Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home in time for Christmas

I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have some snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

– "I'll be home for Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby in 1943

Another year is coming to a close and with it comes another Christmas for the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces to be away from home, hearth, and families during the holidays.

I found myself thinking about this over the weekend as a result of two things. First, my wife and I took part in an annual ritual (it usually takes place during a snowstorm): firing up the DVD player and watching "Band of Brothers", the stunning HBO mini-series that follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne from the D-Day landings in Normandy to the invasion of Germany. Far and away the finest mini-series I've ever seen and quite possibly one of my favorite pieces of film-making ever, it never gets old thanks to a talented cast led by Damian Lewis (now of NBC's "Life") and Ron Livingston ("Office Space") and outstanding production values but most of all because it's a tremendously compelling story based on the lives and actions of young men from across the United States. You come to care about them as they live and die and sacrifice themselves for each other.

Watching "Band of Brothers" always reminds me of my grandfather, who joined the Navy at the age of 17 in 1943, around the same time and age as many of the men in Easy Company. He served as quartermaster of the light cruiser U.S.S. Montpelier throughout the remainder of the Pacific War. The tale of the Mighty Monty and its combat service are told in James Fahey's remarkable "Pacific War Diary", his first-hand account of life aboard a cruiser in wartime. While the book was required reading of a sort in my family, I also grew up listening to my grandfather's stories of life on a warship and his travels throughout the Pacific, including participating in the initial occupation of Japan. He didn't tell them often but when he did, it was fascinating and his stories have lingered. I even have a framed picture of the Montpelier that used to be his hanging on the wall by my desk at home to remind me of him.

At Christmas time though, I usually find myself thinking not of his time on the Montpelier but instead of a letter that he saved from his time at sea. I discovered it among his files while conducting researching for his biography, a project my grandmother asked me to take on when his health and memory began to fail as the early stages of Alzheimer's cruelly began to take bits and pieces of him away from us.

Written by my great-grandfather on December 27, 1943, the letter brings my grandfather up to date on life at home during the holidays and a Christmas spent without him. I wonder what that 18-year old young man thought and felt, gone for the first time and half a world away, as he read about the turkey dinner and how his father received "a nice new bathrobe, 1 pair stockings, one tie, 2 cartons of cigarettes and a pair of slippers which I need very much". With Christmas 1943 gone past, did the crew dream of ending the war quickly and being home in time for the next Christmas? I regret never asking him.

In the movies and in history books, ending the conflict and returning home for Christmas always seems to be the wish of the men and women who serve. Sadly, it never seems to work out that way, regardless of the conflict. We are left hoping for loved ones' safe return, wondering when we'll see them again, and staring at an empty stocking on the hearth or an empty seat at the holiday dinner.

And so, with the holiday season upon us, I hope you will take a few minutes to give thanks for the loved ones who will be with you for the holidays. Reach out to a family with loved ones serving far from home and let them know that their sacrifice is appreciated. Thank a veteran for all he or she did on behalf of you and your country. And be sure to make your loved ones, even those no longer with you, part of Christmas, if only in your dreams.

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