December 2, 2021

The bitter & the sweet

Thanksgiving celebrations wouldn’t be the same without both

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Homer High School football players William Dady, left, and Tayvn Malchak are thankful for their team’s success this year, playing in state playoffs today, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic cut short last season.

In the late fall of 1620, the first of 102 people stepped off a tiny sailing ship from Europe somewhere near a boulder in Plymouth, Mass., which if you saw today, you’d probably consider totally innocuous.

The deaths began almost immediately, starting with a teenage servant who died within sight of shore, and an 8-year-old servant girl who died a few days after the landing.

By spring, 45 of those 102 were gone. Entire families had been buried. Children were orphaned; spouses lost.

They had no guarantee they would survive past the growing season. And in fact, it was only the generosity of the neighboring Nauset community, very closely tied to the Wampanoag nation, that helped them survive. Coincidentally, the Wampanoags had been decimated a few years earlier by an epidemic brought by European fishermen. The two groups needed each other.

The remaining survivors, now numbering 53, with 90 Wampanoags, gave thanks at a three-day feast somewhere between September and November, 1621. They knew the coming winter would still be hard. They knew tough times were ahead.

But they also knew they had survived. And without knowing the pain and the loss, there was no way they could appreciate the sweetness of just living.

The story of Thanksgiving isn’t simply a celebration of gratitude, it’s an understanding that bad times must come with the good. Else, one has no reason to be thankful.

Like these people:

ONE SEASON FOLLOWING ANOTHER

The Homer High School football field was silent last fall. The season had been postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic. No crash of pads as players collided on Butts Field. No referee whistles. No cheerleaders rallying crowds. No band. Just frustration.

It was a hard, dark Thanksgiving.

The football season was pushed into the spring, but after the pandemic concerns prompted the cancellation of a scrimmage and first game, the shortened season brought three big wins in three games but no opportunity for a playoff — the state had none.

But this afternoon, the Homer High School Trojans will play Maine-Endwell High School in Vestal for a regional matchup in the state playoffs.

Out of those dark days a year ago, and the abbreviated spring season, Coach Gary Podsiedlik and a couple of his players said they cobbled together a training program that laid the foundation for a team that has a chance to move on to the final four.

“Out of everything bad comes something good,” Podsiedlik said Tuesday as his players got ready for practice. “The boys were so motivated for the season.”

“It feels good to know what we accomplished, especially with all we went through,” said Tayvn Malchak, a senior who plays guard on offense and nose guard on defense. “It made us all a lot harder working.”

William Dady, a senior who starts at tight end and defensive end, noted the schedule last spring was frustrating. Games on a Tuesday and Wednesday, but not one on the traditional Friday night, complicated theusual preparation routine.

The players and coaches had to improvise to make progress.

After the fall season was postponed last year, the junior high coach, George Schneider, who is also a track coach, encouraged the football players to participate on the track team to keep in shape.

The team built an outdoor weight room when indoor training was barred.

“It was the most stressful season in 39 years for me,” Podsiedlik said, trying to balance getting players in shape, but not exhausting them and risking injury.

The shortened spring season was a welcome development after an idle fall.

“We had a honeymoon in the spring,”Podsiedlik said. “The kids were so happy to play football.”

And that season was a springboard for summer training and finally a full season, he said.

While Homer teams that won sectional championships in 2014 and 2017 had more talent, this year’s team is more cohesive because of their struggles, developing trust in one another and a strong work ethic, Podsiedlik said.

“I love practices,” he said. “In this group, everyone is loving practice.” The winding road to today’s game was a learning experience — one to be thankful for.

“It really showed us what we can do when things aren’t perfect,” Dady said. “It prepared us for this year.”

BIG, EXTENDED FAMILY, UNTIL…

Eldon Stevens enlisted in the U.S. Army and the military police as soon as he graduated from Homer Central High School in 2004. He spent every day with his fellow soldiers, including the holidays. Thanksgiving in America, always his favorite holiday, was with another big, extended family.

“We used to have Thanksgiving at the police station while we were working the road patrol,” he said, when he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. “All the officers’ wives would make us food, and after our eight- or 12-hour shifts we had Thanksgiving there, with a big projector up watching football. We could never stay for very long, but they were nice to take care of us.”

But Thanksgiving in Afghanistan was another story.

Photo provided by Eidon Stevns

Then-Sgt. Eldon Stevens, right, stands with his comrades after spending the night on a mountain top in the Khost-Gardez Pass in Paktia province in Afghanistan. A police station had been attacked down the mountain. Thanksgiving that year was just another day for Stevens, marking when he might be able to come home.

