150 starving Marines and Sailors at the airport (actually we had about 80 excessively-well-fed servicemembers still stranded!). The phone didn't stop ringing for 40 minutes. I sat at the desk and my partner stood next to the kitchen phone. My mouth was tired from talking; everytime we hung up a line, it immediately rang again. This time they wanted to donate money, but others insisted on bringing food.

What a day! Unlike the usual slower pace, there hadn't been a moment to sit down. At 8 p.m. things finally wound down and I staggered out the door to my car, bleary-eyed, feet screaming, clumsy from exhaustion. Riding home I realized I'd been so busy for the last twelve hours that all I'd eaten was a snack here and there. I hadn't even had breakfast that morning, but I'd been too busy to notice I was hungry! I soon fell into bed, sick with exhaustion (I now know what that means!). I slept for 10 hours: joyous, wonderful, luxurious, restorative sleep.

But you know the funny thing? I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. As I said with a wink to those who repeatedly thanked us, "We can't all be Marines/Sailors, so we gotta do our part." It's a privilege to see how much "support for the troops" is out there, a privilege to be needed, and a privilege to have the capacity to do something for those to whom we owe so much. I guess one of the bright sides of unemployment is that I have that capacity for now...