By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Pass the dinner rolls. How about some cranberry sauce, too?
Routine phrases that roll of the tongue smoothly at Thanksgiving.
For some, they also hold a deeper feeling that’s not about the food all.
The message simply says, “We care.”
There’s power in that, especially around a dinner table enjoying the traditional turkey and dressing. There’s power enough to start the healing for almost any wound.
It’s a power that Glen Chavez of Cheyenne hopes underscores every turkey drive he’s done for military service personnel, many of them stationed away from home for the first time in their lives.
Chavez feeds upward of 3,000 people a year with the drive and aims to do it again this year.
Turkeys are expensive and there’s a shortage, Chavez told Cowboy State Daily. That’s making things tough this year.
But Chavez is determined that this will not be the year there is no military dinner for those thousands of people with military connections. The dinner must go, no matter what. It’s just too important.
For those with time to sit and listen, Chavez will tell the story again about exactly why he does this every year, without fail, and why he believes it is so important.
It’s tough to talk about, but Chavez believes in supporting mental health for the troops.
“It sets in during the holidays more than any other time of year,” he said of mental health challenges for people in the military. “Holidays kind of add water to it, but it’s a year-round problem.”
More Than A Haircut
Chavez has been a barber by trade for decades. Now he works at Trujillo’s Barber Shop on Randall Avenue in Cheyenne, but before that, he was the barber at Glen’s Historical Barbershop in the Masonic Temple.
Chavez liked to keep it kind of old school at his shop, maybe even what some would call quaint.
In fact, his youngest son Paxton teased him at the time for playing elevator music every day. Perry Como, Andy Williams and the like.
“Dad, no one wants to listen to that trash,” Chavez recalls Paxton saying one day.
“These guys love it,” Chavez protested. “Don’t you guys like this?”
“Well … we do sir,” Chavez recalls one airman saying. “But you don’t understand why we come here. You take us home. You bring us home. You remind us what it’s like when we go back home. You know, our parents, our uncle, our grandpa. We get to have that feeling in your barbershop.”
Chavez understood. He was proud to offer more than just a haircut. He would keep playing his elevator music for them. He would keep talking to them like they were family.
God was in this service, he decided. This was what God was telling him to do.
The Day Everything Changed
One day more than a decade ago, Chavez came to realize that as special and nice as his little slice of home was for his customers, it wasn’t enough.
That was the day a young, upset airman came into his barbershop.
“He had swollen eyes and everything, and I said, ‘Hey, man, come here. Are you OK?’” Chavez said.
The airman was definitely not OK. An hour and a half earlier, his roommate had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His roommate was dead, and the airman had found him like that.
The roommate had been distraught and lonely, Chavez was told. The upcoming holidays had only underscored that loneliness. It would have been the first time he was away from home.
“I had to come talk to you, sir,” Chavez recalls the airman saying. “You’re the only man I know that’s been kind to us.”
Chavez didn’t know what to say or think. Didn’t the young man have a commander?
He did, the airman confirmed. And he’d been told by the chain of command to stay put.
“But it was question after question. I had to run,” Chavez recalls the airman saying. “I had to just get away and get out of the office.”
‘You’re Staying With Me Today’
Chavez didn’t think twice about what he did next.
“Park it,” he told the young man. “You’re staying with me today.”
As customers came in, Chavez had the usual chats with them, keeping things as normal as possible. He didn’t mention what the airman was going through.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Finally during a break, he looked over at the young man and said, “I tell you what, how would you like to have Thanksgiving dinner with me and my family?”
The airman shook his head. “No sir, I wouldn’t,” he said. “This is your family. You need to be with your family.”
“Well, you’re a barbershop friend and, you know what, you’re OK,” Chavez insisted. “My family will understand. I have two sons in the Navy. Trust me. They’ll understand.”
But there was something else stopping the airman from joining Chavez and his family.
“I have a dilemma,” he finally said. “There’s a couple of us.”
“How many?” Chavez asked.
“About seven,” the airman said. “We don’t have a place to go, so we’re just gonna lean on each other because we’re all in the same squad.”
Chavez didn’t hesitate for a moment. “OK, I tell you what then, all seven of you come to my house.”
It was settled.