“On Valentine’s Day 2007, we deployed to Afghanistan. We were supposed to do a year tour, and three months in they told us we got extended,” Stevens said. He spent 15 months in Afghanistan, with only one two-week leave around Memorial Day.

While in Afghanistan, the soldiers went about their daily duties. His entailed patrolling roads and training the Afghan Border Patrol and police officers. The only difference was a turkey dinner. That Thanksgiving wasn’t very exciting, he said, but his experience in the Middle East gave him a new perspective when he left the service as a sergeant in 2009.

“One thing you don’t realize until you go overseas is how good we have it here in America,” Stevens said. “There’s going to be some poverty here, too, but the poverty that you see there is just mind-blowing.”

There was no electricity or running water in the Paktia Province where Stevens was stationed. The U.S. government drilled wells and built schools, town halls and police stations, he said.

“You really take for granted when the push of a button gives you air conditioning or heat in your house,” Stevens said.

Now, Stevens is married and living in Truxton with his wife, Sarah, and their four children. He said he wants to raise them to be thankful for what they have: their house; his job at Tompkins County emergency response dispatch; all the other things.

Photo provided by Eidon Stevens

Eldon Stevens stands with his family last summer at a birthday party for his
son, Luke. With him is his wife, Sarah, holding 9-month-old Hoyt, with Luke, 7, Hope, 2 and Codie, 4.

The Stevens family visited Courthouse Park on Veterans Day, examining the memorials and reading about the wars and conflicts.

“We explained what they were, and why we respect the flag — that flag is our freedom, and soldiers lost their lives representing that flag,” he said. “We tell our kids that they have a lot to be thankful for, even though they may not think of it or even know of it.”

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAY

Brittany Lindhorst was in Colorado for Thanksgiving last year. Not home. She had food and family, but not hers.

It just wasn’t the same, even though she was with friends.

“Not the same,” she said. “Not your family.” Today, Lindhorst is in Corltand, looking forward to Thanksgiving and meeting her niece for the first time.

“This year, my sister’s coming home with her 4-month-old,” Lindhorst said.

Lindhorst is also expecting her own baby — a third girl — in January. Her daughters, Lucy Bush and Lennon Bush, are 4 and 1 1/2.

Adding to the excitement is the purchase with her partner, Keegan Bush, of their first house, she said. It’s in Homer and they are moving in the week of Thanksgiving. Life is good.

“It’s like the busiest week of my life,” she said, “But also — the food!”

JUST ANOTHER DAY

Maj. Roberto Hooko, now of Virgil, spent more than two decades serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, a member of the 865th Combat Support Hospital based in Utica.

But even in the Reserves, deployment can often be a last-minute surprise.

“In 2005, I was in Iraq at Abu Ghraib just west of Baghdad, and really my experience was that when you’re over there every day is the same,” Hooko said. He was 35. “There is no Monday, Tuesday or Saturday. There were no days of the week, we just went by the days of the month.”

When Thanksgiving rolled around, Hooko almost didn’t realize it.

“With Thanksgiving, it was just another day. I worked in the hospital as an anesthesiologist over there and you still had to go to work,” Hooko said. “The only thing I remember is that they served turkey and other Thanksgiving foods for dinner. Other than that, it was just another day.”

Hooko was first deployed to Iraq in June 2005, and recalled that Thanksgiving served as his five-month mark of what would become an 11-month deployment.

“It was just kind of like a marker, you know, and by Christmas, I’d be there six months and my birthday would be seven months,” Hooko said. “The holidays just become a timestamp, a point in time to know how much longer you have to go, because it just seems like forever for May to come before you’d leave again.”

His year spent in the desert wasn’t exciting, Hooko said. The Abu Ghraib military base camp was near an Iraqi prison, so most of the patients at his mobile hospitals were prisoners and the occasional U.S. soldier.

“At the time, I was an operations officer, so we would do 12-hour shifts every day of the week. Even if you did have a day off, there wasn’t anything to do, so you just did your job, slept, ate and worked out,” Hooko said.

Spending day in and day out with the same people, you begin to see your fellow soldiers as your family, Hooko said.

“I felt very close to these people, because you’re all going through it together,” he said. “So Thanksgiving was kind of nice in that sense, that you had that connection with other people, the same people you work with are the ones you’re sitting down with for Thanksgiving.”

After multiple deployments, Hooko finally retired in 2014, focusing on his family and his medical career. He’ll spend the day with his wife and and 11- and 13-year-olds.

“I’m thankful for things as I get older,” Hooko said. “I’m thankful for being an American and having the opportunity to succeed, having that freedom to go to college and better my life for myself and my family.”

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Staff reporters Sarah Bullock and Valerie Puma and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.