Last night after a day long trip, we arrived at my sister’s house on Signal Mountain outside of Chattanooga. We’ve been doing this for nearly all of the twenty-seven years when this tradition began. So for us, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. But long ago and far away, there was another Christmas, quite different.
A Christmas Keeper
i may have written about this before, but i don’t remember if i actually did post it here, or if it was such a seminal moment in my life, it just seems i have written about it a thousand times.
It happened in 1984. Christmas Eve actually. In Mayport, Jacksonville, and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
The USS Yosemite (AD 19) had returned from its historic deployment to the Indian Ocean eight months earlier. If anything, the executive officer’s workload, a.k.a. moi, had increased. But down time was a lot more fun.
After Maureen had given up on her weekly commute between Jacksonville and San Diego in early June, she and i had become a permanent couple in the same place. We had been married July 30, 1983 in her father’s home in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego. Yup, the Southwest corner. Ten days later, i had flown home to Lebanon, Tennessee to pick up my Mazda Rx7 and drive to Yosemite’s home port of Mayport, northwest of Jacksonville proper. Other than a romantic Labor Day weekend with Maureen, i would not see her for another eight, almost nine months.
i was elated to see Maureen on the pier when Yosemite moored on her return and even more excited when she gave up the commute. It was not quite two months before our first anniversary and we had been together only two months of our marriage.
Christmas was going to be special, extra special, our first together. Our first married Christmas, Maureen was with her family in the Southwest corner; i was in Diego Garcia.
The Yosemite cooks and mess specialists (MS), nee “stewards” had done an incredible job for a Christmas away from home, but it wasn’t’ home, and the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet — some bozo later decided to change the name because they wanted only the president to be the “Chief” commander – wanted to raise the esprit de corps of the tender’s crew and wardroom, which meant Yosemite had a personnel inspection on Christmas Eve and this XO joined Captain Boyle, Admiral Crowe, and his aide for a Christmas Eve lunch. The admiral was a great guy and later became the CNO and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But it really wasn’t the kind of Christmas Eve i would have preferred.
So the Christmas in Mayport was going to be special. But not in the manner i anticipated.
The ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Frank Kerrigan, and i had become good friends on the deployment and had a common interest in playing golf and racquetball, as well as being ardent sports fans. Frank was my escape from XO in many ways. Fresh out of medical school at the University of Chicago, Frank came to the ship with no Navy experience. i taught him many of the ropes, and he allowed me to talk and act like a human, not a Navy commander, number two in charge of a ship’s crew of 900. Janet, his wife, also had earned her medical degree with Frank in the Windy City, and was the resident doctor at the Mayport naval base clinic. Maureen became her patient, which evolved into them becoming close friends, like Frank and i, until this day. The two are the godparents of our second daughter, Sarah.
We were all away from our other families. So we decided to celebrate Christmas Day together at our home in Ponte Vedra Beach. It sounded like an excellent idea and eventually, it was.
But Christmas does not reduce a ship’s exec duties. The holidays actually increase the things an XO must do. So i kept putting off Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. Frank (a ship’s medical officer is also busy), came up with a plan. To this day, i claim it was Frank’s idea, and he claims it was my idea. We agreed to that strategy.
Regardless, we had it all worked out when we added something we both loved as a Christmas present to ourselves. We got a tee time with a couple of Frank’s friends. The course was a new championship course with the holes entwined with a river on the west outskirts of Jacksonville, about an hour drive from the base.
The plan was to leave the ship around 0930/1000, drive out to the course, play 18, and finish up our shopping for our wives before returning to our homes around 1700. Our wives, aware of the stress and workload we both were under, agreed to our plan.
But then there were some complications.
Just after morning Officer’s Call and Quarters, Frank came to my office.
“XO, we have a slight problem,” Frank said, “One of our enlisted women overdosed on some prescription drugs. We have to get her to the Navy hospital. We’ve called the EMT vehicle.”
“Man, that’s terrible,” i reacted, “Is she going to be all right?” Being the good XO, i added, “Have you told the Captain? If not, i better let him know.”
“I think she’s going to be fine,” Frank answered, “I would appreciate you notifying the CO, adding, “but there is another problem.”
Frank responded, “I left my clubs at home in Atlantic Beach, thinking we could pick them up on our way to the course.”
“So?” i asked.
“XO, I have to go in the ambulance to the Navy Hospital,” he explained. The Navy hospital was about a half-hour away on the other side of Jacksonville.
“i guess that means our golf present to ourselves is cancelled,” i said resignedly.
“No,” Frank replied, “If you don’t mind, you can go by my house. I’ll give you the garage opener. You can get my clubs and shoes and pick me up at the hospital around ten.”
Then he explained, “I don’t think it would look very good for the ambulance to stop at my house and put the clubs in the back with the patient.”
i agreed with his explanation, also agreeing to his plan. He gave me his garage opener.
