For the season, a short story for a holiday capable of evoking so many memories: bitter, sweet, and bittersweet. For those who fancy a brief read, this is a stretch at just over $8.00 and change.
Merry Christmas to you all. Whether you read on or not.
Late in From Tulsa
Understand this began early December, nearly fifty years ago. If you remember that far back, this means something to you. If not, just consider this so much melancholy Christmas card claptrap…
Year-end holidays are emotionally difficult for military people, especially youngsters not career minded, away from home. Like others, I’d not been home for Christmas in three years. Circumstances.
Mom passed before I went into the service. Sorrow affected Pop’s health. He adjusted but his health worsened each year. Between Mom’s passing and my enlisting, my much older sister was struck by a degenerative spinal disease. Its come-and-go, more-or-less paralysis complicating her life as few can understand has been easier for her to deal with than her divorce two years later. About the time a lady back home I thought would eventually take me for her husband got tired of waiting for “circumstances” to be “right.” More likely, she fell in love with the attorney she met while I was in Greenland. I understand, and I don’t, you know?
This service boy needed Christmas home, with family. Once again, schedules and distance made holiday leave impossible. If you are, or were military, you know that happens. Then, in a nice piece of military logic, necessary budget cuts were satisfied not by halting recruiting, but by releasing trained, seasoned troops early. In time for Christmas early. That was the rumor.
Until the rumor reached us, Dan, a buddy of mine, and I were going to ship-over.1 He’d earned a spot in OCS.2 Not as diligent finishing-up my college work, I was going to re-enlist. When official word came down early-outs3 were for real, it took less than an evening in the NCO4 club and much less than a snootful to make up our minds. We’d take the offer, become civilians.
Dan was serious with a lady back home in Anchorage. Awaiting processing, in a flurry of activity and long-distance telephone calls, Dan and his lady set a date for and worked out details for a pre-Christmas wedding. Dan wanted me to be Best Man. In Alaska. That’s not close to my home, west of Dallas.
Sis and I talked on the phone. She sounded robust and cheery, admitting she was enjoying a string of “good” months.
“And Pop?” I asked.
“He’s not getting better. Your getting out, coming home will be good. Did Pop wonders to hear the news. Smiled that old Pop smile and said you’d be busy as hell, as he put it, getting the ranch back in order.”
“I should just come home,” I suggested.
“Go get your buddy married-off,” Sis insisted, “Pop and I will be fine. What’s a couple of days, right? We’ll be good until you get back to Dallas.”
“You and Pop pick me up there?”
“Just let us know when your flight gets in.”
The wedding, short lead-time and all, was a ripsnorter. A resident Anchorage buddy handled bachelor party arrangements. Serious ceremony. Beautiful bride. Handsome groom. Snow falling. On December twenty-first.
Dan’s mom got me to the airport on the twenty second. As we left for the airport, she told me that Sis called. They’d rushed Pop to the hospital. I’d be home early the twenty-fourth. Perfect, but with a new urgency.
Almost pulled it off. Weather elsewhere delayed us in Calgary.
The states were enjoying a freak snowstorm. Airborne, our pilot told us Love Field in Dallas was closed. Oklahoma City, too. We were in a race to Tulsa with the front pushing heavy snows eastward. Upstairs,5 you have no idea where you are. Airtime suggested we were close. In a cheery note, the pilot informed us, snow or not, we’d be landing in Tulsa as we hadn’t fuel to race any further east.
Christmas Eve morning, we skidded to a stop on a Tulsa runway. When it snows in Tulsa, it doesn’t mess around. Nobody was going to leave Tulsa. It was nice as airports go but it wasn’t home. We overnighted in the airport. In Tulsa. Isn’t that something? Two years in Thule6. Time to go, in, out. Bim, bam. No problem. Anchorage. Snow. In, out, bim, bam, no problem. Tulsa? Nope. Not happening. Someone would work the holiday. Police. Hospital staff. Airport crews. Military folks. I knew all about that. We nervously left Tulsa Christmas morning.
Compared to the Tulsa landing, Dallas was a piece of cake.
A rancher neighbor met me at the airport. Quizzed, he had no news for me. His job was to get me to the hospital. Which he did. Through melting snow. Sis and her walker met me outside Pop’s room. She didn’t look good. Maybe the divorce. Maybe it wasn’t her year for Christmas with her two girls. Probably worried over Pop. Our conversation through hugs and her sobs is clear to this day.
“How is Pop?”
“Doctors say it was a moderate stroke. He’s okay.”
“Some. Too early to tell. We can visit now. If you’re ready.”
“Pop! How ya feel?”
Pop slurred something. What, I’m not exactly sure.
“I’m home to stay, Pop. Christmas together this year!”
Pop didn’t speak. He nodded and smiled his big, ear-to-ear west Texas smile.
Best Christmas ever.
© SP Wilcenski 2020
1 Ship-over: Re-enlist for another hitch. A soldier, whatever branch, you do that twice, meaning you’d have nine to twelve years’ time-in-service, you were, or wisely should have considered yourself a lifer. Which in the military means “career.”
2 OCS: Officer’s Candidate School.
3 Early out: Discharged before contractual enlistment years lapsed.
4 NCO club: Non-Commissioned Officers bar, and in larger installations, members-only restaurant. Some of us made grade easily. Something to do with career field and oh, call it “circumstances.”
5 Upstairs: Above the clouds. In this situation, no earthbound panoramas below. No landmarks. Nothing. Instrument flight.
6 Thule, Greenland: Nature’s vegetable crisper. Or deep-freeze, depending on the month.