Friday, December 27, 2013

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

A modern day Air Force TI
I remember my first Christmas away from home.  I was 18 years old and the year was 1970.   I spent the Christmas holidays sequestered in an Air Force Basic Training barracks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio shining my boots.

With me were 57 other airman.  We were no longer considered new troops, as we had been in training about a month.  At the time and it may be this way still, new recruits were called Rainbows.

“Rainbow, Rainbow, don’t be blue
Your TI was a Rainbow too!”

I made the terrible decision to join the Air Force at the end of November, which meant I would be in Basic Training over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years’ holidays effectively extending my time there by two full weeks.  My “Flight” had been in training long enough that our TI’s (Chief Military Training Instructors) left us to enjoy Christmas with their families and we spent the four day holiday cleaning our equipment, the barracks, and shining our boots.  I thought it was a rough deal and a lonely time and like the other recruits there, we passed the holidays in near silence.

One year later and one short visit home, I was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in the Strategic Air Command way up in icy cold central Montana.  It is a Minuteman Missile base and when Christmas rolled around, I drew the short straw and couldn’t fly home for the holidays.  Airfare, flying military stand-by, was a whopping $65 one way and who could afford that on Airman’s pay anyway?

Due to the holidays, the base was being manned by a skeleton crew, except for the missile launch crews and seeing that I worked at a Forward Supply Point in the Missile hanger, I was deemed essential.  I remember walking in the snow to the Chow Hall on Christmas day 1971.  It was so cold and dark that I felt like the world had abandoned me.  I was 19 years old and by the standards of those days, a man and my dad taught me to “suck it up”, but that didn’t stop me from feeling alone up in the Big Sky country that day.

Stepping into the Chow Hall, I was surprised to have a server place a pair of stuffed pork chops on my plate.  They were two inches thick and cooked to perfection.  I had never seen such and to this day, remember that meal; far from home that only a few of us special people were served.  A few months passed and I was told I had received orders and I reported to Base Operations to get them and seeing I had this specialty training in Supply, I was told I needed to process out immediately to go to APO 96337.  I had no idea what these numbers meant and was told to cross reference them on a chart, which I did.
Back at the barracks, I approached a veteran sergeant who I trusted.  “Where is Danang AFB?” He laughed knowingly and told me it was “Rocket City, Vietnam.”  I wanted to cry and finally did when I called home that night when talking to my mother.

It was early 1972 and the war was “deescalating” but almost 2400 of our military perished in Vietnam in 1971 and this was nothing to take lightly.  I listened to my peers as they talked about running truck convoys from depot to base armed to the teeth and rockets landing at random in the warehouses and if I said I felt brave, I would be lying.  My orders meant I was going into harm's way.

Providence stepped in and once again, my specialty prevailed.  Instead of going to package up the departing 366th Gunfighters squadron, I was sent ahead to Central Thailand to help set up the Forward Supply Point there.  I spent 21 and a half months there, working 12-hour shifts in the jungle heat.  I remember both Christmas’ and accepted the fact that being a G.I. meant you could not be with your family at special times like this.

Segue to the December 2013 holidays and here I am once again at work.  Since I left home to join the war effort in 1970, I’ve either been away from my family or worked 37 of the 43 Christmas holidays.  Am I whining, complaining, or lonely?  No.  I’ve accepted it.  Has it made a Scrooge out of me?  Maybe.  Do I still remember the true meaning and spirit of celebrating the coming of the Christ child?  Sure, of course, but the thrill of gift giving and festivities isn’t there.  It died a slow death a long time ago.

Sadly, for me it’s for the most part, nothing more than overtime or holiday pay.  It’s mammon to pay for the stuff we’ve bought and fodder for upcoming taxes and that is the real shame of it. 
I want my Christmas ghosts to give me back what I lost.  I want what they took from me.  I want to be a kid again, excitedly opening my eyes after a near sleepless night and rush down to a bright tree full of presents.  I want to eat until I'm sick and then eat more.

The reason I write this is I'm not the Lone Ranger on missing the Christmas holidays and certainly not for pity or sympathy.  Nope.  All around the world this holiday season are thousands of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers working in far away countries defending our way of life and they can’t come home.  Say a prayer for them.  Right here in Baytown, we have many men and women working in the chemical plants and refinery’s doing the same thing as I have all these years.

Our restaurant workers, fire fighters, medical professionals, and police officers are working overtime and swing shifts and will miss the Christmas holidays also.  The fellow at the convenience store told me that if I needed something on Christmas day, they would be open and he will spend the day behind the counter talking to strangers and away from his family.

My point in all of this is, if you can be with your family on these special days, take a moment to cherish it.  Enjoy how fortunate you are.  Hug those around you and tell them you love them.  Merry Christmas to my fellow Baytownians and Happy New Year to you too.  Something tells me I am going to spend Christmas 2014 with my Bride and family and it’s going to be a terrific year.  See you in 2014!


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bert. Makes me think of all the young'uns out there missing Christmas with their families for the 1st time. Good read. Merry Christmas to my FF's ...Debi

Anonymous said...

A beautiful story Bert.
I sit here this morning with Linda and Clayton while my coworkers man our plant. I am off because of hand surgery. This marks the 4th Christmas that I have been off since 1978. It is so precious to me. I am overly emotional and and have teared up several times over things that can not be understood without this history. BAM

Anonymous said...

Great writing. Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Good story and I could hear you reading it to me.

You have a good and happy voice and you need to begin to read your stories to the world.

Have a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.

I hope you get more double time in your pocket for those that need it most, your family. CK

Anonymous said...

Oh you have humbled me to tears. MM

Anonymous said...

Soon, you will see Christmas through the eyes of your grandchild. You are going to be just fine. It’s better the second time around. CB

Anonymous said...

Good column Bert, brings back a lot of memories. Loved it.

I went to basic in August, man was it so hot!!

I spent a Christmas in Vietnam, 2 in Japan, 2 snowed in in Colorado and 3 in Germany. Of course by then I was married and had a kid, so it wasn't quite as bad there.


Anonymous said...

Your article was great this morning. I have spent a couple of Christmases in the hospital, so I kinda know what you are talking about, brother. Sure appreciate you. DDC

Anonymous said...

Wonderful Bert, you never cease to amaze me with your insightful & thoughtful blogs! HTB

Anonymous said...

Great article Bert. I've missed many holidays at home too, especially with my family that's a thousand miles away. Have only been with them twice in the last 28 years. DT

Anonymous said...

That was awesome! My mom calls off Christmas for some reason, and I'm an only child, so it's pretty quiet and melancholy. Lol it was kinda good hearing that someone kinda knew what that feels like... I'm probably not saying that right, but I hope you can translate what I mean... Lol KG

Anonymous said...

Until my Father Retired from the Air Force in '67, I think he might have spent 5 Christmases with us at home. If possible we would make the long Journey to my grandparent's home in Georgia. It's hard on the new recruit, it's hard on the seasoned veteran, it's hard on the family waiting at home. As you've mentioned, it does build character and a tolerance for those things that can't be changed. Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

I loves it (: Thank you so much ^-^ Hope you have a great one as well! Merry Belated Christmas btw o: NDWS

Anonymous said...

Awwww, shucks!! Thanks, Bert! Just read your column...I was born just days prior to your first military Christmas!!! lol. But HAPPY to hear that next one will be spent with your bride Retirement is a coming FAST isn't it? NKW

Anonymous said...

I adore you and your writing Bert Marshall! LR

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