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Christmas at Sea

I was thinking the other day that I’ve spent at least 10 Christmases underway at sea or on a ship in a port so far away that even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer couldn’t find it. It’s probably more than 10, but I rounded it off.

Christmas at sea has always attracted the poets and the writers. In his poem “Christmas at Sea” (1888), Robert Lewis Stevenson, son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper and author of “Treasure Island,” pointed out the challenges of such a day on the high seas:

“The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand.

The decks were like a slide, where a seaman could hardly stand.

The wind was a nor ’wester, blowing squally off the sea.

And the cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.”

In Stave (Chapter) 3 of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843), the Ghost of Christmas Present transports Ebenezer Scrooge to a ship at sea where they “stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the lookout in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”

My memories are neither this literary nor this melancholy, although it was on Christmas Day in 1977 that I received a note and check from “Leatherneck” magazine, the “Magazine of the Marine Corps,” saying it was going to publish my first magazine article on military medals and awards. I still have the $25 check.

What I do remember about that particular Christmas day was that we had a commanding officer who had decided to hold the incoming mail for several days and celebrate by having a big mail call on Christmas morning. I told the Old Man that was a bad idea, and that he might have a mutiny on his hands. You don’t mess with a sailor’s mail. Back in the day, before the internet and cellphones, you were lucky to hear from home once or twice a month; that is, if you had someone to write to you. Mail only came aboard from the oilers by highline when we refueled or by helicopter if sailing in company with an aircraft carrier and an airfield happened to be within range of its COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) flights.

Actually, Christmas underway wasn’t that bad. Everyone who wasn’t on watch often got late sleepers. Some ships ran movies all day on the mess deck, and the cooks and commissary men outdid themselves with the noon meal. They would routinely turn out a feast to be remembered – everything from turkey and dressing to eggnog (non-alcoholic) and mixed nuts.

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