A most memorable Christmas
With most of our children and grandchildren here, Carol and I are enjoying Christmas and anticipate that Christmas Day will be special. We’ll attend church, share a meal, enjoy conversation, laugh, exchange some gifts, read the Christmas story from the Bible, and just have an enjoyable time.
Christmas is special each year, but it evolves in interesting ways. For a few years, the excitement and exuberance of young children prevailed before being replaced by the energy of teenagers. Then, they were adults and the cycle began anew as grandchildren were born. Now, they are teenagers and adults. Happy memories.
But not every Christmas of my life has been memorable for the happy times. Perhaps the most memorable one was my first Christmas away from home—a long way from home.
It was the Christmas of 1957, and I was still an 18-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears teenager/adult. Carol and I married that April just before I graduated from Stillwater High School in May. In July, I reported for active duty in the Navy, and on Christmas Day I was aboard the light cruiser USS ROANOKE steaming in the South China Sea not too far from Indonesia.
Those who can remember that far back may recall that an uprising occurred in Indonesia, stirring rumblings of possible conflict. The ROANOKE was one of several naval ships sent to the area and our mission was to standby to participate in evacuating Americans from Indonesia if the need arose.
We had left from Long Beach, CA, on Sept. 3 for a cruise to the Far East, making port in a variety of places—Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, China and other stops. We had recently completed two weeks of exercises at sea before taking on fresh supplies in Subic Bay, Philippines (if I remember the correct port), and heading for Hong Kong. While under way, we were ordered to change course and hightail it to the Indonesia area. There, we circled around in the South China Sea for weeks.
Christmas Day dawned as a calm day. Nice temperature, and certainly not a white Christmas. Actually, it was a rather blue Christmas for us.
Late afternoon when I was not on watch I took some time to read letters from home. I was rather well-known in Fifth Division, a gunnery division, for the action I got at mail call. We had mail only when it was possible for a helicopter to reach us and drop the mail. My wife wrote a letter to me every day I was gone, and occasionally my mother and mother-in-law wrote. As a result of these women in my life, I always had a stack of letters at mail call. It always amazed and saddened me that some guys didn’t receive a single letter. In addition, these women sometimes baked homemade cookies, including my favorites, peanut butter and chocolate chip, and sent them to me. Anytime a package arrived, guys began gathering around. I had no choice but to share.
On Christmas Day, after reading some letters, I grabbed what remained of the most recent box of cookies and joined two friends top side. One had a guitar, which he played while we sat there staring at the South China Sea. From horizon to horizon, all we could see was ocean. I opened the package of cookies, which had been beaten to crumbles and crumbs in transit. That they were not whole cookies or in pristine condition mattered not to the three of us. They were from home and they were good.
I’ve lost contact with my two friends, but I haven’t forgotten the Christmas we shared together sitting on the deck of a ship munching cookie remains, separated from our families in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico by thousands of miles of water and land. Fortunately, I returned to a wife who loved me and have enjoyed many Christmases since with family.
This, as always, will be a memorable Christmas, for which I thank God, but at some point in the day I’m confident I will recall the Christmas of ’57 and remember the military personnel and others who are not with their families on this day.