… and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
And, of course, she said,:
Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home. Home! And this is my room, and you’re all here. And I’m not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and – oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!
i think i know how Dorothy felt. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Of course, Dorothy didn’t know. After all, she was just ten years old when the tornado whisked her away to Oz.
My problem is figuring out exactly where home really is.
i left Lebanon for good in 1967. i was 23. i knew about as much as Dorothy did about this “home” stuff. Since sometime around Dorothy’s age, i wanted to go elsewhere, the big city, the big football stage, Hollywood to star in oaters, far away, big big big, mix with the glitterati. Home was restrictive, strait-laced, lot of church stuff. Going, going, gone as Dick Shively would scream into the microphone at Sulphur Dell when a Nashville Vol would homer.
But not gone, and certainly not forgotten. Sulphur Dell. The Nashville Vols. Home.
And there were others, but none quite captured the original. Then through consequences of making choices, hoping they were the right thing to do, there were a few years when home became something just out of reach. But then, reconnections with folks back at the original home and friends in many homes across the length and breadth of the country brought back serenity. Through classmates at various stages of my life and my kin i was taken back to home of my heart, yes the heart of Tennessee. And in this season of peace, i went back, not to the original, but a place that feels like the family home used to be. Peace on earth, good will toward men.
This all occurred to me when i was back on Signal Mountain. My parents weren’t there, but i remembered their joy and love, just like home.
But you know what? l came back home. Home for 27 years, more actually since home is with Maureen, and we are working on thirty-five years of home, twenty-seven in this one. The flight schedule was brutal, up around 3:30 eastern, flight at 6:30 to that small chunk of concrete in the middle of Texas they call DFW, an hour wait, then another three-hour flight home, ten hours of day brutalized to arrive at 10:30 A of insanity M.
As i unpacked trying to expedite a long nap, it struck me. Yep. There is no place like home.
Warm enough for roses, cool enough for an evening fire. There’s no place like home.
Late yesterday morning, i took Maureen on my walk around my sister’s neighborhood on Signal Mountain.
Although we don’t have the snow my brother has in Vermont, there is an extremely slight chance we will have a dusting before Christmas, some semblance of a white Christmas. Still, it feels like Christmas here. It is damp, cloudy, turning toward cold. On our walk, i not only took the above photo, i felt something strong and wrote about it:
Mist on the Mountain
it was a walk on Signal Mountain several days before Christmas.
foggy, as it quite frequently is this time of year
in a moment
away from the nice homes
not on the brow overlooking the magical world of Chattanooga
down, down, way down below
in the woods
the walk was in the mist
no, not just mist,
clouds settling upon the top of the mountain,
a delicate fabric covering the world of high;
then, i felt them.
they didn’t talk to me, no instruction, no guidance;
it may have been inside of me
but it felt as if they were in the mist,
the mist on the mountain;
this was a favorite time for them:
the trip down the state and east a bit,
Christmas with the family;
laughter, perhaps i heard laughter;
i can’t be sure
i felt them
just as sure as i will feel the warmth of the fire
sitting on the hearth tonight
while the outside will be shrouded
in the magical mist of the mountain.
i have long railed about holidays being extended and becoming more and more commercial.
Well, Christmas doesn’t count.
As noted earlier, we got into the spirit shortly after the turn into December with our decorations. Although i have made negative comments about yard blow up decorations, our neighborhood is aglow with every kind of decoration possible, i think. i like it.
Before leaving for our annual Christmas on Signal Mountain, we had the Boggs’ Christmas. Sister Patsy came over with her son Bill Boase and his wife Laura. We had Maureen’s haute cuisine version of gumbo, not a Christmas turkey, but boy oh boy, was it good. As we were getting it all going, i walked outside on an errand. This is not yet sunset. It is not the superb photography of Brian Lippe’s sunsets. It just struck as just right for a Christmas celebration.
Quite a few were missing, but those of us who were there fit just about right. It is nice to have a Christmas celebration at home. It felt good.
And nothing pleases Maureen more than to do the house up right for a dinner party. She outdid herself this time with the table decorations. Winter roses (Southwest corner, remember) added to the splendor. Sarah and Maureen, as they usually do, made a great team.
Then we left. It was, as nearly all flights are, not as much fun as they used to be. With Maureen’s penchant for being prompt — i was concerned since our flight was scheduled for a 6:30 a.m. departure, she might want to spend the night in the airport — we were up at 3:30. For some reason, neither of us had slept well. Being “pre-TSA” helped but boarding — i remember one or two times in the distant past making a flight by going from curbside to boarding in less than five minutes, arriving at the gate to slide in the plane as the doors were closing — is still irksome at best, infuriating most of the time.
