My first Christmas away from home was certainly one for the memory books.
I was 18 years old and nearing the end of my Navy boot camp experience. So, those of us in my company — Company C017 — had earned the privilege of being “Adopt-a-Sailor” participants through the Naval Training Center-Orlando USO.
The Adopt-a-Sailor program was pretty simple. Any family living within a 50-mile radius of the base could come to the USO on Christmas morning and “adopt” a pair of sailors to spend the day with them. There were two lines, one for families and one for sailors, and where the two met, the adoptions took place.
For many of us, the adoptions were a wonderful, one-day getaway from the rigors of boot camp. While Orlando itself is a major city, many of its suburbs were filled with highly affluent people. And, most of my boot camp company was made up of kids who came from less-than-ideal backgrounds.
It was, in a word, Shangri-La.
When it came to pairing up the sailors, those of us in boot camp companies were allowed to pick our partners. I went with my good friend, Jorge (he pronounced it “George”), the 19-year-old son of a Navy commander who came from New York City and was destined to become an officer himself one day.
Jorge and I were adopted by the family of a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot. Cmdr. Jenson, his wife, and their two kids, took us to the sandy beaches of Cocoa Beach, where we enjoyed sun, surf and grilled steaks for Christmas dinner.
When it was finally time to go back to the base, Mrs. Jenson gave each of us a plateful of cookies to share with our shipmates in Company C017. If you’ve never been in boot camp, you have no idea how much power a single cookie or candy bar can wield — a single plateful of cookies was true power.
So, naturally, we floated across the quarterdeck of the division barracks when we returned.
As Jorge and I walked back into our compartment, we heard a bunch of the guys were already back from their own adoptions, and they were making quite a racket. In the midst of the hubbub was another of my good friends, a recruit I’ve mentioned before: Huck from Nebraska.
You might recall Huck was a very large guy, the kind you didn’t want to cross on a typical day. But at the moment Jorge and I walked in, he was anything but intimidating. In fact, he looked like he could become violently ill at any moment.
So, I set down my plate of cookies, walked up to my good friend, and asked what his trouble might be.
“I don’t know. I think it was something I ate,” he said, barely holding back the now-inevitable violence churning in his stomach.
From his adoption partner, I found out they didn’t have the same kind of experience Jorge and I had. Rather than getting adopted by someone from one of the more glamorous suburbs, they were adopted by a slightly impoverished family from the northern suburb of Apopka.
The menu for Christmas dinner had included sweet potatoes, collard greens, black-eyed pea soup, and something else that neither Huck nor his adoption partner could remember the name of — something that started with “C-H” and stunk to high heaven — but they were sure it was the cause of Huck’s current condition.
Having already experienced a little bit of southern cuisine in my life, I asked if the mystery food had been “chittlins.” As a matter of fact, that sounded exactly like what they had eaten.
I really tried not to laugh — I really did — but I couldn’t help it. So, when I finally collected my breath enough to respond, I told Huck and his adoption partner that what they had experienced was, in fact, chitterlings.
For the uninitiated, that’s the name for the fried intestinal tract of a pig.
And that was all it took. Somehow, I was able to see the warning lights going off in his eyes at that moment, and jumped backward as Huck’s Christmas dinner — the sweet potatoes, the collard greens, the black-eyed pea soup and, of course, the chittlins — ejected themselves from his body with a velocity that barely seemed possible. His partner, who hadn’t partaken in the southern delicacy but was instead munching on Mrs. J’s Christmas cookies, apparently had a weak stomach for such things.
He lost his Christmas — cookies and all — all over the deck, too.
This was all useful information for the months ahead after boot camp, but I also banked away a couple of other useful lessons from the experience. Most important of those was: don’t put something in your body unless 1) you know what it is, and 2) you know what it might do to you.
In the years that have followed, I learned that lesson applies to more than just food, too. I think it applies to your heart, mind, and soul, too.
But, please, be sure to keep at least the food part in mind as you celebrate this week.
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If you’re reading this, thank a teacher (especially today). If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.