A Sporty Guess And A Romantic Clue

I don’t know much about the two female troops I adopted (one Air Force, one Army). But I know one likes college football and the other likes romance novels. With these pieces of intel as my north stars, I set out to make their first care packages.

Everything I know about college football

  1. If I turn on a Florida Gator game or walk into a room where their game is on TV and I am not wearing my “chomp chomp” Florida Gator t-shirt, they will lose. This is not hard science but it may as well be because my fiancé believes this to be true.
  2. I’ve been to one college football game in my life and it was The Ohio State University versus some team that also wears red and white uniforms so the entire stadium looked like one fan base. My two favorite parts of the game were a) a small mammal ran across the length of the field to deafening cheers and b) the band did that script Ohio thing and it was pretty amazing.

So, with that extensive background to draw upon, I bought some sporty magazines along with healthy snacks. But I wanted something that captured the spirit of fun too. Since I have no idea what this Airman’s base is like or how much space she has, I got tiny table games because who doesn’t have room for that? Then Sofia picked out a sports sound effects machine. I can guarantee that every button works because she insisted on “testing” them multiple times. To enjoy the sound of some other child testing it, click here.

sports

Kissing is ewww

Sofia was helping me shop for these care packages so she was with me as I perused the romance section of the bookstore. Looking at the cover art of couple after couple locked in tortured embraces on the verge of epic kisses, she gave her critical review: ewwww. Now do I think kissing is yucky? No. Am I okay with her thinking it’s yucky? Sure.

I don’t read romance novels but this Soldier told me a writer she liked so with that clue, this would be easy. Except that the only titles the bookstore had avail were either e-books or very old so maybe she read them already. Sofia examined the blurbs on the books to help me decide. “Mom, this one is more Romeo and Juliet and this has more adventure and I think I’ll read this one and this one and…” What?!? What happened to ewww?! Not liking this sudden turn of events, I quickly got a reco from the salesclerk and left. Then I added candy to this care package—but nothing chocolate (remember, don’t send chocolate between April and November to hot climates).

A sure thing

When you shop for someone you don’t know, there is a lot of guesswork. But what you can 100% bet on is that whatever you choose will be appreciated. Because what is really being received by our troops, is the certainty that the people they serve and sacrifice for have not forgotten them.

© Gina left the mall, 2016

Deploying Snowballs To The Fight

What do you do when you have a troop in the desert that misses winter? You send him snowballs! Of course, a soggy box of real snowballs (a.k.a. water) does not have a high fun factor. Plus neither the U.S. Postal Service nor the Dept. of Defense takes kindly to boxes leaking liquids.

However, I solved this shipping/climate challenge with Hostess® sno balls®. I figured it was a delicious way to give him a taste of winter. These treats became the main ingredient in my snow-themed care package for Brendon*.

Winter-themed care package with "snowballs" and more.

Winter-themed care package with “snowballs” and more.

This mini winter wonderland included:

Hostess sno balls – a bunch of 2-packs and two boxes of sno balls underneath

“Christmas snow” instead of bubble wrap

7ft strings of paper snowflakes

Snowman mug

Bacon-flavored instant cocoa. Yes, they make this. I also included other flavors.

Cocoa toppers- little sugar snowmen with candy cane straws that you garnish your cocoa with. What warrior doesn’t need this?

Snowman cookie- if you’re a longtime reader, you know I don’t bake. But if you need a deployment-friendly recipe, Wendy at The Monday Box has smiling cookie snowman stacks she says are easy but take some time to put together. Or search her blog with the words “military care package”.

As close to Alaska as I can get

I am in touch with Brendon’s wife Ashley and I asked her if she thought he’d like the decorations or if he’d think it was silly. She said, he’d love it. When I mentioned the sno balls she laughed because that’s one of his favorites. Double-yay!

Then I asked her if she had any other ideas I could add in. She mentioned she heard that someone from their home state of Alaska once sent over a small vial with some melted Alaskan snow. I decided to stick with sno balls and not try this because:

1. I don’t know anyone in Alaska.

2. There is no snow on the ground by me right now (Manhattan) and even if there were…

3. pure New York City snow just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The forecast ahead

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the weather forecast this winter is essentially: DOOM. Some areas of the country have already had a sampling of this. So, it may be hard to see at this chilly moment how someone could be wistful for the powdery nemesis of commuters and school principals everywhere.

But home is home. Whether it’s palm trees, city streets, or Santa’s neighborhood. And no amount of distance can keep the people, sounds, sights, and tastes of home far from our hearts. So I’m sending him a snow day filled with warmth and good wishes. Hopefully I sent enough sno balls that he can share. I wouldn’t want a fight to break out.