But i was coming home, or at least to a Tennessee Christmas with my sister’s family, which is as close as i can get to 127 Castle Heights Avenue of a half-century ago. We flew American, no longer the pleasant experience i remember from years past. Gouging travelers appears to be the new mission. We flew to Charlotte and caught the next thing smoking to Chattanooga (Sorry, Jamie Jacobs, but the time between flights kept us from a rendezvous with the Uncle Jesse clan; when i have a stop there, i always promise myself someday, someday, i’m going to make it a week layover and actually spend time with my cousins).
But all of my concerns melted on the hop to Chattanooga. There are no photos. i was too entranced, and American Eagle’s Bombardier CRJ-700 aircraft has small portholes, especially when sitting in an aisle seat. Yet, nearly all of the trip was just simply enchanting, carrying me back to many memories. The flight heads west, west, southwest and flies on the eastern side of the Smoky Mountains. It was sunset or twilight for all but the last several minutes of the trip.
The setting sun, the clouds, the folds of the mountains, and the mist cast a magic spell on me. i was back on a countless number of hops around this part of the world a half century ago, peering anxiously out the window to find a familiar landmark or simply to marvel at the beauty of the countryside, the green, green country country side with farmland dimpling the woods below while the mountain sky scape took my breath away. i was taken to those mountains and the cabin across the walking bridge over the waterfall where we stayed time after time in the wonder of those hills.
i even went back to my first read of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage as the sky scape mirrored my memory of Lassiter and his Utah mountains. Magical i tell you, just like Christmas.
Then we landed. Martha met us at the airport. When we arrived at her Signal Mountain home, there was Christmas before us, in the pandemonium only available with a four-year old grand niece and identical twin, two-year old grand nephews:
Allie, Culley, and Max in one of their quietest moments.
This is the second calmest of about twenty “stair” photos.
And then there were Happy, as her grandchildren have named her most appropriately (Todd has been nicknamed “Grumpy” which tickles him to no end).
i’m telling you, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas:
Yup, Christmas. And you would have to be an unreformed Scrooge not to feel it.
Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five, his staff, and his flagship, the USS Tripoli (LPH 10) had drawn Hong Kong as their liberty port over Christmas and had pulled into Fleet Landing on the Hong Kong side right next to the great Fleet exchange.
Staff officers Mike Peck, the Tactical Air Control officer; Pete Toennies, the UDT advisor; OW Wright, the admin officer, and me, the staff’s current operations officer, had become good friends and running mates since i joined them in Hobart, Tasmania in November, and we had proved we were good liberty hounds. We were ready for Christmas in Hong Kong.
Mike and i had been in this wonderful city several times before. Mentioning the name of Johnny Lee, the tailor, got us a room in the Holiday Inn on the Kowloon side, a much improved version of the chain than those in the states. In Hong Kong, it was considered a luxury hotel. Mentioning Johnny Lee gave us the large room with two queen beds for $65 US dollars a night.
There are a number of sea stories related to this liberty, but i will stick to one aspect of our port stay.
The British Navy contingent in Hong Kong had hosted a reception for the squadron the day after we arrived. Mike and i hooked up with lieutenant junior grade in the British Navy, and we had a great time swapping stories. Unfortunately, i don’t remember his name, but i do recall he was a helicopter pilot who had been retrained to drive their surface effect boats in Hong Kong with the mission of interdicting any attempts at illegal immigration. This had been a big problem for the Brits after the evacuation of Vietnam as many of those displaced were trying to get into Hong Kong.
The three of us hit it off. To show our appreciation of the new friendship, we took the Brit to Gaddi’s, one of the finest high end dining establishments in the world, housed in the famed Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It was a good evening. So Pete, Mike, the Brit and i ran around for several days. The younger helicopter/surface effect boat driver invited us to Christmas Eve mess at the British Navy’s wardroom.
Now the officer’s mess in their wardroom was no ordinary place. The wardroom and the accompanying galley were not on a ship. They were on the penultimate floor of the British Navy’s Hong Kong headquarters, a thirteen story building on the waterfront. The Brits called it the HMS Tamar, as if it were a ship. The wardroom was actually two stories high and the bayside was a huge glass window looking out on Hong Kong. The city and its lights were a beautiful sight on Christmas Eve from that vantage point.
