A Holiday Party Experience at McGuire Air Force Base/Fort Dix by Calvin Schwartz 1-3-17
The holidays are times of introspection and gratitude. Some years ago, I met Steven Levine from the WindMill Restaurants at the Jersey Shore. He has been involved in giving back to the communities in many ways. During Hurricane Sandy, he was there feeding people made homeless by the storm as well as rescue workers. A few weeks ago, he invited me to the Asbury Park VFW, where he sponsored a large community Christmas dinner and Toy boutique for kids along with Pastor Isaac Friedel of the Jersey Shore Dream Center. Indeed, I was grateful to be part of the spirit of the season. Later, he asked if I’d like to go to a Holiday Hanukah Party he was involved in at McGuire Air Force Base and Fort Dix. Along with his family, he was providing toys for tots. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend time at a military base at the holidays; actually my first substantive time spent at a military base so very close to home.
On Thursday December 29th we formed a mini caravan of a WindMill truck and a Suburban carrying toys and Steven’s wife, daughter and friends and my wide-eyed self; I was going to spend time with our military. After security check-in, we arrived at the activity center which was hosting the party. Being a few hours early, afforded us time to explore. I was overwhelmed with the vastness of the base. I rolled down a window and took pictures (with permission). In the distance, many fuselages of transport planes waiting. One nearby, obviously retired, stated, ‘US Air Force’. Subliminally, I instantly thought about freedom and the power of America and what our military does to preserve freedom. It hit me that fast. That’s what seeing that plane so close did to me.
Next stop, more practically speaking, was a shopping mall and food court; the Military BX, as big as any vast modern mart store; and yes, I was aware of the great prices the military paid. Sitting with our group in the food court, I watched soldiers, families passing by. How do I explain this? How did I sense that esprit de corps and belonging? But I did. Smiles all around; how easy it must’ve been for the passing military personnel to sense I was a civilian wearing my traditional Rutgers cap.
If I was alone driving, I’d still be lost like the man who was never found after taking a Boston subway ride (an old Kingston Trio folk song.) It was a city in itself; many thousands stationed here. With a few twists, turns, round-about, passed a Subway sandwich shop and gas station, we were back at the activity center, now readied for the party. A few camouflaged soldiers, whom we met earlier, welcomed us back and helped unload the toys. A young sergeant and I talked about Indiana and her being a Hoosier. The room was decorated with tables Hanukah themed and forty or so guests were treated to traditional holiday foods like potato latkes. The kids got toys and games.
What I did notice was the multi-cultural flavor of the party. Yes, A Jewish holiday but personnel were diverse making it even more holiday spirited. For me, always extant in absorption of emotions and feelings, there was a warmth, caring and sharing in the room. It was a strong feeling. For those moments, I wondered what’d be like to serve and be stationed here and what I missed. Also present were a group of Jewish War Veterans. One veteran introduced me to the last living dog that worked in 9-11. She rescued two NY PATH policemen buried under building Seven. The veteran still trains canines.
What cemented the warm feelings even more was the announcement that New Jersey’s Brigadier General, Michael L Cunniff and Base Commander Col. Frederick D. Thaden were at the party and each was given the honor of lighting a candle on the Menorah. A very special feeling of inclusion and bonding. A very modern military. I had time to chat with both Military Chaplains and with Commander Thaden. Perhaps, my NJ Discover journalism travels would bring me back here and how I’d love that.
The night concluded with traditional songs and jelly donuts (part of the holiday) And in keeping with the ‘donut’ theme, the experience was well worth the trip. I keep thinking about the military, the base, freedom and the holiday of Hanukah which is all about freedom. I’ve been telling my world all about my time at McGuire and Fort Dix; how much it meant to me. A few asked, as a journalist, would I ever go up in a fighter plane? I suggested they have a donut.