I was warming my toes in front of my propane-fueled faux fireplace, in the shadow of my plastic Christmas tree, petting Penelope, my bobtailed Manx cat who loves me like a brother, and I got to thinking about her namesake in Greek mythology who remained true to her husband during his absence in the Trojan War. I know I’m mixing apples and oranges, combining myth and fact, but he was gone for 20 Christmases, so that’s a long time to keep the faith.
I spent so many Christmases on the “wine dark sea” that I started to feel like that husband, Odysseus, must have felt when he finally got back to the isle of Ithaca. In the “Odyssey,” Homer records him being told to place an oar on his shoulder and then go so far inland that “when another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth.” In essence, he was being told to “plant an oar” and settle down. Ironically, during a pre-Christmas open locker inspection long ago, my Division Officer saw my copy of Homer and said, “Do you read that, Reb?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, you keep reading and you will go far.” He was right. I have traveled many a mile and wandered the face of the earth ever since.
The ships I was on that were underway on Christmas Day were usually hustling to some real or imagined emergency: the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, something to do with Vietnam, the meltdown in Lebanon, etc. We were often on port and starboard watches (8 hours on, 8 hours off), and “Christmas” was pretty much an afterthought. Although, to be fair, I do remember a Christmas when we were Med-moored (backed into the pier stern-first) in Barcelona with a string of white holiday lights running from the bow, over the mast, and to the fantail.
Christmas at sea was never my favorite holiday; in fact, it was the loneliest day of the year. Down in my crowded berthing compartment, we were all home for Christmas, even if only in our dreams. Living in such close quarters, you couldn’t help but see shipmates open packages from home, although you tried hard not to look. It was odd, but you would wonder more about the person who wrapped the package back in the States than what was in the package: was it his mama? His wife? His girlfriend? His sister? Was she pretty? If it was after “knock off ship’s work,” I’d probably be lying in my rack, trying to get a little sleep before I went back up on watch, and I would just pull my blanket up over my head and try not to think.
But you do think about the people you love, and you wonder if they ever think of you. I once went two years without receiving a letter from anyone, and the doubts begin to pile up. You remember everyone who ever put you down, and you begin to wonder if they were right, if you aren’t just white trash. You tell yourself you don’t care, but you know you are lying. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, psychologists tell us that for many people Christmas is the most depressing time of the year. In counseling circles, Christmas is referred to as the “holiday paradox.” More suicides occur during the first week of January than in any other week of the year. At Christmastime, professional counselors find themselves besieged by people in various degrees of depression. After the gifts have been opened and the Christmas trees have been taken down, the “ennui” sets in.
Still, when you were so far away from the normal world that even Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer couldn’t find you, everyone did what they could to make the holiday as festive as possible. I never had any complaints about Navy chow, and the cooks down in the galley would lay on a Christmas dinner to be remembered: turkey, ham, dressing, cranberry sauce, pies, the works. While none of the Navy cooks never darkened the door of “Le Cordon Bleu” (The Blue Ribbon) or other famous French cooking schools, they were much more than just “can openers,” considering they were cooking for 200 – 1200 men, depending on the size of the ship. I can only imagine how hard it must be to cook on an aircraft carrier which has a crew of about 5,000 when the planes are onboard.
We would only have one meal that day, at 1600 (4:00 pm), but the non-watch standers who got “late sleepers” could eat brunch until noon. The mess deck would be decorated, and depending on the captain, you might even get a little holiday music over the 1MC, although on port and starboard, one half of the crew was always sleeping and you didn’t want to wake them up. I always preferred generic elevator music, rather than some heart-breaking song like Elvis singing “Blue Christmas,” which always seemed to be on “repeat.”
On one Christmas, before the USSR fell apart, we were one of the first American ships allowed to enter the Black Sea, and the Russian Navy sent over a load of overripe bananas and fresh milk. I say “fresh:” it was actually that dried and then reconstituted stuff that came from out of Germany, but it sure tasted good. I was on the working party that brought it onboard, and we all ate our fill as we packed it into the reefers. I ate so much I got sick. In order to keep kosher, Orthodox Jews won’t mix meat and milk (Exodus 23:19: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”). Based on my experience, I won’t mix bananas and milk to this day. By the way, you can see the ruins of ancient Troy when you pass through the Dardanelles during the transit into the Black Sea.