The HMS Tamar’s wardroom consisted of about one hundred officers, about a third of which were women, something US Navy officers weren’t accustomed to at the time. With shrimp cocktail appetizers and drinks, we chatted with all of the male and female officers before sitting down for the evening mess. It was a traditional British Christmas feast that seemed to have no end. Roasted goose and roasted gammon (smoked ham) were the traditional meats but the British Navy added roast beef. Then there was roasted chestnuts with Brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, pigs in a blanket, parsnips, and swede (rutabaga), ginger bread stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, and concluding with, of course, English Christmas Bread Pudding.
All of this of course, was accompanied by continuous libations of wine, whiskey, and of course, gin. It was all very, very lovely.
After dinner, we continued our discussions with just about everyone in a Royal Navy uniform. We were like celebrities. My glass was much like the professor in “The Bishop’s Wife” when Cary Grant, the angel kept magically filling the writing professor’s glass.
Just before midnight, i was looking at Mike and Pete, thinking it was about time to say our thanks and give our hosts Christmas wishes, catch the elevator, and walk back to the ship, berthed between the HMS Tamar and the U.S.Fleet Exchange. But the group of about six junior officers insisted we attend midnight mass with them. If anything, this contingent about half men and women officers, had consumed a lot more beverage than any of us. Regardless, we agreed. Then they exited the main wardroom and started walking up the stairs. i was surprised there was another floor and asked where we were going.
“To the chapel,” they informed me.
i would like to say we filed in quietly with decorum. i think Mike, Pete, and i mustered the strength to approach some semblance of decorum. But it was a pretty raucous bunch who found seats in two rows toward the back of the small chapel that held about 150 people, if that. Our group was laughing and continuing to have fun until just before the service. Then, one of the female officers behind us, tapped me on the shoulder.
She pleaded with whispers for us to help them out. One of the male junior officers had hidden a fifth of gin and brought it into the chapel. He was also blown out of his mind and close to passing out. The young female officer asked me to take the gin and hide it through the service. She explained if the senior officers caught him our any of the English in our group with the booze, they could be booted out of the service, not the mass, the British Naval service.
We, somewhat dubious, complied with her pleas. She passed the bottle to me under our seat. With Mike and Pete’s approval, i slid it up under my sports coat and cradled it with my left arm as inconspicuously as i possibly could.
The service went on, but i was too nervous to pay much attention. Getting up and down for the liturgies and hymns was a frightening proposition. With great difficulty, i successfully maneuvered through the stand/sit requirement each time. At the conclusion, i breathed a huge sigh of relief. Pete, Mike, and i had worked out a strategy, whispering during the service. We would file to the left to the center aisle and they would move as rapidly as they could without causing attention, leading interference for me. i would continue to cradle the booze with my left arm, hopefully looking as if nothing were amiss.
i had just cleared the aisle and was headed for the exit when the plan ran afoul of what Kevin Kline’s character in “Silverado” would have called “bad luck.”
Unbeknownst to us, the commodore, Captain Jim McIntyre, also known as the “Silver Fox,” was attending the mass, sitting on the front row with the British commander and a couple of Hong Kong notables. He spotted me and my interference walking quickly toward the door. He walked more quickly, caught up with me, grabbed my left shoulder, and spun me around.
“Sure am surprised to see you three here,” the commodore laughed.
i wasn’t thinking much about the commodore yet. When he spun me around, my grasp on the bottle of gin slipped. i lurched over catching the bottom with my right hand and moving it back up into its hiding place as covertly as i could.
Reaching out with my right hand, i shook his and said, “Commodore, you don’t know the half of it,” concluding, “It’s good to see you here as well. Merry Christmas.
With that, i turned before the conversation could continue, caught up with Mike and Pete and rendezvoused with our new British friends. They were ecstatically happy with their new heroes as we returned the bottle of gin. The female officer’s whose plea we had answered kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug, and thanked the three of us for saving their hides.
They never knew our all of our hides could have been in deep, deep trouble if i hadn’t caught that bottle on the way down.
Christmas Day was anti-climatic, quiet and spent mostly on the ship. But it had been one great Christmas Eve, one i’ll never forget, but i hope i don’t have another like it.
As they aged, they didn’t decorate as much. They were practical folks, bred in tougher times. Going silly on decorations was not their style. They liked it simple. Having grown up when money was tough to come by (but living simply and well was still possible), they were frugal.