Big Heart, Tiny Home
Chavez had told something of a white lie when he told the airman his family would not mind. In fact, his wife Annette was less than enthusiastic.
“We had a very tiny house,” Chavez recalled. “Our table wasn’t really big enough. Our living room wasn’t really big enough.”
The next day as Chavez was putting his lunch into the refrigerator at work like any usual day, he thought about his tiny home with it’s too-small kitchen table and living room.
He stepped out into the dining room at the Masonic Temple and looked around.
The size is what impressed him. It was big enough for seven airman, Chavez and his wife.
Chavez went to talk to Tim Forbis and Shannon Kupec, a couple of the board members for the temple.
“Who is using your dining room for Thanksgiving?” he asked them, hardly daring to hope it would be open.
The dining room would be empty through January, Chavez was told.
When Chavez told them his idea to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the seven airmen who’d been friends with the young man who died, there was no hesitation at all.
The dining room was all his, for free. It wouldn’t cost a thing.
That First Dinner
Not long after that, Chavez went to tell one of the groups from Element Church about what he was doing. They were amused. They even laughed a little bit.
“You’re not a very good cook,” Chavez recalls one of them saying.
“That’s horrible,” Chavez protested. “My wife knows how to somewhat cook.”
After a little more ribbing, his church’s life group rallied and offered to cook all the turkeys for the dinner. HIs wife made the mashed potatoes and his mom, Dora, the green bean casserole. Chavez bought pies, made lemonade and brought the all-important elevator music to play while they ate.
“The dinner lasted for hours,” Chavez recalled.
They passed the dinner rolls, the cranberry sauce and the time.
There was not only laughter, but for a moment there was joy. And the airmen got the most important message of all – someone cared. They could let loose of what had happened for a time. They were in a place like home.
‘We Have A Few More Friends’
Chavez felt very good about what he and his friends had done. His dad, Rueben, told him he was proud of him.
“That was the first time he ever said those words to me,” Chavez said.
But Chavez wasn’t planning another dinner, much less a recurring annual event. The next year, he wasn’t even really thinking about the dinner at all.
That is, until all seven of the young airmen showed up at his shop.
“They walked in, all swagger, the seven of them, and they said, ‘Can we have Thanksgiving dinner again with you?’” Chavez said.
He didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.”
“Well … we have a few more friends,” Chavez recalls one of them saying.
“How many?” Chavez asked.
“Well … we don’t know yet,” they said.
Chavez shrugged, deciding it didn’t matter.
“This place is big enough,” he said confidently. “We’ll just get some more turkeys if we have to and cook them.”
On the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base a few days later, Chavez was introduced to the commander by a staff sergeant.
“I will never forget her,” Chavez said. “She goes, ‘I heard about your dinner and what you did for these guys and their families.’”
Then the sergeant gave Chavez a great big hug. She also introduced him to the commander at the time.
He thanked Chavez for doing the dinner, but then he added, “You know, we don’t need to do that again this year,” Chavez recalls. “We take care of our own.”
Chavez was taken aback.
“Where sir?” he blurted out.
“They’ll find a place,” the commander said confidently.
“So that’s how you take care of your own?” Chavez asked, incredulous. “Well, I have to beg to differ with you sir.”
Chavez asked the commander if he was going home for Thanksgiving and whether he already had his airline tickets.
Yes, and yes, he was told.
“Case in point,” Chavez recalls saying. “You’re going to get on a plane. You’re going to leave.”
The sergeants have the situation in hand, the commander suggested.
“But they have families,” Chavez pointed out. “And there’s no mess hall here. You can’t even serve a Thanksgiving dinner.”
The Lord Will Provide
Ultimately, that swayed the commander, Chavez said.
“Keep me apprised,” Chavez recalls him saying before walking out and shutting the door loudly.
“He slammed it on me,” Chavez said, “because of my attitude toward him.”
But the staff sergeant was not deterred.
“Ooooo, this is going to be fun,” she said.
Chavez thought so too – until he found out a few weeks before the dinner that there were more than 700 reservations.
“Excuse me?” Chavez asked, thinking he had misheard.
“You told me you had a big dining room,” he recalls the staff sergeant saying. “Is it a problem? Because I can send an email cancelling it.”
