Christmas in July
The pilot of the helicopter was a 24-year old lieutenant fresh from the farm fields of Illinois via flight school at Pensacola. His crewmates, some younger but none much older, sat and stared out at the pitch black trying to make out the shape of the fueler that had pulled alongside earlier in the day but which melted into the blackness of the ocean at night. Occasionally one of the crew would flip on their red-lensed flashlights to check the time. There was little radio traffic through the headsets and all conversations were conducted at a whisper given the EMCOM (emergency communications only) status -- the wind rushing by the open side panel of the chopper the most persistent sound.
About midnight, a lone sailor approached and slid an armful of packages and letters across the floor. "Mail call," he whispered, turned and departed. Under the red glow of a flashlight, the parcels were divvied up to their recipients, the largest of the parcels passing to the pilot.
The large box revealed a tin of homemade fudge from the local church, cookies from his mother's closest friend, and a smaller gift-wrapped box. Inside the Marshall Field & Co. box from his parents was a small tabletop sized Christmas tree about 15 inches high -- the stiff artificial fir adorned with small, painted wooden ornaments, shiny gold ornaments, and green and red ribbon bows. The pilot set the tree on the floor next to his seat and they all admired the quaint little tree under the glow of the red light until a slight knock elicited a few notes from an undetected music box within. Twisting the base, the tree began to play "Oh, Christmas Tree." Sitting alone in the dark, 10 months into a 14 month tour, away from home at Christmas for the first time for some, they sat in the dark and listened to that tree turn for the next few hours, eating fudge and cookies, trying hard not to let each other hear their sniffles.
That Christmas tree traveled with my Dear Husband for the more than two decades of his Navy service and was the only Christmas decoration in many an aircraft carrier's bunkroom over the years. To this day, almost 40 years later, it occupies a place of honor in our home each Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, the story of how the tree came to be is told -- our now-grown children still insisting that he tell the story even when we protest that "everyone knows the story!" It has become a tradition in our home and one in which our children willingly participate. The first time DH's parents heard the story was the last Christmas Eve his sweet father celebrated and they told the story of how they had traveled to Chicago from their small farm community to buy "something nice" for their oldest son -- never imagining the impact such a small gesture would have on generations to come.
When our oldest son joined the Navy, his first duty station was overseas. We decided that the tradition of receiving a musical Christmas tree for the first Christmas overseas in service to our country needed to be continued. We spent many an afternoon all through that October and November nearly 9 years ago scouring malls and shops for just the right tree. In my best calligraphy, we marked the bottom in jeweler's gold with his name and the year, just as I had done to the bottom of my husband's tree.
This past Christmas Eve, just weeks before our youngest son deployed to Iraq, the story of the little Christmas tree was told and as the story concluded our soldier exclaimed, "You know that means I get my tree next year!" I nodded in silence and left his Dad to respond, "You bet!"
So here we are in July, 100 degrees outside -- most of the nation gripped in record heat -- already searching the web and catalogs and year-round Christmas stores for just the right tree to send. We don't know what it looks like yet, but we'll know when we see it!
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.