In 1979 at just before midnight on Christmas Eve aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), I remember somewhat forlornly looking up at the stars in an astonishingly dark and clear night in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea hoping to glimpse sight of the Christmas Star. As a pilot assigned to the Raging Bulls of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261, I had just relieved the previous watch, and along with a fellow first lieutenant, was standing the midnight to 0400 “integrity watch” on the flight deck of the helicopter carrier.
We called the midnight to 0400 watch the “graveyard watch” because of feeling like death warmed over during and after standing this watch. Most watch standers will agree the graveyard watch is the toughest watch to endure and therefore prefer it the least.
Though it was Christmas Eve and the USS Iwo Jima was planned to make port in Majorca, Spain, late on Christmas Day, my forlorn spirit matched the name of this particular integrity watch. I was in the graveyard dumps, feeling sorry for myself for spending my second Christmas in a row thousands of miles from home and being away from our first baby, our little girl Megan having arrived the previous March.
Revile was at 0500 aboard the USS Iwo Jima on Christmas Day morning, so I didn’t bother to get an hour’s worth of sleep after I was relieved of the watch. No Christmas music was played, but I remember the ship’s captain wished everyone a Merry Christmas over the 1MC, the ship’s public address system; a kindness that did little to lift my spirits.
There was no Christmas Star that night and it didn’t seem much like Christmas anyway, what with the absence of Christmas music and decorations aboard our warship that further depressed my spirits. Still, even though I had been awake more than 40 hours straight I was authorized to go ashore on Majorca and found the strength to attempt a telephone call home standing in line at the city phone exchange with hundreds of my fellow squadron mates and shipmates. Finally, about 24 hours after having begun the previous evening’s integrity watch and just after midnight on the day after Christmas, it was my turn at a phone.
Though I had missed Christmas Day, I still felt so very fortunate to talk to my wife around 6 a.m. her time on the day after Christmas and hear my baby girl babbling in the background. All the Christmas music in the world couldn’t have raised my spirits any more than hearing my little girl’s baby sounds.
Hearing popular Christmas songs today like “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland, and “There’s No Christmas Like A Home Christmas” by Perry Como brought back those memories from 40 years ago and helped me remember how lucky I was to talk to my wife and hear my baby girl that Christmastime in 1979.
I think you have to be away from home at Christmas to really appreciate those homespun songs. But hearing those songs also reminded me that I had little right to feel forlorn or dispirited during the times I was away from home at Christmastime – little right, that is, compared to my dad and his fellow members of the “Greatest Generation” who gave far more in their service to their nation than I ever hoped to give.
My dad – like many serving in the armed forces with him during World War II – served away from home nearly four years during the war, with phone calls home not even in the realm of feasibility. His parents had local party line phone service hooked up not too long before Dad went off to boot camp. Long distance phone calls from China where he ultimately served at the end of WWII were more science fiction than reality. He never once heard the voice of his girlfriend – my mom – during that four-year period of time, she never knowing month to month whether he was alive or dead.
While forlornly standing integrity watch on Christmas Eve in 1979 – ensuring the aircraft on the flight and hangar decks were firmly secured – I had little reason to feel sorry for myself compared to my mom’s and dad’s experiences during WWII. Yet those Christmases away from home and my own infrequent communication while deployed aboard the USS Iwo Jima instilled in me – amongst other things – emotion and gratitude for popular Christmas songs that cannot really be appreciated until you can only hear your baby girl’s voice on the phone from thousands of miles away.
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives in Bear Creek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.