I was thinking the other day that I’ve spent at least 10 Christmases underway at sea or on a ship in a port so far away that even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer couldn’t find it. It’s probably more than 10, but I rounded it off.
Christmas at sea has always attracted the poets and the writers. In his poem “Christmas at Sea” (1888), Robert Lewis Stevenson, son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper and author of “Treasure Island,” pointed out the challenges of such a day on the high seas:
“The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand.
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman could hardly stand.
The wind was a nor ’wester, blowing squally off the sea.
And the cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.”
In Stave (Chapter) 3 of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843), the Ghost of Christmas Present transports Ebenezer Scrooge to a ship at sea where they “stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the lookout in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”
My memories are neither this literary nor this melancholy, although it was on Christmas Day in 1977 that I received a note and check from “Leatherneck” magazine, the “Magazine of the Marine Corps,” saying it was going to publish my first magazine article on military medals and awards. I still have the $25 check.
What I do remember about that particular Christmas day was that we had a commanding officer who had decided to hold the incoming mail for several days and celebrate by having a big mail call on Christmas morning. I told the Old Man that was a bad idea, and that he might have a mutiny on his hands. You don’t mess with a sailor’s mail. Back in the day, before the internet and cellphones, you were lucky to hear from home once or twice a month; that is, if you had someone to write to you. Mail only came aboard from the oilers by highline when we refueled or by helicopter if sailing in company with an aircraft carrier and an airfield happened to be within range of its COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) flights.
Actually, Christmas underway wasn’t that bad. Everyone who wasn’t on watch often got late sleepers. Some ships ran movies all day on the mess deck, and the cooks and commissary men outdid themselves with the noon meal. They would routinely turn out a feast to be remembered – everything from turkey and dressing to eggnog (non-alcoholic) and mixed nuts.
I remember one Christmas in the Black Sea, off Sevastopol, when I fired up the MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio) shortwave radio in the radio shack, found a friendly telephone operator back in San Francisco who would patch us into the civilian telephone grid, and let sailors call home all day for free. I had to limit everyone to three minutes, and it was a one-way conversation (everyone had to say “Over” to end the conversations), but it was worth it.
I’ve always been fascinated by the names of ships, ever since I felt the Bible Belt getting a little tight and shipped out to find my fortune at sea. It is interesting to note, however, that not one of the several thousands of ships listed in the current “Lloyd’s Register of British Ships and Foreign Shipping” has “Christmas” in its name.
Always an outlier, I’ve been attracted to names that reflect a sense of weariness or even ennui about life. Curiously, psychologists tell us that the holidays do cause such feelings in many people. As far as that goes, the more well-known ship names themselves often evoke a sense of sadness and tragedy: Edmund Fitzgerald, Lusitania, Titanic, Andrea Doria, the Arizona, the Indianapolis, etc.
Sometimes the names of ships, like those given to racehorses, make sense only to the owners, but often they tell an intriguing story. Some of the more interesting apps available today for cellphones (Marine Traffic, Ship Finder, etc.) enable one to track ships underway, merchant or military, all over the world. They link up, via satellite technology, with the automated identification system carried on most modern ships and provide real-time data on name, position (latitude and longitude), course, speed, destination, and often a recent photograph of the ship.
For example, as of this writing in early December, here’s a sample of some of the ships now underway in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Mississippi coast: MV (Motor Vessel) Garibaldi Spirit, a freighter, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, doing 13 knots; the MV Atlantic Muse, a tanker, bound for the Panama Canal, doing 15 knots; and the inland supply vessel, MV Nativity, bound for St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands at 12 knots. Most of these ships will, in all probability, be at sea on Christmas Day.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose spirit is invoked by the vessel bearing his name, was the Italian general who was instrumental in the unification of Italy in the late 19th century. He was actually born in Nice, France, the homeport of my first ship. The thinking behind the name of the Atlantic Muse is open to conjecture. The “muses” of Greek and Roman mythology were each of the nine daughters of Zeus who presided over the arts and sciences. Perhaps this ship, metaphorically, presides over the Atlantic Ocean. As far as the naming of the Nativity, one can only assume that the owner is either very religious or very superstitious. In any event, the ship is appropriately named for this time of the year.
