“Of all the days in the calendar,” John Cheever wrote in 1976, “no one dislodges for me so murky and rich a headcheese of familial, athletic, gustatory and spiritual experience as the day of Thanksgiving.”
When the esteemed American short story writer shared those thoughts at 64 years old, he was in the final years of a rich, yet strained, life. A master of the short narrative form, Cheever had become famous for stories about characters who gossiped, who strove for the upper middle class — all the while creating a lament for the loneliness and emptiness of an existence without God.
In public and in private, Cheever was known for his sarcastic, often sardonic tone — but he could be perfectly earnest about the divine. “The Stations of the Cross are bloody and vulgar. The floor is dusty,” he wrote in his journal in 1960, after visiting a Polish church. “But, even so, there is something here: the unequalled poetry of our faith, this vast reflection of human nature, the need for prayer, love, the expressiveness of grief.”
Cheever had a lifelong, complicated relationship with God. In November 1943, Cheever was serving with the Army Signal Corps. He’d enlisted in the Army a year earlier, and had been stationed at Fort Dix with the 22nd Infantry Regiment.
By this point, Cheever was already a widely published writer; his work regularly appeared in magazines, and his first story collection, “The Way Some People Live,” was garnering critical attention. His transfer from his infantry assignment occurred when his superiors had read his book: Major Leonard Spigelgass — previously an executive at MGM — recruited Cheever to write scripts for the Signal Corps.
In addition to military training films, Cheever continued to pen stories for The New Yorker, where he’d been a regular contributor since 1935. The Nov. 27, 1943 issue of the magazine featured his two-page story “Dear Lord, We Thank Thee for Thy Bounty.” Uncollected in his books of stories, the piece has faded into literary history. While the story is not as accomplished as his classics like “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio,” the tale captures a slice of enlisted life during the mid-century, and is a curiously earnest story from a writer known for a pessimistic tone.
The Army men, stationed in Georgia, begin the story unsure if Thanksgiving “would be a holiday or not.” That Wednesday night in late November, the “sky was full of stars and the night was calm,” but a “damp and unpleasant cold had begun to come up from the swamps.” One soldier, Tom, donned “an extra suit of underwear, a suit of fatigues, a field jacket, an overcoat, knit gloves, and a knit cap” for bed. Exhausted, he “only half listened” to the stories of Shanko, a Pennsylvania-born son of coal miners.
Tom missed his wife. He missed his parents, too, and after waking the next morning — and eating a breakfast of pancakes and sugar water—he began writing them a letter. He is interrupted by Belden, a soldier who is warming himself with a pint of whiskey. He talks of past Thanksgivings — messy affairs, days when his parents would go to church, but afterward his father would ruin the day with racist screeds.
Tom shares his own memories of the holiday: “We used to eat until we were uncomfortable,” he says, but “Then we would take a walk in the woods to pick bittersweet.” The herb was not to eat, though; instead, the cold of the forest in the evening soothed their stomachs.
Shanko interrupts their memories with the news that Thanksgiving dinner was ready at the mess hall. The normally spare room was decked for the holiday: “sawbuck tables with sheets on them like in a restaurant.” The sheets would be used on their beds when they got back to camp — but still, it was a nice gesture. Not to mention that everyone, Shanko promised, would get a free pack of cigarettes.
While they waited in line — cold, far from their families, perhaps doubtful of their purpose and service — the men smelled the food that rode along the wind. After a lieutenant’s short speech, the line dissipates into a mess of men eager to eat. The mess sergeant, though, quells the men. This was a special day; no chow dished out of buckets. Instead: plates on the table. Seated.
The commanding officer told the men that they weren’t to touch a morsel until Corporal Mangan said grace. Hungry, cold, and far away from home, they likely didn’t want to hear that rule. Yet they follow the order, and sit in front of “the smoking plates of turkey,” heads bowed.
John Cheever reflected that the family Thanksgivings of his youth were full of drama, overeating, and overdrinking — but there was also his mother’s hospitality. She “invited all kinds,” including “all of the lonely that she had been able to corral in trains and buses and beaches and in the lobby at Symphony Hall during the intermission.”
Cheever saw his mother’s pride “in the number of dishes, guests and open fires she could display.” He wasn’t sure if that pride was the reason for the invitations, or a harmless byproduct — but he concluded that it didn’t matter. What mattered on that day was that people of different sorts, different views, and different lives came together to break bread.
Cheever ends “Dear Lord, We Thank Thee for Thy Bounty” with the corporal’s grace. “We poor, sinful mortals here on earth thank Thee,” he says. “We thank Thee for making us hale and hearty and for giving us plenty to eat and we thank Thee for taking care of all the folks back home and seeing that they’re warm and have plenty to eat so we don’t worry about them all the time.”
His prayer, a controlled shout, carries across the tables in the wide mess hall: the makeshift tables with the steaming food and the silent soldiers. “We thank Thee for Thy protection and Thy understanding and Thy love. Dear Lord, we thank Thee for Thy bounty. Amen.”
Cheever ends his story with that prayer; with that Amen. Coming from a writer especially known for the precisions of his endings, it feels like an affirmation of divine gratitude on a day of thanks.