Greeting to all and welcome to my new friends to the EastWing.
November had hardly started when a lady came into my office and said “Bob are ya gona have the Thanksgiving Dinner again this year?” I said “Oh sure, I gotta do that.” She said “With the economy being in such bad shape, I didn’t know if you could afford it or not.” I told her “I can’t afford not to.” She said “ If you say it that way, there must be more to it than just having a Thanksgiving Dinner.” And so I told her the story of why I’d said “I can’t afford not to”.
It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1955, that I walked into the Gleaners Hall in downtown Toto for the “Free Turkey Dinner”. I’ve long since forgotten the group who provided the meal, but I still do remember the outcome.
Keep in mind this was before computers, before email, before instant communication. Telephones were still party lines, and most people in Toto weren’t even on the party line. News was reported in Toto by posting signs on utility poles. The sign poles read “Free Turkey Dinner at the Gleaners Hall, the Sunday before Thanksgiving on Nov. 20th at 5:00 PM”. We read the news on the poles and so we went to the Gleaners Hall, that Sunday, late afternoon, after dark, ‘cause we were hungry little hillbilly boys and a free turkey dinner sounded pretty good.
By the time I got there, a line all the way outside the door, stood waiting to join the party , I joined the line to join the party. Then stood in the darkness awaiting my turn. Everything in front of me was illuminated only by the light shining from the open door of the Gleaners Hall, behind me was the darkness of the Toto night. When I got to stand in the doorway, the very first thing that caught my eye was, the workers, the people putting on this “Free Turkey Dinner”, I knew not their names, and I knew not their faces. They all seemed to be strangers to Toto. ‘Cause in Toto, everybody knew everybody in 1955.
They were dressed alike, all the men and all the women, dressed alike. They all looked the same, those men and women. All the men had beads, all the women had little white scarves on their heads. They all, both men and women, had long white aprons. The kind that ya gotta put over your head before ya tied ‘em behind your back. All the men had their long white shirt sleeves rolled up half way to their elbows. It looked to me like they’d all come to the free turkey dinner in a work uniform.
The very first thing I had to do upon gaining access to the inside of Gleaners Hall was to write my name in a book on a little stand, at the right side, just as ya got inside the door. A feller stood by the book, and said to me “would you please write your name”, and so I wrote my name in the book. It was the first time I’d ever had to sign y name in order to eat. I was so glad I knew how to write my name. I wrote my name in cursive. I wondered if they’d let ya eat if ya couldn’t write your name. But I was sure glad I could write, ‘cause I was hungry. And after all the feller didn’t say print your name. So I wrote BobbyRay Howard in cursive.
As the line moved toward the food and away from the “Book of Names”, I looked behind me, I was not at the end of the line any more, that’s for sure. The line of Hungary Hillbillies continued to extend well beyond the front door out into the cold darkness of the slow time of a Toto Night , that Sunday before Thanksgiving, in 1955.
The next stop on my journey to the Free Turkey Dinner was to receive a really flimsy paper plate and a rolled up paper napkin with instructions from the worker who handed me the items saying “Here’s your utensils”. At that point in my life, I didn’t know what the person meant when she said to me, “Here’s your utensils” ‘cause we’re hillbillies there at Toto, we didn’t have utensils, we had spoons and forks and knives, we didn’t have paper plates either.
There were only two people in front of me waiting for their food, when all hell seemed to break loose in the Gleaners Hall. As he walked away from the food service line, with a full plate of Free Turkey Dinner, a boy, my same age, dropped most of this food on the floor. His mashed potatoes and gravy along with the cranberries, sled from this plate onto the wooden floor of Gleaners Hall. A Category 5 Disaster in the form of potatoes, gravy and cranberries on the Gleaner Hall floor swept thru the Free Turkey Dinner.
As if the world had come to an end, everything stopped. The men, with their white shirt sleeves already rolled up, all joined in the effort to clean the floor of the mashed potato, gravy and cranberries. From that Cat 5 Disaster, I’d learned one thing really important, whatever you do, don’t drop the potatoes and gravy on the floor.