Sometimes events and circumstances collide in a perfect storm to give some ship names a certain poignancy that transcends their original meaning. The USS Constitution, the oldest ship in the Navy, currently on public display in Boston, comes to mind. The Argentine Navy submarine, San Juan, which was recently lost with all hands, including their first woman submariner, is also an example. The ship’s name is Spanish for St. John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus Christ and who was martyred for his faith. Today, the Argentine press is holding up the 44 victims of this tragedy as martyrs to the incompetence of their Navy’s leadership and its subsequent technological demise. This debacle has also gotten conflated with the national angst over the loss of the Falklands War to Great Britain back in 1982.
During my naval career, which began in the late 1950s, we lost two nuclear-powered boats (submarines) at sea: the USS Thresher, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the USS Scorpion, off the Azores. Life at sea is dangerous, especially in winter, and each year literally hundreds of ships sink for causes known and unknown, whatever the mystique of their particular name.
Although St. Brendan, an Irish monk also called the “Navigator” and the “Voyager” is the traditional patron saint of sailors, mariners, boatmen, and divers, most sailors in my experience look to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, for protection. In the not-too-distant past, when only sailors and prisoners had tattoos, his face was the one you saw the most on the arms, shoulders, and backs of your shipmates. I know his medal hangs around my neck, and I haven’t taken it off since I bought it in Saigon about 1971.
Some of my Christmases ashore stand out even more vividly in my mind. On another ship, when I was very young, we spent the holiday delivering spare parts to the Voice of America radio transmitter that was once located at Thessaloniki, Greece, blasting out capitalistic agitprop across Eastern Europe. We went cold iron for a day or two, and my two friends and I spent our off time down in the engine room playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Muddy Waters records on an old record player they had there.
Then, there was another Christmas in Barcelona where the destroyer I was on was literally out of gas, and we ended up staying almost a month. This was back when Jimmy Carter was president, and although he was a Naval Academy graduate and a nuclear-trained officer, the defense budget slipped during his administration, and there was a shortage of fuel oil for every ship in the Mediterranean fleet. Stuck in Barcelona might sound exciting, but it’s very expensive there on a sailor’s pay, and flamenco music, tapas bars and bullfights aren’t cheap.
Another Christmas, in the Philippines, we spent the day painting and replumbing an orphanage in the hills up above the Subic Naval Station. This holiday sticks in my memory because I’m pretty sure it was the first time the children had ever seen ice. There was no electricity, except for an old generator, and we had carried our lunches and sodas in ice chests.
The children, of course, ate the lunches and drank the soda, and by the way they reacted to the ice, it was obvious to me that it was very unfamiliar to them.
Finally, I remember a day in the South China Sea when my best friend and I spent the whole holiday talking about what we were going to do when we got out of the service. He was a farm boy from Monticello, Mississippi, had never finished high school, and his dream when he got discharged was to buy a baby blue Cadillac convertible, put his girlfriend in the front seat, a big teddy bear in the back seat, and ride down the main street of Monticello on Christmas Day.
I listened to this all day long, and I “got” the part about the Cadillac and the girl and the main street, but I was a little vague about the significance of the teddy bear. I didn’t say anything, however, because it was his dream, and I had mine, which was probably just as strange. Unfortunately, he was killed that summer. To this day, I avoid Monticello.
I have been back only once, actually twice, because I went to see his mama. A few years later, I was a freshman at Mississippi College in Clinton, and a carload of girls from Tylertown caught a ride home for the Christmas vacation. It was a warm day, my car wasn’t air conditioned, and we stopped in Monticello for a popsicle. I didn’t explain why, but after we got back into the car, I took a detour and slowly drove down the main street. As we moved along, I was thinking to myself: “This sure isn’t a Cadillac convertible; I don’t know where your girlfriend is; and I don’t have a teddy bear; but, buddy, this Christmas ride is for you.”
Light a candle for me.