*names changed for privacy.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

It Sounded Good

One day I decided to send my adopted soldier a toy. So I asked a few guys at work what childhood item they would love to have right now. Video games were out because I wasn’t sure what systems (if any) my soldier had access to. Or how reliable things like electricity were. No, I wanted to go old school, low-tech, and it had to fit in a flat-rate box.

Out of the suggestions given, I picked one I never heard of. Why? Because I thought the name sounded good. It sounded nostalgic. Like something invented in the 50s that Opie Taylor might use in Mayberry down by the fishing hole. To me, the name also had a hint of romance about space exploration. The toy I picked was the wrist-rocket slingshot.

I had never seen one before but it was easy to find online. I also ordered the “accessories” which in this case were extra rubber bands and small metal balls. After all, how fun is a toy without the parts? I imagined my soldier opening this box and being flooded with happy childhood memories. I pictured him going to the “backyard” of his remote brick hut in the mountains of Afghanistan to play with his buddies. Or maybe he’d bring it as a welcome diversion when he went to the even more remote outpost he’d work at for weeks at a time.

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Not Mayberry.

Sweet shots

After my soldier came home, I got the 411 on various packages I had sent. I wanted to figure out which ones were the best ideas. The wrist-rocket came up.

ME:  Did you like it? Did you guys use it?

HIM: Oh yeah it was great! What was really funny is some other guys got Frisbees the same day and they were playing outside. Then I walked out wearing my wrist-rocket slingshot, they were pissed and jealous…lol.  So I shot them with the marshmallow hearts that Sofia sent. (Sofia is my daughter)

ME:  Why didn’t you use the little metal balls?

HIM:  You mean the ammo? Because I didn’t want to kill someone. 

It didn’t dawn on me that the accessories were ammo. When I mentioned this to another solider I was pen pals with, he told me he had received a wrist-rocket slingshot as well. A church sorority group made up of very lovely 70-year-old women had adopted him. They sent him care packages with beef jerky, soup, shower shoes (flip-flops) and hygiene items. Then one day he got the slingshot. “I think someone’s grandson had a hand in that package…lol.” He did not use the ammo either. He used Jolly Rancher candy as projectiles. Then he would “help” the other soldiers during marksmanship practice by shooting their legs. “Hey, you have to be able to handle distractions. I was being a distraction.”

In the end…

I asked my adopted soldier if he brought it home and he said no. It seems he was concerned about it being confiscated because the wrist-rocket slingshot is not a toy and is considered to be a weapon. So in one smooth move I managed to bum out the Frisbee players (thus un-doing the happy impact that some fellow supporter had tried to create) and send an instrument of danger. Nice.

Not every plan I have works out exactly like I intend it to. Sometimes they work out better (the Phoenix Coyote episode and hopefully the Chaplain) Or I learn something valuable in the process, like when I’m in over my head (Killer Snowflakes).

But most of my mishaps also come with something pretty nice—a smile. Even if the laugh is at my expense, it still counts! My soldier got a kick out of my lack of wrist-rocket knowledge. Also, after the initial marshmallow assault, he shared it with the other guys so they all had fun. And that sounds very good indeed.

© Gina left the mall, 2014

I Hope The Chaplain Likes To Party

I didn’t mean to send a New Year’s Party in a box to an Army Chaplain, but that’s what happened.

New Year's Party care package

New Year’s Party care package. The “beer bottles” are noisemakers.

I had just shipped the box when I learned that the soldier it was meant for got sent home for a health problem (don’t worry, he’ll be okay). So how do I know it’s headed for the Chaplain? Because when you fill out the customs form, you have options if the package is undeliverable. They are: 1.Treat as abandoned, 2. Return to sender, and 3. Redirect to address below. I always check the third box and write: Chaplain.

Mishap Upside

When I thought about it, I realized that if I knew the soldier’s info the day before, I would not have made the box. The whole reason I wanted to do a New Year’s care package is because I missed the Christmas shipping deadline for him (Dec 3rd). However, if anyone knows of a service member who needs a morale boost, it’s the Chaplain.

The truth is—the holidays are not happy for everyone. There is loneliness. Why else would a woman go on Craigslist to try to rent a mom and dad for a few hours for the holidays? There are life stresses; all kinds of pain, and none of those challenges are made better when you add a few thousand miles and gunfire. On top of that, events may occur in combat zones that can break your heart.

What if the Chaplain knows service members who feel forgotten? Or have no one at home to assure them they are loved? Perhaps an impromptu “party” hosted by a stranger is a way to add some joy to the New Year. Along with the Beer Nuts, noisemakers, poppers, and decorations, the box also contains superhero pop-rocks candy, popcorn, glowstick bracelets, chocolates, and other treats. Technically, none of these items have any curative powers. But perhaps the care they were sent with has a little.

