I’ve had joyous yuletides, especially when the kids were little. I’ve had sad times too, but the loneliest was aboard a troop ship.
There are worse places to be on Christmas day, to be sure, such slogging through a foreign country with people shooting at you. No one was shooting at me, but they might have if I hadn’t gotten aboard that fat, sluggish tub that wallowed out of New York harbor one snowy December day just before Dec. 25, 1955.
There I was, with about 2,000 guys I’d never met who desperately wanted to be somewhere else. I’d been drafted even before I could start my career, whatever that was going to be after I’d picked up my diploma from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
I’d trudged through the dust of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, during basic training and become, as some of the guys joked, one of “Uncle Sam’s Trained Killers.” Actually, there was no war going on, the Korean conflict having ended and Vietnam just warming up.
There was no sense of urgency as we grumbled our way through Basic, and also no sense that we were prepared for any combat that might rear its ugly head somewhere in the world.
After Basic, I’d been trained as a personnel specialist and every graduating class from that school had been sent to Korea. There was still high tension with the North Koreans, and at that time of the year I imagined that war-torn peninsula to be even colder and windier than Missouri or even my native Chicago.
So as orders were being handed out on a bone-chilling day at Fort Leonard Wood, I reached out for the paper that would send me to Asia. Imagine my surprise: I was being sent to the tropical paradise of Panama.
My 18 or so months there would change my life. Uncle Sam has a way of massaging people with his fickle finger of fate. But why couldn’t he have allowed me to spend Christmas at home with my parents, brother and sister instead of shipping me out to spend that special day aboard a troop ship?
Believe me, there was no urgent situation in the Canal Zone. A week or two or a month wouldn’t have made the slightest difference at Ft. Kobbe, where I was to be stationed. But there I was, slinging my duffle bag into the dismal hold and peering at what would be my “bed” for the next week or so: a hammock slung just inches from the one above, below and on each side.
Countless millions arriving to America have felt their hearts swell with joy upon seeing the Statue of Liberty rise up from the mists as their boat arrived in New York. But Miss Liberty was being pelted by snow as we slid by.
I don’t recall being miserable, just a bit depressed. After a couple of months in the service, one gets used to just about anything. Somewhere on the voyage south, Christmas Day dawned. Gifts awaited us, we were told. We lined up and were handed presents donated and wrapped, I seem to recall, by church women somewhere in the States.
My gift was small and I have no recollection what it was. A tie, perhaps or a scarf, something not useful where I was going. But it was a sweet gesture and I have never forgotten it.
Nor have I forgotten spending half a day at pre-Castro Guantanamo Bay, where the sailors at the base wore uniform shorts and told us they weren’t allowed to get near the sin city of Havana. Now I knew I was in the tropics. We also got to tour San Juan, Puerto Rico, for half a day. I was feeling better, anxious for whatever Panama held for me.
That tropic sun was peeking over the horizon as we neared Panama on New Year’s Eve, palm trees were lining the beach and a new world was dawning, one that would bring me a wife and children.