Loudspeakers blared on December 3, 1975, at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas: “Airman Michael Anderson. Come to the office. Your birthday cake is here.”
Hundreds of stunned basic recruits watched as my son moved smartly to the office. There, while non-commissioned officers smirked, a San Antonio bakery woman shook his hand, congratulated him on becoming 21, and presented him with the birthday cake I had ordered for him from Topeka, Kansas. She also gave him a bag of cookies because, she said, “your mother said the last batch she sent was stale when you got them.”
Mike was delighted but flustered. With reddened face and ears, he hastily accepted with thanks, and fled with his cake and cookies. Eight of his buddies helped to carve up the chocolate cake with the words, “Happy Birthday, Mike.” Within minutes, not even a crumb was left, with dozens of other recruits standing around begging for “just a little piece.”
It was as if, after the dehumanizing experiences of basic training, home and mother had successfully invaded Lackland.
And in a way, that was true. The delivery of the birthday cake had followed months of my devious planning. Mike was doubtful. He wanted the cake, but said in a letter, “Mom, I don’t think the Air Force will let me have a birthday cake.”
Mike had always had had a birthday cake. It was always chocolate, with chocolate frosting. One year, when he was 12 years old, he had three birthday cakes--one that I baked and two others baked by neighborhood friends.
So when he went into the Air Force in 1975, with his 21st birthday looming, the question of the birthday cake was worrisome for me. It seemed probable that he was right and that the Air Force would not welcome a birthday cake for a recruit.
So, how could I make sure Mike got his birthday cake? It seemed obvious to me that the best bet was to present the Air Force with a fait d-accompli. If the bakery woman were to actually walk in with the birthday cake, the Air Force surely would not refuse to let Mike have it.
Then, I wrote a letter, explaining to the bakery how important our family tradition was to me and Mike. And I felt his birthday anniversary was one that I didn’t want to miss. I asked the bakery if it would make a cake for Mike (chocolate with chocolate frosting), decorate it and deliver it to Lackland AFB on Dec. 3. And I promised to send back a check immediately to cover the cost.
I got a reply quickly. The woman who owned the bakery also had a son, 21, who was in the Navy, and was delighted to join the conspiracy. She quoted me a price and guaranteed that she would personally deliver the cake to Mike on his birthday.
On Dec. 3, in Topeka, I was extremely nervous. Would the Air Force be hard-hearted about the whole thing? And for the first time, would Mike have no birthday cake? But my feelings were groundless. The Air Force, when presented with the situation, gallantly swallowed its protests and announced the cake’s arrival on the loudspeaker system.
I thought that would be the toughest hurdle we’d meet through the years. In some ways, it was. But subsequent military birthday cakes also proved perplexing.
Mike’s next birthday assignment was to the Pentagon, and he wanted to share the cake with his office friends.
Mike discovered a bakery in the concourse of the Pentagon. I primed him to ask if the bakery could deliver a birthday cake to Mike’s office. Unfortunately, the hallway from the concourse to his office was guarded by a security officer. “No,” a bakery worker said. “We wouldn’t be allowed to go past the guard with the cake.”
Next, I had Mike make an inquiry. Could he himself pick up the cake and carry it past the guard? There was a lot of hassle about that before the Air Force brass finally said, “Yes.”
So that birthday, too, was an interesting one. The bakery workers were delighted with the cake, decorated it with special care, and put it on display that morning.
“We’ve never had a birthday cake ordered as far away as Topeka, Kan.,” one of the workers told Mike.
Mike triumphantly carried it past the security guard to his office, where hungry workers quickly demolished it, “Happy Birthday, Mike” and all.
Some years while in the service, Mike was able to get home on leave for his birthday, and I baked his birthday cake. Other years he, his grandmother, Mrs. Trella Anderson of Independence, Kan, all celebrated our birthdays together, with three cakes.
We almost decided we had the birthday cake problem licked, when we learned that Mike would be spending the next 18 months at Okinawa, Japan. And that included a birthday!
This seemed like a really difficult problem.
Would the Japanese know anything about the custom of decorating birthday cakes? And how does one go about ordering a birthday cake thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean?
Early on, Mike explored around Kadena Air Force Base and in nearby towns. Eventually he found a small bakery on the base, operated by a Japanese woman, who spoke English. He picked up one of her order blanks and mailed it to me.
Some of the wording was strange on the blank, but I felt that the instructions I was sending were clear: A chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with “Happy Birthday, Mike” written on it. I hoped for some other colorful frosting decorations, but was afraid of being misunderstood if I asked for too much.
Mike reported in a letter that the Japanese birthday cake was a success and much enjoyed by his Air Force friends.
“It wasn’t as sweet as American cake, because the Japanese don’t use as much sugar,” he said. “But it was delicious.”
Mike left the Service in November 1986. After these mind-boggling birthday triumphs with the Air Force, it seems unlikely that Mike ever will lack for a birthday cake as a civilian.
A Birthday Cake for Mike
by Stannie Anderson