Alternative Christmas

My dad is an all-around talented guy, and that includes being a pretty spiffy writer. He recently sent me this story that he’d written a year or so ago (and which was published a few weeks ago in his local paper), and I wanted to share it with anyone who reads my blog. For one thing, it’s just a really good story, very touching. Secondly, considering a lot of people who read this blog are expats/immigrants like myself, I figure it has a certain amount of meaning, in the sense of being away from family during the holidays, but trying to make the most of what you do have — which is usually quite a lot!

Happy holidays to you all, no matter what or where you’re celebrating!

It was Christmas in the early days of Vietnam and I was stuck on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the South China Sea. Home, family and the Christmas spirit seemed a long way away.

In our berthing compartment we were stacked three deep, each bunk 18 inches above the next. It was crowded and hot. The calendar said it was December but the temperature in our compartment was 87 degrees – day and night. Our ship, the USS Hancock, was a leftover from WWII and it hadn’t been fitted with air conditioning – at least not for the crew. Some of the radar rooms had AC to keep the equipment cool and guys who couldn’t take the heat would sleep there on the hard deck. I was an electronics technician and I had to go into one of the radar spaces one night. Without thinking I opened the door and stumbled over half a dozen guys sprawled on the floor! What a way to spend Christmas.

While watching planes returning to ship one afternoon, I saw a prop-driven fighter with a unfired missile hanging under its wing. When the plane grabbed the arresting cable and was jerked to a halt, the missile broke loose and slid up the deck to where planes were being refueled! I saw it heading for a row of jets and I ducked when I saw the first spark of contact. I cringed and waited but there was no explosion. I peaked over a railing in time to see two airmen with the missile in their arms running to the port side of the ship where they tossed it overboard. A few minutes later I saw two more guys supporting a third as he hobbled across the deck with an injured leg. One loose missile, one injured sailor. What a way to spend Christmas.

The fighters and bombers took the war to the Viet Cong, but for us sailors the most important plane was the COD. It was a twin-engine aircraft that brought our mail each day from a base in the Philippines. We knew that a couple of hours after the COD landed we’d hear “Mail Call!” piped over the ships PA system. You have no idea how much we looked forward to mail from our families and loved ones.

As Christmas neared we might get a CARE package. That’s what we called the cakes, cookies, brownies or other goodies from home. We didn’t care if the contents arrived in less-than-perfect shape, just as long as we got a taste of something sweet from home. If we had any leftovers, they usually went into the radar room’s AC ducts for a little cooling to prevent mildew.

That Christmas someone sent me a Claxton fruit cake. I may be the only person in America who likes fruit cake; I loved it then and still do. We always had a fruit cake at Christmas and that cake was a touch of home. I wrote a letter to the Claxton bakery in Georgia telling them how much that cake meant to me that year. A month or so later I got a reply, thanking me for my note and wishing me a safe trip back home.

Launching and recovering aircraft night and day, playing nurse maid to a bunch of radios and radar, sleeping in a hot compartment, rushing to battle stations, fire drills , ship-to-ship refueling, lining up for meals, grabbing a quick shower. That was our schedule that Christmas. What a way to spend the holiday.

Then a few days before the 25th the mail clerk delivered our division a big bag of mail. Some students at Temple University in Philadelphia had taken the time to send us Christmas cards. They didn’t know us but they took the time and effort to write, simply addressing cards to a Fighting Man in Vietnam. I read a few of the cards and looked at the names inside. Young people our age, not that different from us, but how different our lives were. Students at home had taken the time to write a note and send us cards at Christmas. I guess all college kids didn’t think we were war criminals after all. What a nice gesture at Christmas.

It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve and I was off duty. Air ops were halted and the ship was quiet. I had my cards and letters from home and a piece of fruit cake stashed in my locker, but as the ship plowed through the dark South China Sea I knew it was Christmas but I wasn’t at home.

I went to the ship’s chapel for the midnight service. As I squeezed into a seat I was surprised at how many guys were there. We sang familiar carols and the chaplain told the familiar story of a birth long ago in Bethlehem. And with bowed heads we prayed as the ship rose and fell with the swells. I have to admit I was feeling sorry for myself, a bit homesick. What a way to spend Christmas.

About that time a seaman up front picked up a guitar and started to play Silent Night.

I always liked that tune played on a guitar. And as I listened to the quiet melody, my mood changed. Sure, I was stuck on a ship thousands of miles from home. My country was at war but I was doing my bit. But I had it a lot better than the guys in Vietnam’s jungles. It was hot where I slept, but at least I had a dry bunk. With the exception of a loose missile, no one was shooting at me. Chances were good that I’d make it home in one piece. I had mail and packages from loved ones, unexpected Christmas cards from caring strangers. It dawned on me that I had a lot to be thankful for.

As I listened to Silent Night in a small chapel on board a war ship in the South China Sea, I was too much a sailor to admit I had tears in my eyes, but I started to think that maybe this wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all.
-Tom Netsel

6 thoughts on “Alternative Christmas

  1. Oh, from what you say in the introduction, I think I’ll read the story in a couple of days…! I’m sure that if I read it tonight, on Christmas Eve, so far away from my country and my family I won’t make it to midnight without tears! :o)
    I was just stopping by to say “hi, I’m back in NL!” and to wish you a very Merry Christmas!!
    Cheers!

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