With the flimsy white paper palate, it was an effort to keep the potatoes and gravy in place on the plate walking around to find an empty spot to sit down. But soon managed to find a place on a long row of wooden tables with built in seats. They were arranged length ways to the building, like picnic tables inside the house.
I unrolled the paper napkin and found a little white plastic fork and plastic spoon. My utensils. I’d never seen these things before, plastic spoons and plastic forks. The plastic spoon worked pretty good for eating the mashed potatoes, gravy and dressing and the cranberries. It was when I got to the eating of the turkey with that little plastic fork that things went terribly wrong.
Having no knife, I tried to use the little white plastic fork to cut the turkey. As the fork broke, one of the workers, standing close by me, started laughing. I just knew she was laughing at me. I was never more embarrassed and ashamed in my whole life. I wanted to get away, I wanted to be away as fast as I could go. I just had to get away from where I was. I had to get away or die. There was no other choice, get away or die. Many years later I realized the lady was not laughing at me, but at that very moment, the moment of the laugh, that sound penetrated to my very soul, to my very being as a human. I had to go or die.
With tears in my eyes, I got up and ran out of the Gleaners Hall there at Toto, and ran all the way home. I cried for a long time that evening. It was the first time in my life I’d felt that I’d been looked down upon ‘cause I was “poor white trash, ‘cause I was just a hillbilly boy”.
It was somewhere in the darkness of that cold November Night, somewhere around the time that the Thanksgiving Dinner became yesterday and tomorrow became today, I promised God that there’d be a time in my life that I’d provide a free Thanksgiving Dinner, not the Sunday before, but on Thanksgiving Day. It wouldn’t be for “poor white trash hillbilly boys” but for everybody in the world wanting to be thankful for what they have in life. My meal would be served, not on paper plates and little white plastic forks, but on white china plates with real knives and forks and spoons, the kind that hillbillies use.
Time marched on. Years passed. I grew up, received an education, got married, had babies, and never forgot about the promise made of a free Thanksgiving Dinner. A promise made to God. A promise that had to be kept sometime in my future. I never wondered when it would happen, but always knew it would.
Neither the She, nor the family I’d raised, ever knew the story of the Free Turkey Dinner at the Toto Gleaners Hall that Sunday before Thanksgiving, 1955. It was when we, as a family, we were deciding whether or not to create Grand Central Station in North Judson, that I told ‘em the story.
The time was right to keep the promise, and so as a family, we decided that as long as Grand Central existed, there would always be a Thanksgiving Dinner on Thanksgiving Day, and we would invite the whole world. We have in the past and continue to do so this year.
That very first Thanksgiving Dinner at Grand Central Station, we had 31 guests. At that time we were operating Grand Central Station as a full service restaurant. Many people thought the advertisement of FREE THANKSGIVING DINNER, was just a ploy to be able to charge $12.95 for Coke-A-Cola. It was not a ploy. The Coke was also free. Our success has grown over the years. Last year we had a little over 400 guest for dinner. This year is our 7th Thanksgiving Dinner at Grand Central Station we hope to have at least 500 guests. We do hope you’ll join us for dinner on Thanksgiving Day.
So now ya know why, when it comes to the Thanksgiving Dinner, I have to say “I can’t afford not to”. It’s a promise that must be forever kept. It’s just one of those things. It’s not like you can promise God something and have your fingers crossed behind your back….. ‘Cause God sees your fingers too.
Should you think you’d enjoy a Thanksgiving Day Meal in the presence of people who love their neighbors, and are thankful for the things in their life, welcome to Grand Central Station on Thanksgiving Day. We’ll see you there ‘bout noon or so.
Stay safe in Afghanistan.
From the EastWing, Gleaners Hall and Thinking ‘Bout Turkey Dinners Past and Future.
I wish you well,