by Charles R. Swindoll
My love affair with Thanksgiving takes me all the way back to my boyhood days. I had just turned 10 years of age and was in fifth grade at Southmayd Elementary School in East Houston. As I recall, I was still going barefoot to school--and I combed my hair, maybe three times a week. Girls didn't matter a lot to me when I was 10! It was on a Wednesday, the day before our Thanksgiving holidays began.
The year was 1944. Our nation was at war across the Atlantic into Europe as well as in the Pacific and far beyond. Times were simple back then but they were also rugged. Everything was rationed. Framed stars hung proudly in neighborhood windows--and sometimes they were quietly changed to crosses. Everyone I knew was patriotic to the core. Without television, we relied on "newsreels" that were shown at the movies, bold newspaper headlines, and LIFE magazine, which carried photos and moving stories of courage in battle and deaths at sea. Signs were posted inside most stores and on street corners, all of them with the same four words:
"Uncle Sam Wants YOU"
Draped high across the front of our classroom was a huge American flag with its 48 stars and 13 stripes. We began that Wednesday as we did every other day in school, standing erect beside our desks, repeating the Pledge of Allegiance and then bowing our heads as our teacher led us in prayer. Hanging just below the flag was a large picture of our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She always remembered to pray for him--and our "soldier boys"; who were serving their country in dark, dreary, and dangerous places a half a world away from my fifth-grade class.
My teacher had lost her husband on the blood-washed shores of Normandy the previous June. After we had saluted the flag, a hush fell across the room as we bowed our heads together. No one moved. As she began to pray and give thanks, her voice broke and she started to weep. I did too. So did Richard Webb, my best buddy. And Wanda Ragland. Even Charles White and Warren Cook, two tough kids who later played high school football when we were all Milby Buffaloes, wiped back their tears. No one moved as she stumbled and sobbed her way through her prayer, which was filled with some of the most moving expressions of gratitude and praise that I have ever heard emerge from a soul plunged in personal grief and pain.
In that epochal moment, time stood still. And I believe it was then--right then--that I fell in love with Thanksgiving. It became, for me, far more than just another holiday; it took on a significance that bordered the sacred.
Lost in sympathy and a 10-year-old-boy's pity for his teacher, I walked home much slower that autumn afternoon. Although only a child, I entertained deep and profound feelings of gratitude for my country, kept free by the bravery and blood of men and women only a few years older than I, most of them fresh out of high school. On that cool afternoon I felt a renewed surge of thankfulness for my mom and dad, my older brother and sister . . . my maternal grandparents . . . my friends . . . for my school . . . my neighborhood . . . my church. Though only a child, I promised God that I would fight to the end to keep this land free from enemies who would take away our liberty and erase America's distinctives and steal the joys of living in this good land.
I have never forgotten that childhood promise. I remembered it at another Thanksgiving, fourteen years later in late November of 1958, when I wore the uniform and silently walked the same beaches of Okinawa where my fellow Marines had sacrificed their lives in the last great battle of the South Pacific in WWII. And as Thanksgiving returns annually, I still pause; I still let the wonder in.
Thanksgiving puts steel in our nerves and causes fresh blood to course through our patriotic veins. It reminds us of our great heritage. It carries us back with humbling nostalgia to those first dreadful winters at places like Plymouth and Jamestown, where less than half of those who first landed survived. But what grand men and women those pioneers became--those who pressed on. Reading their names today is like reading a page out of our national heroes' Hall of Fame. In words taken from Hebrews 11, they were those "of whom the world was not worthy." At this time every year I pause and remember how thankful I am for each one of them. They had the stuff of which greatness is made.
Amen, brother. I particularly liked the line:
I promised God that I would fight to the end to keep this land free from enemies who would take away our liberty and erase America's distinctives and steal the joys of living in this good land.