ALGONQUIN – During every day of his six-week boot camp assignment at Naval Station Great Lakes, Shane Skinner thought about three things: graduation, his girlfriend and chicken wings.
A mountain of delicious, deep-fried chicken wings.
The 24-year-old Navy recruit from Bolivar, New York, had that and more Thursday when he joined three dozen of his future shipmates at Algonquin’s St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, where volunteers and the Knights of Columbus organized a free Thanksgiving feast for sailors from Naval Station Great Lakes.
The dinner included 10 carved turkeys, sweet potatoes, green beans, ham, macaroni and cheese, bread, desserts, pop – and 400 chicken wings.
“I’ve pounded probably about 40 of them,” Skinner said.
Skinner was one of 39 future sailors fed Thursday through the Navy’s Adopt-A-Sailor program. The church and the Knights of Columbus collaborated with local businesses to build a smorgasbord for hungry recruits.
Food donations came from Maggiano’s, Mandile’s, Texan BBQ, Rainbow Restaurant, Sugar Hill Bakery, Buffalo Wild Wings, Delray’s Chicken Shack and River Bottom Ice Cream, said Chris Hubbuch, the grand Knight who helped organize the midday dinner.
“We have enough food to feed 400 people,” Hubbuch said.
The recruits arrived by bus about 10 a.m., and they entered McDonnell Hall, where laptops, tablets and cellphones were available for them to call family and friends scattered across the country.
Rocky Graziano, a 23-year-old recruit from Virginia named after the former World Middleweight boxing champion, called his mom in Norfolk.
Jaire Andrews, 19, of Raleigh, North Carolina, talked with his mother, father and cousins – all while thinking about a forthcoming plate of mac and cheese.
Kaleb Jones, a 20-year-old recruit from Orlando, Florida, talked with his parents and grandparents, and surfed the internet to read about his favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals.
“I’m catching up with the world,” Jones said, sitting in front of a laptop and preparing to crack open a Mountain Dew. “This feels very refreshing.”
Taylee Smullin, an 18-year-old recruit from Meridian, Idaho, used Facetime to talk to her mom, dad, two sisters and brother.
“We’ve been trying to write letters, but the timing was off,” Smullin said.
Smullin chowed down on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dark chocolate. However, she could not enjoy the Thanksgiving meal to the fullest.
“I actually have a cold right now, so I can’t smell anything,” Smullin said.
This Thanksgiving marked the first time many of the recruits spent the holidays far from home. The previous six weeks of naval boot camp had been grueling for each of them. Early wake-up calls, little sleep and intense physical training day after day left little time for the recruits to make friends and get to know their fellows shipmates on a personal level.
The feast brought the recruits together in a way they hadn’t experienced before Thanksgiving.
“It gave me that warm and fuzzy feeling,” Skinner said, nursing a Styrofoam cup filled with black coffee. “You get to see the sensitive side of your fellow shipmates.”
“In boot camp, you don’t really have time to talk,” Smullin said. “Here we get to laugh and make fun of some of the things that happened.”
About 1:30 p.m., Hubbuch yelled, “OK, recruits!”
In five minutes, he said, it was time to eat.
“Aye aye, sir!”
Holiday cards written by area schoolchildren lined the dining tables. Each one, decorated with turkeys and addressed to sailors, included a note.
“Dear sailor,” read one card signed by a kid named Nolan. “Thank you for your willingness to help our country. We will keep you in our prayers.”
The notes, the food and the effort of the community to make them feel at home made the recruits see their military careers in a new way.
“I am amazed with all the kindness and how people showed their appreciation for my service,” Jones said. “This makes it all worth it.”
At 1:40 p.m., after the room full of hungry recruits bowed their heads and said grace together, someone yelled, “Dig in!”
And they did.