Or maybe, hopefully, thankfully, miraculously, everyone is healthy in body and spirit while they are missing a loving home. A party is a good idea then too. I think when a Chaplain hands you a beer bottle noisemaker, you have to smile.

Right now

If right now you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or in crisis, there are places to find help for both service members and civilians.

Veterans Crisis Hotline and Military Crisis HotlineThey also have phone numbers on their site if you’re stationed in Europe or Korea. Call 1-800-273-8255 and service members press 1. Vets can also text “838255” for support. For civilians, it’s the main number 1-800-273-TALK (8255.) These programs are both part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I found this information linked to an US Army Suicide Prevention site, Wounded Warriors, and IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) as well.

Recently, I read these words by someone who overcame dark thoughts and feelings: be gentle to yourself. I liked that idea. We should all reserve a little kindness for ourselves.

2014

For 2014, I wish you all wonderful adventures, joy, and the hope that any mishaps have an upside. After all, things don’t always go according to plan. Maybe sometimes, that’s a good thing. Happy New Year!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Beer Nuts Save Christmas. Sort of.

I received this card from a Marine on Nov.15th. He wrote, “I know this is early but I wanted to make sure I was the first holiday card.” I laughed, thinking I had all the time in the world to get my Christmas care packages out. Of course, I was wrong.

X-mas card from Afghanistan

Christmas is December 3rd

First of all, the deadline the U.S. Post Office set for sending packages to certain deployed areas is December 3rd for delivery by Christmas. So I really had about two weeks to get my act together. No problem. As long as everything goes according to plan at work and home I should be okay.

What are the chances I’ll have to work late or that a birthday sleepover party for my daughter would take more time than I thought? Sure I was going away for Thanksgiving for the first time, which meant I was down to one week…but this is still doable.

I just have to come up with something creative, warm, sweet, and simple for 3 Soldiers and 1 Marine who are all currently in the Middle East. (All four are troops that I supported on their last tour.) Then pack the boxes and get them to the Post Office via public transpiration during that magic window of ‘before they close” and “still enough time to get home for the sitter.”

You know how some people are re-gifters? No judgment, but I’m not. It’s just not my (admittedly time-saving) habit. If you come up with a gift idea right away, all is well. As you may have guessed, I was drawing a blank. As a bonus, work and home did not cooperate. I realized that while I’d make the deadline for three troops, for one Soldier, I would not. I knew his family would make sure he’d have something to open. But I would miss Christmas for him and I felt terrible.

An option would be just to send it late. A better option would be to turn back time and begin sooner. Every year I promise myself to start earlier and I don’t. In fairness, every year I also promise myself to start a serious exercise regime after the New Year and that doesn’t happen either. So I should know better than to believe me.

Beer Nuts save the day

The one Soldier I failed was on my mind when I happened to be food shopping. Then suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. This light bulb was shaped like the package of Beer Nuts on the shelf in front of me. “BEER” as in alcohol which made me think of New Year’s Eve.

This Soldier is very sociable, a “life of the party” kind of guy. What if I sent him a New Year’s Eve Party in a box? Of course, I can’t send real alcohol. However, along with beer nuts, I can send “Happy 2014” eyeglasses, beads, party favors, chips, dip, glow sticks bracelets and lanterns. I could also send him coffee for the next morning that was Baily’s flavored and so on. You get the idea.

Yes I was too late for Christmas, but I’d be right on time to help him ring in a shiny New Year full of promise, hope, and fresh chances to do things better.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Sock Hunt

“Remember those socks you sent me four years ago?” This was the answer I got when I asked John, my deployed Marine, if he needed anything. It seems the ones I sent him last deployment had finally started wearing out and well, he loved them. Unfortunately, my memory of those socks is both good and bad at the same time.

What I DO remember:

I remember the ones he had were taking a beating. I remember me wandering into a random store and staring up at an entire wall of socks. When the salesman asked me what I was looking for, I told him the most comfortable and toughest socks he had for my Marine in the desert.

It turns out the salesman was ex-Israeli Army and had very strong opinions about this. Keeping your feet comfortable, dry, and healthy matters. He also served on a joint forces mission with some American troops. Since he knew Americans so well, he felt confident that what he selected was the best choice. He rang me up at the register in the back and gave me his employee discount as a way to thank John for his service. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and was wearing a gray sweater.

What I DON’T remember:

The brand or style of sock, the name of the store, or even what part of town the store was in. And by “town” I mean, “the island of Manhattan.”