In the latter years when Mother’s ailments dictated Christmas in Lebanon rather on Signal Mountain with my sister’s family, we had to insist we get a tree and decorate it. They thought the small, fake, frosted tree with red bulbs was enough, that and the old wreath Daddy would pull out from storage and hang on the front door. Oh yes, they would put their wooden angels on the mantel. And hang the stockings she had made back in the early 1950’s for Joe, Martha, and their goofy son.
They never lacked in the true spirit of Christmas. It was always one of the best things about my years to watch their happiness and love at Christmas time.
With all of the hate and blame and things they would have deemed un-Christian going on right now, i think his photo from about five years ago displays how they both would have felt:
But i remember both of them looking more like this:
And i know with all certainty, they are hoping and praying that all of their wide expanse of family and friends beyond counting will have a peaceful, wonderful, loving, and joyful Christmas.
This post is a old Navy sea story of mine and is really true. It is not for folks who are overly sensitive and certainly not for those who are politically correct.
He was notable, a legend amongst us, at least amongst Navy folks.
1970. Sasebo, Japan in mid-January. i was the new XO of MSTS (now MSC) Transport Unit One (gone with the wind of time) which road USNS troop ships carrying Republic of Korea troops to Vietnam and back. He was the master chief corpsman. i cannot remember his name for now. But he is indelibly etched in my memory bank, how frail and sketchy that might be. i met this jocular, white haired master chief shortly after i reported aboard.
The master chief liked to gamble a bit. So he frequently visited the game room (aka slot machine room) at the Sasebo Chief’s Club. As we were getting underway for our overnight steam to Pusan, Korea, i spotted him with a large bandage around his head and jowls.
“What happened to you, Master Chief?” i inquired.
“I broke my jaw,” he tersely replied.
“How?” i asked just as tersely.
“This woman, a dependent wife hit me in the chief’s club,” he responded.
Somewhat astounded for several reasons, i pursued, “How could that have happened?”
“Well sir, i went into the game room and grabbed a stool for an empty slot…at least i thought it was unoccupied,” he continued, “Well, this woman apparently had had a winning streak and left her machine for a moment. When she came back, she got mad at me taking her slot machine and hit me.”
“She hit you and broke your jaw?” i stated, even more amazed, “Must have been one big woman.”
“No sir, XO. She was tiny. i think she was the Japanese wife of one the chiefs stationed here.”
“She was a tiny Japanese woman, and she broke your jaw?” i stated, totally flummoxed.
“Well, sir,” the master chief embarrassedly concluded, “She hit me with her purse. It was full of quarters.”
The Master Chief was single. He had decided to get a vasectomy. The Navy medical facilities did not provide for such procedures in 1970, but he had found a Army dispensary outside of Qui Nhon, Vietnam, arranging for the procedure on our next port call. As we were departing Sasebo for our overnight excursion to Pusan, i went down to the ship’s infirmary to the unit’s two doctors who had become good friends. The master chief was working furiously on a cardboard sign. i suspected it had something to do with the red light district in Pusan where most of the single unit members frequented when our ship was in port.
“What are you doing, Master Chief,” i questioned.
“Well XO, this is going to be my last port before my vasectomy, so i’m going trawling.”
“Yes, sir. Just before i go on liberty, i’m going down to the galley and get a whole chicken, thawed. Then, i’m going to tie it on a long line and this pole with the sign on it. When i get down to about the San Francisco Club, i’m going to walk down the middle of the street with that chicken at the end of my pole. i’m thinking i’ll catch me several of those women.”
Although wary, i still asked, “Master Chief, what does the sign say?”
He held it up so i could see. In big block letters, he had scrawled, “Get the last live load.”
This old irascible curmudgeon was rolling into his “Bah, humbug” phase of Christmas. It happens about this time of year every year.
For reasons beyond his control, he has had this phase for about oh, say for about a half a century. It occurs when he realizes he yet again won’t be spending Christmas with someone whom he holds very dear.
Up until he left his hometown to wander (and wander he has, although nearly all of it was not planned; it just turned out that way), he spent Christmas with his family: his parents, his brother and sister, family in Lebanon and Chattanooga (Joe, Martha, Nancy, all of the Prichard’s, did they ever go to Florida for Christmas? He can’t recall although their is some vague memory of a warm Christmas in Daytona, perhaps another one of his illusions).