Well, being an XO on Christmas Eve, complications on the ship can arise. They did. My planned departure of 0930 was pushed back to past 1030. i called Frank and told him i was on my way. i picked up his clubs and headed west through the maze of interstates, bypasses, and confusing surface streets. This was long before mobile phones of any kind or GPS navigation. Being me, i got lost.
i finally made it to the hospital about 1230. Frank got in my RX7, and we sped to the course. We were about twenty minutes late. Frank’s friends had already teed off. We guessed they would be on the third or fourth hole. Now, i don’t know if you have noticed or not, but not a lot of golfers play on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, especially on the East Coast where it gets dark, real dark early in December. Frank and i decided we could play really fast and catch up to his friends.
We didn’t catch up. Tough course. As we got to the fifteenth tee, the sun was setting. We discussed our options. Being golfers, whether decent or bad, logic was not included in our decision. We decided to complete the round. After all, it would be a shame to not “see” the last three holes.
By the time we reached the seventeenth tee, the sun had not only set, the stars were out. The course, surprise, surprise, was dark. We played in the dark, guessing the direction where our shots were headed. If the balls weren’t where we guessed, which was nearly all of the time except on the green, we would drop another ball and continue playing. When we finished, Frank’s friends were long gone. There was no one in the clubhouse except the rather anxious pro. He had to finish his shopping as well.
i began driving toward the big shopping center on the coast near both of our homes when Frank told me we had to make a detour and a stop.
He explained, “Well, Janet wanted a kitten for Christmas, and I made a reservation to pick one up from this lady.”
Thinking this exchange would be a slam dunk, i agreed and took Frank’s direction to the lady’s house.
The house was a trailer home in the middle of a swamp of some sort, or perhaps a jungle. i drove the RX7 down the unpaved, one-lane road to the clearing where the trailer home stood. Frank knocked on the door. The old lady came to the door.
He told her he had come to pick up the kitten and asked how much he owed her. She responded the kitten was free. i thought the deal is done; we’re out of here. But there was another twist.
The old lady muttered, “You’ll have to catch one.” She closed the door and returned to watching the television.
Frank and i spent about twenty minutes chasing all kinds and all ages of cats through the brush and the trees before catching one. We found an empty orange crate, opened the hatchback of the RX7, and i started to place the kitten in the crate.,
The kitten was not pleased with the idea. He or she attacked me like the cat from hell, puncturing my hands multiple times before climbing up my left arm at full speed, leaving claw marks for my entire arm’s length, and departing with a shriek.
We returned to the hunt for about ten minutes before giving up. It was too dark.
Frank was disappointed with this turn of events but okay. He said he could get a kitten later and he had already bought Janet another nice gift.
i had not planned ahead that well. i needed to get to the shopping center. i wanted to get Maureen a nice piece of clothing and nice piece of jewelry. i sped there. The shopping center closed at nine. Except on Christmas Eve, the mall closed at six.
The parking lot was empty.
i was frantic. Frank rode with me looking for something open. The only place we found was…a Pick ‘n Save.
They had absolutely nothing Maureen would want for a Christmas present, especially for our first Christmas together as husband and wife. Frantic, i ran down the aisles looking for something, anything.
Then this yahoo spotted something that would be awful but might somewhat make amends if i told my story, apologized, and promised great gifts beyond her wildness imagination in the future.
This would have probably been a good plan. But the gift i chose was a set of four whiskey sour glasses for $6.99.
I got home at 2100 (9:00 p.m.). i explained most of the misadventure, blaming Frank. She already knew me well enough to believe a little less than half of my tale. We dressed and went to wonderful midnight Christmas Eve service, sitting in the small balcony of an Episcopal Church close to our home. The service was almost completely carols with the sanctuary lit by candles and filled with the aroma of the pine bough decorations. It was romantic. It was so Christmasy.
But it did not assuage my fear of our gift opening the next morning.
The next morning, we had a wonderful Maureen breakfast. Before Frank and Jan came over for the Christmas turkey feast, we opened our presents. There were many wonderful gifts from our families in San Diego, Tennessee, and other places. Maureen’s present to me was wonderful, a sweater, i think. i waited as she took the rather shabby wrapping off of my gift as i once again expressed its inadequacy with my weak explanation, blaming Frank and the failed kitten hunt again. Dread is probably the best way to describe my feelings as my “gift” was revealed.
When she saw the box of whiskey sour glasses with the price tag i had forgotten to remove in my haste…she laughed her crazy, legendary laugh. At first, i thought she was crying, fearing our love affair and marriage might be falling apart before my eyes. Then i realized she really was laughing. She came over and gave me a wonderful hug and kissed me. My relief cannot be overstated.
The story has become legend among our families and our friends.
The whiskey sour glasses made it back to the Southwest corner when i was relieved as XO and headed back to San Diego for my twilight tour (the last tour before retirement). Shortly afterward, the four glasses strangely disappeared.
But that Christmas morning was when i realized i had a keeper and would be married for a long, long time.
That realization came thirty-four years ago.
And she still laughs about it.
And i’m still paying for it.
Merry Christmas, Maureen, dear wife of mine.