Published in the Gettysburg Times, 9/6/2013)
In a few days, it will be time for the Jolly Fat Guy to drop in. Our tree is sparkling with ornaments and lights, and there is plenty of space beneath for whatever booty the red-clad elf chooses to leave. Later Christmas Day, a couple of the grandkids likely will stop by to see what has been left for them.
One of my happiest memories of youth was waking to the sound of Dad, outside our window in the darkness of Christmas morning, shouting, “Hey, come back here! The kids want to see you.”
Bells jingled, like the bells on work horses as they dragged felled trees from the forest. A joyful call echoed through the Thousand Acre Wood around our home.
“Ho Ho Ho,” came the call. “Me-r-r-r-y Christmas!”
We kids never saw the guy, but as we slipped into the living room, we quickly noticed a plateful of Mom’s peanut butter cookies had been replaced with a pile of gaily wrapped treasures.
Several years later, on deployment with a Navy patrol plane squadron, we were tasked with flying to Thule and Sondrestrom airfields, in Greenland. Our mission was to lead ice-breaker ships to the weakest ice so they could cut a path for supply ships.
That’s pretty close to the North Pole, and as luck would have it, Santa himself was on the radio one day. We chatted some, about what I would like for Christmas, and whether I had any special requests for special people back home.
Spring passed, and my squadron came back to the states. One day I was visiting Mom and Grandma and they got a phone call. Fast forward to the part where an elder (about 16) cousin had declared to his sister (maybe six or seven) there was no Santa Claus.
Knowing I had spoken to the fellow, Grandma called me to the phone to assure little Wendy Sue that there was, indeed, such a personage. Happily satisfied, she went off to straighten the error of her sibling’s ways.
Other Christmases were not quite so festive, spent in the CombatInformationCenter of the aircraft carrier USS America. From there, we tracked ships, submarines and aircraft. Some were ours, or at least friendly. Some, we knew, were less so.
Much of the information was on large, vertical plexiglass boards. Sailors on one side wrote backwards so decision-makers on the other side could read and decide.
But on two Christmases, during time in port, the transparent boards were scrubbed clean, and several colors of “grease” pencils employed to create window panes, partially blocked by snow, and through which could be seen a Christmas tree.
No one shouted outside the windows at a departing gift-bringer, but some watch standers claimed to have caught him on radar.
In company with wife, son and daughter, I spent Christmases in Florida, California, Alaska and Virginia. Other years, I was deployed. Germany one Christmas. Spain another. Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea another.
I retired from the Navy in 1985, in part because I had figured out I wanted to try my hand at journalism. But the real clincher was a Chief Petty Officer on my second tour aboard America.
He had missed the birth of his daughter, he said one day. And her high school graduation. Darn near missed her wedding, and was about to miss the birth of his first grandchild.
The past 28 years, I’ve spent every Christmas at home, while thousands of young people have taken their turn “on the wall,” hoping – too many in vain – the purpose for being there will not be proven.
To them, as we carve our Christmas ham, a very special “Thank you,” and “Merry Celebration.”