I had asked John to send a picture but he hadn’t. Then I wrote again asking for a brand name and description.  I went online and didn’t see it.  Could it be that over the past (almost) half-decade, they changed their products?

Maybe if I could find the store, I could find the guy and he could find the sock or make another great recommendation. I tried to think of the places I went four years ago. I narrowed it down to: the East Side. If you divide Manhattan in half, that would be the piece on the right.

Manhattan Neighborhoods

Manhattan Neighborhoods (Photo credit: estimmel)

I picked different neighborhoods and googled the clothing stores. Then I went on google street maps to see if I could recognize the storefront. Nothing. But I wasn’t giving up. A friend once told me, “you know, sometimes you’re like a dog with a bone.” I can only assume that meant, “gee, you can be determined and I find that trait delightful.”

Go West!

I decided to expand my search to the West Side. The third store I street-mapped looked familiar. Very familiar. I ran there after work, excitedly burst into the store and….they’ve reduced their magical sock wall into a small area with four offerings. Apparently they’ve also made a few changes in the past (almost) half-decade.

So I decided to make a change too. I found what I thought were good options someplace else and got those. Will it be the exactly the same? No. But without change, how would we find new things to love?

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Calming Anger With Sugar

I found out that mail is being stolen where one of my soldiers is deployed. Boxes from Amazon are particularly vulnerable. As someone who puts a lot of thought and heart into making sure a servicemember hears his or her name at mail call, this makes me angry. And that makes me want to do something.

My first thought

My first thought wasn’t a very nice one. I thought about getting an Amazon box, putting in nothing but shredded paper and a sign that said what I thought of thieves. This sign would have words that I’ve told my daughter, “we don’t use in this house.” And by “we” I really mean just her.

However, there are a few flaws in my evil plan.1. What if the box gets through and my soldier opens it? 2. Do I really want to be someone who executes an evil plan? No I don’t. Or, to quote Uncle Si of Duck Dynasty, “Nah!”

My second thought

Plan B was: Write a letter to a government official alerting them to this problem so it can be fixed immediately.

There are several flaws in this plan. 1. Who in the wide world of government bureaucracy, civilian or military, would I write to? 2. Of all the things affecting troops that need to be, “fixed immediately” one immoral mail depot probably ranks pretty low. Is it even a depot? Where in the process is it breaking down? I don’t even know who to be upset with! 3. In the era of sequestration, who has the extra manpower to look into this?

What I wound up doing

I sent a postcard because the message can be read by anyone along the way. This is what I wrote:

I heard your mail service was the worst and that I had no chance to get a card or letter through. Hope to prove that ugly rumor false. 

I think, “proving someone wrong” has a certain appeal. Maybe it will appeal to the rogue mail handler(s.) I have no idea because this is hard for me to understand. I mean, if you know the impact mail has on morale, why would you want to deny someone this? For material gain? What they are really stealing is a touch of home, of comfort, and of love.

After I sent the postcard, I still felt bad. So I decided to do something about that as well. Since I was feeling so negative, I would try to do something positive. I was never good at math, but somehow this made sense to me. Now instead of angry boxes, I want to share with you something infinitely sweeter. It made me come up with another idea of how to deal with my shipping challenge.

Meet Wendy

The holidays are coming and homemade cookies are a special kind of love. So to spread that love, I want to tell you about Wendy. I’ve mentioned her once or twice before but never made a formal introduction. Wendy is a mom who loves to bake and sends cookies to her son at college. She called her care packages The Monday Box. Eventually she started a blog of the same name where she shares her recipes and stories about her family. I was thrilled to learn that after reading this blog, Wendy started including recipes that could withstand the rigors of shipping to deployed areas.

If you go on The Monday Box and put the word “desert” in the search box, you’ll get every recipe that she made desert-friendly for our troops. Below are a few samples.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

As I read through Wendy’s blog for these samples, I felt the warmth she sends with every batch. As I calmed down, I knew…I don’t want to be in some long-distance fight with a mailroom. I’m just going to do the best I can and hope for the best.

Then I thought, maybe if those folks had felt more of the love that Wendy or I try to send, maybe they wouldn’t resort to what they’re doing. If I ever did send a box with a sign, maybe it should be information where they could sign up for support. With cookies, a note could say, “I baked this for my soldier, but if you need it so badly to steal it, then take it. Enjoy it and give it to your friends. But support my soldier because after all that he’s done and all that he’s been through, he deserves nothing less. Send him a dessert yourself to make up for the one you’re enjoying right now. That would be great.”

What if the desert were flooded with sugar? Enough “home-baked love” to have, to share, maybe even enough to warm a heart that needs it. That would be sweet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013