There are other perks to being underway at Christmas. Off Vietnam, for example, thanks to traveling USO shows heloed onboard three different ships, I got kissed by Brooke Shields; Bob Hope shook my hand; and Wayne Newton dedicated a song to me (“Danke Schoen”) – my 45 seconds of fame. To be honest, I never saw a USO show like the one depicted in the movie, “Apocalypse Now.”
When I got a little rank on me, I always made sure we had a couple good movies to show on Christmas Eve and Christmas itself. Back in the day, every ship showed regular Hollywood movies on the mess deck after the evening meal had been cleaned up. Each ship got a scheduled allotment of movies, even overseas, and would exchange with other ships to keep fresh entertainment onboard. You had to keep your eyes open; however, if you were not careful, the other ship would take all of your John Wayne’s and slip you a bunch of Fred Astaire’s and Joan Crawford’s, both voted “Box Office Poison” by movie theater owners back in the 1930s.
I remember a few Christmas Eves when I held “book fairs.” If the ship was large enough to have a space to be called a “library,” it would receive a quarterly shipment of both fiction and non-fiction books from the Navy Department. Each shipment would also include at least 100 paperbacks. I would hold these back for two or three shipments, and on Christmas Eve, before the movie, I would spread them out on the mess deck tables. Each crew member was allowed to pick two paperbacks, with the assumption that they would trade with others when they had read them. For many of the sailors, this was all they received for Christmas.
It’s odd, but I always preferred to spend Christmas underway rather than in port. At least underway there’s always a job to do, a routine to be followed, a purpose for your life. In port, unless you have the watch, all you can do is think. I remember one Christmas in Boston when I must have been the only person walking around in the Boston Common, the large public park downtown. Usually, it’s full of families, tourists, and even crack pots with a cause up on their soap boxes haranguing the crowd. That day, it was just me and the pigeons. I would have been proud to meet up with that homeless pigeon lady from the movie “Home Alone II.”
On another Christmas, while my ship was in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I had all of Times Square to myself. I remember wondering: for the “crossroads of the world,” where are all the people? I think this was about 1964, and the small Triumph Spitfire automobile was just being imported into the States. There was a dealership showroom just off Times Square, and I stood looking in the window thinking, “If I had a car like that, I could at least go where there were people and it wasn’t so windy and cold. The memory of that day is probably why I have a baby blue 1978 Spitfire convertible sitting out in my driveway.
Once I became a chaplain, I would always hold church underway on Christmas morning and it was a tough crowd, not interested in platitudes, with many showing up for the first time since the same day last year. To hold their attention and make it worth their while, I always ended the service with my go-to story from “Guideposts” magazine (1966), my hold card. Here it is:
“Wallace was nine. Larger than most of the kids, he was also slow; slow in body and perhaps slow in mind. But the children all liked him. He was so much bigger than they, but he never bullied them. In fact, he was the ever-present defender of the smaller boys.
“Wallace wanted very much to be in the school Christmas play that year. He hoped he could be a shepherd, but the teacher had a larger part in mind. He is big enough to be the inn keeper, she reasoned. And so it was that Wallace Purling got the part of the innkeeper. He was given his part and, oh, how he practiced!
“The night of the play everything went beautifully. No one even missed a line. At last the play came to the time for Mary and Joseph to knock at the door of the inn. “What do you want?” Wallace said, opening the door with a brusque gesture. “We seek lodging.” “Seek it elsewhere,” Wallace said, “The inn is filled.” “But sir, we have tried elsewhere, and we have come a long journey. We are very tired.” “Go away,” Wallace properly commanded. “There is no room in my inn for you.” “But sir, my wife is with child. Do you not have some corner where she could get out of the cold?”
“For the first time the innkeeper broke his icy stare and looked at Mary. There was a long silence. The audience was tense with embarrassment because they thought Wallace had forgotten his lines. “No, begone,” the prompter behind the curtain whispered. “No, begone,” Wallace said, half-heartedly.
“Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary as they began to move off the stage. Suddenly, this Christmas program became different from all the others. Wallace could stand it no longer. Big he was, but cruel he could never be. With big tears welling up in his eyes he gave a performance others would never forget.
“Wait, don’t go, Joseph!” Wallace cried. “Bring Mary back.” Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room, and I’ll sleep out in the cold.”
“Some say the Christmas play was ruined, but others knew differently. They knew that Wallace had caught the real spirit of Christmas, that of giving and sacrifice. Christmas is God’s great gift and sacrifice in Jesus Christ.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.