One of the fun parts about writing an article is when I can break from my normal routine of pontificating on current events and politics, and focus on matters that rise above the chatter. Christmas happens to be one of those holidays in which we can concentrate more on the meaning of the season, than the politics of the day.
Each of us has many memories attached to Christmas; most I hope are pleasant, amusing and heartfelt. The miracle of Christmas provides us with the opportunity to reinvigorate our belief in our fellow man and reconnect us to our shared humanity. Christmas can be the subtle nudge that reminds many of us that we are better people than our complex world has made us. Some of my more memorable Christmases were at less than joyous times, or so I thought. Such was the case of the Christmas of 1969.
My father served in the U.S. Air Force as a member of the Security Police, specializing as a K-9 handler. It was his service in the USAF that first brought him from the mountains of West Virginia to Portsmouth. In Portsmouth, he would meet my mom, who moved from Worcester to work as a telephone operator. They married, had three children before we moved to Okinawa, Japan. In Okinawa, we would be joined by our youngest sibling, who we would jokingly say had a “Made in Japan” stamp on his behind. My father had been deployed to other countries before he met my mom, including a tour during the Korean War. My father had also been deployed while we were younger kids, but it was his deployment to Vietnam in 1969 that has stayed with me throughout my life.
I still remember my mom and dad sitting us kids down at a family meeting and telling us my almost 40-year old father, with four kids, was being sent to fight in Vietnam. I may have been too young to fully understand all the horrors of war, but I knew enough to know that people die in war. What my mom and dad were telling me on that June night in 1969, was that my dad was going someplace where he may not come back from. I was frozen in time.
My hero, the man I looked up to my entire life, was leaving and may not come back; it was at that moment my heart left my body. A sadness swept over me that would not be repeated until the death of my parents. All I wanted to do is hold onto my father and never let him go. On the day he left for deployment, he tried to sneak out of the house, hoping to make his departure easy on everyone. I jumped out of bed, latched onto him, and begged him not to leave me, crying hysterically. He knelt down, hugged me, told me he had a job to do, looked me straight in the eyes and promised me he would be back, and left. I was 8 years old, standing in a strange new apartment, watching my dad leave, believing this would be the last time I would see him.
Our family fell into a routine, but when a family member is in a conflict zone, there is always a fog of concern that surrounds you. Any letter or the rare “radio-to-phone” call was overwhelmingly exciting. My mom was an extremely strong woman, but you could tell at times her thoughts were on my father. Occasionally we would misbehave, and she would shout “wait until your father gets home,” catching herself as the words left her mouth, sometimes crying. That simple statement would return us to our reality, and we would stop whatever trouble we were causing.
As Christmas approached that year we did what every family did. Write down our Christmas wish list, visit Santa in a local department store and decorate the tree. However, we did all of this without my father and we could not escape that void.
On Christmas morning we ran down stairs, first to tear into the presents from Santa, then to open the gifts from our parents. Each time my mother read one of our names, she would then say “and this is from me and dad.” It was like a thousand paper cuts reminding me that our dad was not there. Then my mom gave me a big box, and said “Jeff, this is from dad, special for you.” It sat in front of me for a moment; I was just staring at it. It was too small to be what I wanted, which was my dad. My mom made it a point to tell me my dad had bought it before he left. My dad, leaving his family and heading off to a war zone, managed to take the time out of his life to buy me this one special gift, months ahead of Christmas. It still floors me to this day.
Out of some odd sense of respect, I did not tear the paper off the gift like I had with my other presents. I unwrapped the present with reverence, as if this was the last gift I would ever receive from my father. It did not matter to me what was under the wrapping paper. It may seem a small gesture to some of you reading this story, but for me, this simple selfless act returned my heart to my body.
Waiting for me was a GI Joe Mercury VII spaceship and an astronaut, the very gift I wanted but never asked for. It was too expensive, and I did not want to trouble my mother. My dad, her husband, was not with us, and it seemed selfish on my part to be asking for a present, any present, considering the situation. Tears of joy poured, and I couldn’t even talk. As my mom snapped Polaroid after Polaroid to send to my dad, every fear I had left me. I knew then my dad would find a way to come home to us, and he did.
May you and your family have a Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year.