Then life and the world outside of our hamlet smack dab in the middle of Tennessee began to take him away. Several Christmases were spent away, far away completely out of his control: Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam; Hong Kong; Diego Garcia to name a few. The military can do that to you. Then there was this marriage thing and Christmases inevitably was divided between families. Then there were three families geographically separated (divorces and remarrying can do that, you know).
And that’s where it really started. When the world and life takes one away from the perfect Christmas. That was 1979. It was the first Christmas of not being with his daughter Blythe. Christmas has never been the same since then. That old humbug phase has been there ever since.
The closest he has ever gotten to that perfect Christmas began in 1992 when Maureen, three-year old Sarah and he went back to Tennessee, Signal Mountain most of the time, to be with his parents and his sister’s family. The Duffs have become his Christmas, and even though he is missing a daughter, a grandson, his brother and his family, and his wife’s family, it has been a beautiful Christmas every year.
Still that sadness is there as he has had to make choices about with whom he spent Christmas, or rather who he misses at Christmas.
When they first started going to Tennessee again in 1992, he had family and friends housekeep for him and there was an abbreviated version of Christmas with Maureen’s family before they left. Even though the Southwest corner family still gets together for an early, abbreviated Christmas, the housesitting has evolved into someone looking after the pets on a daily basis. In those early years, they continued to decorate to the fullest although the tree was dry and crumbly by the time they returned. When the housekeeping stopped, they stopped the decorating. This was about when he created the legendary “NOEL” sign.
About four Christmases ago after Sarah moved to Texas, Maureen and he missed their house being Christmasy and bought a fake tree, something he vowed he would never do. So they decorated the tree, put up a minimal number of other decorations and of course, the “NOEL” sign.
But this year, Sarah is back home for a brief period. You get two sentimental and caring women together and you are going to have Christmas decorations, full-blown.
This year, they do.
No, he still won’t have that perfect Christmas. He will not be with his other daughter Blythe and his grandson Sam (and yeh, you too, Jason). It’s been a decision he has made every Christmas except one, trying to do what was best for everyone of his family he loves. Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and do the right thing. He has bitten quite a few bullets in his day.
But this year, it’s a bit different, this curmudgeon humbug thing. The women decorated.He put Christmas music on the iPod and plays it frequently. It not only is beginning to look a lot Christmas, it’s beginning to sound that way as well.
The old curmudgeon humbug sort of got into the spirit. You know, the reason for Christmas, for joy to the world, for hope, for caring and giving., for children, and birth, and that star.
Yep, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas:
It is the season and the menorah is something Sarah made in elementary school. A Jewish family came to our Christmas party. The girl was a friend of Sarah’s. The wife was very thankful for us having that menorah card in our decoration. The reindeer was also made by Sarah a long time ago.
Then there are the music boxes Sarah has received from her aunt almost every Christmas. These are on the table in the alcove between the family room and the dining room.
These music boxes and the nutcracker are on the living room mantel.
These poinsettias in the entry are ones Maureen couldn’t resist. She had made me throw away the fake ones i got from Home Depot several years ago for five dollars. Oh okay, mine were quite a bit worn and they did look fake, but other than that they were fine.
That’s Santa and a bit undersized reindeer with a sled for Santa who won’t fit, but it holds Christmas cards nicely on our “daughter” table.
Then we have our stockings, acquired as a gift several years ago.
This has removed my stocking, which my mother made me about seventy years ago, from the in-house decorations. So i moved it to my work (hah, hah) space in my garage. i actually really like it here. i know Martha’s is in her home on Signal Mountain, and i wonder where Joe’s is in Vermont.
A cross-stitch is in the guest bath so we can relate the legendary Jewell-Hall story about why it is so…well, legendary.
Almost finally, there is the tree. With the fake one, we have options. i turn on the colored lights in the morning to welcome the wakers with a good feeling. In the evening, we turn on the white lights to add to the family room’s Christmasy atmosphere, also abetted by the fire…which is not fake.
The coup de gras is the “NOEL” sign, which after countless hours of wire cutting, splicing, soldering, and hair pulling (if i had hair). After completing then hanging of the sign, i hung it up and turned it on. The two light strings illuminating the letters are, we discovered two different whites. The “warm” whites are whiter than the clear whites. But i ain’t changing it out again this year. Maybe next. Meanwhile, the legend grows.
And all of this is really to say very few people have a “perfect” Christmas. Sadly, some people have dark ones because they are alone. But everyone, if they try, can get into the spirit, the real meaning of Christmas, and rejoice. Even this old curmudgeon humbug can have a merry Christmas.