Chavez thought for a moment.
“No,” he finally said. “Let’s do this. Because if there’s that much of a need, I’ll ask the good Lord, and he’ll provide.”
“That’s pretty cool,” the sergeant said. “But I think you’re going to need more than that.”
“No doubt about it,” Chavez said.
A Biblical Lesson
Chavez knew that 700 reservations meant a lot more people than that. Each airman was making a reservation for himself and at least one other person, if not an entire family as well.
“How are you going to feed 3,000 people?” Chavez recalls his wife Annette asking when he told her of all the reservations.
Chavez didn’t know, but he kept praying and thinking about it.
Somehow, he would find a way.
The next day, he had talked a radio station into letting him on the air to tell about what he was trying to do and why he was trying to do it. Not long after that, a gentleman sauntered into his barbershop with a Carhart hat set to one side and a toothpick in his mouth.
“You’ve got yourself in some water there, boy,” Chavez recalls him saying.
The man, it turned out, owned a meat processing company. He offered to help Chavez keep all the donated turkeys cold until it was time to cook them up. He also offered to smoke any hams.
“You have one of those turkey fryers?” the man asked. “Because you’re gonna need a couple, son. You’re gong to need some help.”
Then he added, “The good Lord is going to be with you on this one.”
Bringing Home To The Troops
After work, Chavez dropped in at the fire station. Some of them surely had turkey fryers.
In fact, several of them had two.
Chavez told them about the military dinner.
“So, would you guys be wiling to cook for me on Thanksgiving morning?” he asked.
They were all for it, until they asked how many turkeys.
“Three to four hundred,” Chavez told them without blinking an eye.
They ultimately decided they were in no matter how many turkeys it took.
Not only firefighters, but the general manager at a local diner named John Norman offered to run the kitchen for Chavez.
“I’ll get everything prepped,” Chavez recalls him promising. “What is going to be on the menu?”
Chavez asked Norman to list his favorite Thanksgiving foods growing up.
“That’s what I want,” Chavez recalls telling him. “I want to give them that home meal dinner that they can’t get anywhere else, but they can get it here. Let’s bring their home to all of them.”
The dinner thrown together so quickly, that had looked like a disaster in the making, ultimately went off smoothly with no problems.
“We served about 3,000 people,” Chavez recalled. “And the commander even came to the dinner as well and saw firsthand what we had accomplished. He stuck out his hand and told me, ‘Job well done.’ It was very, very touching.”
Not only that, but he passed Chavez a commander’s coin, something that is usually only given to military personnel for outstanding service.
When he got home, Chavez fell to his knees and cried.
“I wept like I’ve never wept before,” he recalled. “I knew we had touched something. We had touched angels. We had made a difference, and it’s been making one ever since.”
Every year, Chavez says he goes through another trial getting all the turkeys and the dinner together.
The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic Chavez said people told him, “Hey, it’s too bad your dinner is done, but that he’d had a good run.”
“But I didn’t want to quit,” Chavez said. “I like what I do. So I said, and actually it was my wife’s idea, let’s just give the dinners to the families and let them cook them themselves.”
Chavez has one caveat though. Each family taking a turkey has to invite another family that has recently located to Wyoming or has nowhere to go for Thanksgiving.
“In essence, I’m creating over 300 to 400 different locations for these military families to go to and enjoy their Thanksgiving meal with their brotherhood,” Chavez said.”
This year is no different. The demons he’s fighting are inflation and a nationwide turkey shortage caused by a severe outbreak of avian bird flu.
He’s reached out to the network that helps him put this on every year. People are bringing him one and two turkeys at a time, and he’s taking them to a big walk-in freezer at the airport where a restaurant is allowing him to store the birds.
“Safeway is having a deal where if you spend $100 they’ll give you a free turkey,” Chavez said. “A lot of my turkeys over the weekend have come from that.”
He’s also having a food drive from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Appaloosa Broadcasting parking lot, 1019 E. Lincolnway in Cheyenne.
“We’ll be there regardless of the weather, if it’s 5, 10 below, we will be there,” Chavez said. “We know it’s hard, but if people can give up maybe, a dinner they would have had at a restaurant and buy an airman a turkey instead.”
Putting on the elevator music for those guests is optional.