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Why 31 Keesler airmen are partying in Ocean Springs man’s backyard

Juwan Dennis of Tampa, Fla., and Brandon Boyd of Birmingham, Ala., play corn hole in Bobby Walker’s backyard Thursday. Walker invited 31 airmen from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi to his Ocean Springs home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Juwan Dennis of Tampa, Fla., and Brandon Boyd of Birmingham, Ala., play corn hole in Bobby Walker’s backyard Thursday. Walker invited 31 airmen from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi to his Ocean Springs home for Thanksgiving dinner. jphampton@sunherald.com

Bobby Walker thought this year’s Thanksgiving celebration for Keesler Air Force Base airmen might be a little larger than last year’s.

Turns out he played host Thursday to almost twice as many young people as he had last year, the first year he put on a feast at his Ocean Springs home.

“Last year I started out with three, then it went to five, then 10,” he said. “Then I started posting about it and it really went big.”

He wound up with 17 people.

“This year, I knew I had a support system where I could do 20 easily,” he said. “So I said I would do 20. And then yesterday, (Keesler) called me and asked if I could do 10 more and I thought, ‘What the heck?’ ”

On Thursday, he served Thanksgiving dinner for 31. His kitchen and backyard were hopping. Music was blasting. Bean bags were flying. There was macaroni and cheese, chili, burgers and chicken (“my famous yellow chicken”), Rotel dip, mini hotdogs, meatballs. And that was just the appetizers.

Turkey, of course, was the main event.

“We have a lemon-pepper chicken and a spicy red turkey in the greaseless fryers,” Walker said. “We have two baked turkeys to keep it traditional. We have a turkey that’s being boiled in crawfish seasoning. Then we have three hams. Two will go on the grill and one in the greaseless fryer.

“We have lots of food.”

Lot of help

He started putting the feast together in mid-October, soliciting donations and lining up volunteers. In early October, he’d registered to host some of the 400 young people who signed up at Keesler this year.

“I’ve always wanted to give back and I like doing different things with people,” he said.

His buddy, Vincent Burker, supplied a bus from his child-care center to haul the airmen. Fletcher Construction helped build a bathroom in the backyard to accommodate the larger crowd. Anderson Plumbing donated plumbing and electrical services. Bozo’s Grocery saved him the last three sacks of crawfish it had and sold them at cost.

“There’s a lot of hands involved here,” Walker said. “Tim Reynolds with All State Insurance is one of my largest sponsors. Then there are just individual people collecting things. It’s crazy. Oh, and Circle K donated ice and drinks.”

Most of the young airmen have been in Mississippi just a month. For some, it was their first time off base.

What the recruits say

Bailey McFarland, 22, joined the Air National Guard in Arizona after student-loan debt started to pile up from her 2 1/2 years of college. Now she’s studying to be in Air Force cyber-ops and thinks she might make a career of it.

Thursday, though, she was just excited to be getting a taste of the South.

“I’m trying a little bit of everything,” she said.

Her friend, Christine Billie, 21, of Cleveland, Ohio, found herself in the same financial spot as McFarland after 2 1/2 years of college. She was in the ROTC program but said she saw officers who had come up through the ranks seem to have earned more respect, so she enlisted.

She’s in client systems, which she said is sort of the Air Force version of the Geek Squad. So far, she was liking Southern food and hospitality, which is “a little different than Ohio.”

“Everyone’s talking about the gumbo and rice,” she said. “So I’m going to try that.”

Normally, when I think of the South, I think of the country. Lots of trees. Not many buildings.

Airman Deshawn Johnson

At 26, Deshawn Johnson of Miami was probably one of the oldest airmen there. He is two semesters shy of a bachelor’s degree and, like the others, running short of money.

“I also wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” he said.

He is in administration, training to be a sort of wingman for a commander. And he’s been a little surprised at Mississippi.

“Normally, when I think of the South, I think of the country,” he said. “Lots of trees. Not many buildings. This is different. The base is right across the street from the beach.”

And the idea that someone would open their home to strangers?

“I was inspired,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to do the same thing.

“Southern hospitality is amazing.”

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