Homefront is where the heart is

Posted Nov. 23, 2008, at 9:20 p.m.

After a two-week detour into the prickly world of politics, we now return to regularly scheduled columns about husbands who leave coffee cups on top of the car and drive away and children who embarrass me at the grocery store.

But before we do, did you know that November is Military Family Appreciation Month? Neither did I. As far as I can tell, the greeting card stores don’t have a section for this in their displays. In honor of the occasion, however, Operation Homefront (Maine), an organization that never forgets the military and its people — greeting cards or not — this past Saturday gave away a truckload of free merchandise from stores such as Pottery Barn, Garnet Hill and Carters to all military families at the Air National Guard base dining hall in Bangor.

When I received the e-mail invitation last month, I had to write the family services director to clarify: “You mean all the merchandise is free, absolutely free? For everyone?”

“For all military families, yes,” she said.

“Do I have to do anything? Do I need to sign up? Do I have to be eligible?”

“Nope. Just show up at 10 in the morning with your military identification card,” she said.

I simply could not believe my good fortune: a truckload of totally free products being delivered to my new, nearest home base in Bangor, Maine, where the military population is in the minority. At our previous duty station in Pensacola, Fla., an area where the military presence (including active-duty, reservists, students and retirees) seems to outnumber the civilians, a truckload wouldn’t have been enough. The enormous numbers of military families there would have wiped the truck clean by 10:01 a.m. But in Bangor, well, I knew sleeping overnight to ensure a decent spot in line wouldn’t be necessary.

The day of the big giveaway was my oldest son Ford’s 8th birthday. It was also the day of Bangor’s first fall snow and the first time my children have ever seen snow when it wasn’t in the pages of a picture book. There was a lot going on. Still, I wasn’t going to miss a truckload of free products.

While Ford went to hockey practice with his dad and youngest brother, Lindell, I took Owen, 5, to the Air National Guard base for the shopping spree.

“Do you have your strong ‘carrying arms’ on today?” I teased Owen. “Ready to hold piles of stuff for Mom?”

“I’m going to grab everything in sight,” he said. And then, “Will there be doughnuts?”

We waited briefly in line with a surprisingly large number of other military families before reaching the check-in spot where volunteers were verifying ID cards. I peeked around the corner, giddy with excitement and the prospect of scoring free stuff. The room was full of tables with stacks of toys, clothing, decorations and games. All of it brand new. All of it free.

Then, on our way into the dining hall, I overheard a conversation that made me pause. A fellow military wife asked a volunteer for directions, not to the room full of free merchandise, but to the spot where donors were giving away free Thanksgiving turkeys and food to military families in need. The toy and clothing giveaway would go from 10 to 2 p.m.; the turkey and food giveaway would be all day long.

Later that day, while I was celebrating my son’s birthday and perhaps playing in the snow, there would still be families lined up waiting for a turkey.

It didn’t seem fair.

I walked into the dining hall and was overcome by the generosity of the national brands and companies that had contributed. But now I also realized that this treat wasn’t intended for me. My husband, an officer in the Navy, makes a decent living. Not all of his enlisted counterparts do, necessarily, despite making the same — and in some cases, larger — sacrifices. The giveaway was in honor of all military families, but the donations were for those who needed it. I found a sweater and a hat for my new nieces, and I let Owen pick a birthday present for his brother.

On our way out of the dining hall, Owen asked me why some families were waiting for turkeys. I explained. We talked about being thankful and giving to others. As I drove home and watched Owen in the rearview mirror smiling out the window at the snow, I knew that he was happy.

He was happy about the snow and the birthday party, yes, but I knew that he was also content about leaving that brand new toy car, the one he wanted so badly, for another kid to find in the dining hall.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying … ,“ is available wherever books are sold.

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