Like many Americans—maybe a majority—Thanksgiving looms large in my life.
Ten days before Thanksgiving 1965, when I was two, my father was wounded in Vietnam. He was medevacked to the US and we spent the holiday with him in a hospital in Valley Forge, PA while he was recovering from his gunshot wounds.
Growing up as an Army brat, we ate a lot of Thanksgiving meals in the mess hall—my father in his dress blues—as it’s a tradition for officers to be with their young soldiers, many of whom are far away from home for the first time. We ate a few Thanksgiving dinners at Howard Johnson’s, too, like when my mom and I were alone in Ohio when my dad went back to Vietnam for his second tour.
In the late ‘80s, when I was an Army officer myself, stationed in what was then West Germany, my buddies and I endeavored to get four day passes and spend every Thanksgiving in a debauched haze in occupied Berlin, which was the greatest city in the world at the time. (Stories NSFW.)
I spent one Thanksgiving in Ranger School, the Army commando course where the students are denied food and sleep in order to create stress (averaging one meal and two hours of sleep a day for ten weeks). It just so happened that for my class, eight weeks in, Thanksgiving fell on an six hour-break after we finished the course’s Florida phase and before we flew to the high desert of Utah. After scrubbing our Zodiac boats clean, we got to eat in an actual mess hall, where the instructors screamed at us to shovel our food down our gullets and into our shrunken stomachs in the space of about thirty seconds. Exiting the mess hall, we all threw up in the parking area outside. (It could have been worse; the classes who were still training ate MREs in the swamps, if they were allowed to eat at all.)
In 1995, when I was a grad student, I went to Vietnam to film my dad and some other veterans returning to the battlefield on the 30th anniversary of that firefight. On the way back home, I spent Thanksgiving at the notorious Caravelle Hotel on (what used to be) Tu Do Street in (what used to be) Saigon. As I was alone, I had dinner with a group of gregarious American businessmen who had, in those earliest days after Hanoi had opened up Western investment, come to negotiate the rights to build a snowboard factory in the Vietnamese hinterlands and brought a turkey with them for the Caravelle’s French-trained Vietnamese chef to cook.
When my wife Ferne and I lived in London in the ‘00s, we had two successive Thanksgivings with our English friends Peter and Helene, the location manager for the movie we were making there. Years before, they had gotten in the habit of having an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for some other American friends, and continued to do so even after they fell out with them. The next year, when we were back in New York, Helene and Peter came to visit us here, and we had a memorable Thanksgiving with them, and our friends Sila and Jeff, at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, the kind of place where no one would go for Thanksgiving except us and a goombah-looking dude right out of Goodfellas who figured it was a safe place to bring his Chinese mistress and definitely did not want to be photographed and told us so, as we socked away several of Sammy’s trademark bottles of Absolut frozen in blocks of ice, and danced drunkenly to Dani Luv, on the Casio keyboard, as he has done for 22 years.
In 2009, after Ferne and I had been struggling to have a baby for several years, we decamped to the wintry Jersey shore to spend a cold and solitary Thanksgiving weekend after what felt like our last hope had failed. That Thanksgiving was grim, a low point in that grueling experience, but it occupies an important place in our memories. The next year, blessedly, Ferne was seven months pregnant and the following February our daughter was born.
And of course, like most people, I’ve spent many very ordinary but very lovely Thanksgivings with family or friends. Normally my sister-in-law Cindy hosts a big party, and my mother-in-law makes her famous clam dip, and the woes of the Eagles (even when they’re winning) are an omnipresent topic of discussion. For a number of years, before my mother died, Ferne and I ate two Thanksgiving dinners in the same day, first with my family at noon and then with hers in the late afternoon. Ferne used to say that it wasn’t as daunting as it sounds, because we paced ourselves at meal #1 and were already too sated to overeat at #2. Kinda, but let me tell you, if you eat two Thanksgiving meals in the same day, I don’t care how you spin it, you’ll be stuffed.
Lately we’ve taken to spending Thanksgiving weekends with our friends Amy and Joe and Tom and Jess and Anne down in Atlantic City, where Tom makes a mean “leftover pie” and Amy makes a mean paloma.
And I’ve always wanted to have spaghetti carbonara for Thanksgiving, like Calvin Trillin.
But this Thanksgiving promises to be unlike any other. We are facing a long dark winter, with a quarter of a million of our fellow Americans already dead from the novel coronavirus and the numbers climbing at an astronomical rate, and a criminal lame duck presidency committing what James Fallows argues is negligent homicide—and others like Greg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health have called a crime against humanity—deliberately ignoring the pandemic, and actively shutting out the incoming administration from crucial steps it needs to take to save lives going forward, with the explicit intention of making the death toll worse and the spread more extreme and difficult to control.
This past Monday, very belatedly, the Trump administration finally bowed to reality—slightly; more of a head nod, really—and began cooperating with the transition process. The further damage caused by that delay, measurable in human lives as well as intangibles like the risk to US security and public faith in the integrity of our elections, is appalling, but also par for the course with these cretins.
We are talking about an administration that utterly failed to address the worst public health crisis in a century, that stubbornly refused to take the steps that would arrest it and instead promoted behavior that worsened it, and most egregious of all, that consciously pursued policies that let it run rampant in communities it wanted to decimate. Trump’s (mis)handling of the coronavirus promises to be remembered as one of the most outrageously criminal, indefensible episodes in the lifespan of this country. Even now, when new management has arrived to do the right thing, this White House has petulantly continued its lethal campaign.
History’s judgment will be withering.
So what am I thankful for?
I’m thankful that our country will soon be under adult supervision for the first time in four years. I’m thankful that we got our shit together enough to eject this cretinous motherfucker from office, even though I’m gobsmacked that more than 74 million Americans voted for him—six million less than voted for Joe and Kamala, but almost 11 million more than in 2016. I’m thankful for the faithful public servants of both parties who have done their duty in upholding democracy. (But let’s pretend it’s been an equal effort by both teams. To that end, I’m especially thankful for the tiny minority of Republicans who have put country above party in defiance of their monstrous leader.) I’m thankful for the first responders, front line health care professionals, and essential workers who have been the speartip of fighting the virus, and for all Americans who have done everything they can to help get us through this. And amid all that, I’m thankful that we as a nation have, at long last, had a centuries-overdue wake up call—tragic as it was—and began to grapple more seriously with the cancer of racism that has afflicted us from our founding.
The election was a decisive moment regarding what kind of country we want to be. It was as terrifying to see how many Americans are all in with neo-fascism, as it was to see how many more stood up and rejected it. This winter promises to test our mettle yet again, in a different and more protracted way.
But through it all and even now, I have faith in our nation. Let’s act in a way that will make future generations look back with admiration.
And with thanks.
Illustration: National Geographic, off Norman Rockwell.