Disclaimer: While there is some submarine content, most of this is personal testimony to a spiritual part of my life. But I present it without shame or remorse. Merry Christmas. Mac
Alone for Christmas
Baby its cold outside.
As the wind blows and the temperature hovers around zero. I truly am thankful for the people who are keeping the lights on and the water flowing. I am aware that not everyone will be so fortunate this Christmas so we added a few extra lines to our morning devotions. We prayed for the workers who are having to go out and we are praying for those less fortunate that might be struggling today.
I was given a word this morning during our prayers. Alone. It often happens while we are in devotions that a word or thought will come into my mind while we are saying our Nehemiah Prayer. It’s a five part prayer that some biblical scholars say is one of the most important prayers in the Christian bible. The five parts include acknowledging God as the King of all Kings, thankfulness for the bounty he has given us, confessing our individual sins and asking for forgiveness and following that up with our “asks”. We pray for those who are on the updated prayer list, we pray for those who we love, and we pray for people who may have been unkind to us. The final part is a pledge to action.
The presence of a word or phrase that comes while praying is not very frequent. But the word today was definite and clear. Alone.
Christmas is a time of many memories.
Some of them good. Some not so good. I was blessed with a wonderful family filled with traditions. We did everything together. We decorated the house, picked out a freshly cut tree and spent time together putting the lights and ornaments on it, and spent many hours together assembling a train set in the basement that was built around our Lionel train set. The houses were lighted and the trains were the sturdy old models that literally flew around the tracks.
On Christmas Eve, we went to church together and depending on the age, sang in the choir and generally enjoyed the company of so many wonderful people in our lives. The candlelight service and singing of silent night still beings warmth to my heart, even on the coldest of days.
Christmas morning was a family affair too. Even though we would wake at four o’clock in the morning, you had to wait until it was time to go downstairs. Dad always went first. He had to make sure Santa had left the house before we could come down. Then came the mad rush and the fantastic time of wrapping flying in every direction. By the time the five kids were done, it was a sea of tissue paper and ribbons.
But in all of this, you were never alone. I guess I always assumed that Christmas would always be like that.
The last innocent one like that was fifty years ago. I had already joined the Navy and was fortunate enough in my timing to get one last Christmas at home before deploying. I will admit that I did not do well that year. I was “in love” with a girl and that was my priority. I hope there is no video of that time because I am sure it would show the disappointment of my Dad and Mom in me wanting to spend more time with her than them. Dad had been in the Navy and spent his first Christmas in the Philippines. Surrounded by other sailors but definitely alone. He probably knew what I was about to learn within a year. Maybe he even tried to tell me. I didn’t listen well at 18. I would guess I was not too different than most young people at that age.
I shipped out to submarine school in New London and spend a very frigid winter learning the basic skills I would need on the submarine I was about to be assigned to. We lived in open bay barracks and spent nearly every dime we earned on parties and stupid things. Long distance phone calls were expensive and it got harder and harder to write the letters that I used to in Boot Camp. The letters from the girl started becoming fewer and fewer as well. I would make it home for her prom and graduation but as soon as that was over I was off to Hawaii and the USS George Washington.
There was no time for letters or phone calls once I got to the boat. We were given prepaid envelopes with family grams for the patrol. I sent half to Mom and half to the girl. There weren’t that many. I only got half of them underway. Care to guess where they came from?
We were underway by Thanksgiving and I was too tired from mess cooking to feel much emotion. Day after day in a sunless place with the same routine. Work, qualify, try and get some rest and repeat. Interrupted by drills and more drills.
Christmas came and they tried to make the mess decks look festive for the season. Imitation candles on the tables which were overflowing with food. I’m told the Chief’s mess had some “punch” but I didn’t see anything anywhere else. I was working days in the scullery which is where the dishes are cleaned. The work was hard and in those days everything was manual. I was surrounded by people yet for the very first time, I really felt alone. I had not been on board long enough to make any friends and as a non-qual, I was considered the lowest of the low. And I was working in the scullery. Cleaning dishes and handling the garbage.
Any thought of a romantic sailor on the high seas battling enemies was pushed from my head. The proud dress blues were locked away in a footlocker back in port and my uniform was dungarees and a t-shirt. Both were constantly in need of washing because of the work. There was nothing to brag about and nothing to write except how depressed I was. And no word from that girl at home for months.
When I finally got off work, I went to the one place that I could claim as my own. The benefit to being a mess cook was that I had an assigned bunk. It had a curtain on it to block out the ever present red lights and occasional white ones.
It was there that I understood for the very first time what the word alone meant. I probably laid there for a few hours wondering what happened to the adventure that was promised. I don’t remember clearly everything but do remember that I was going to get through this. I made it a promise to get the girl back and make everything better. I also made a promise to talk to my Mom and Dad more. All of those 18 years of Christmases came back to me on that first underway. I really appreciated for the first time how lucky we were. I learned how to really pray on that first patrol. It kept me from being alone even in the darkest hours.
The patrol ended not long after that. I flew all the way home from Hawaii to Pittsburgh. I called the girl and she told me she was no longer available. She was promised to another. It was a long drive back to the airport with Mom and Dad. But I will always remember their love and concern for me. It would help me though some very dark times.
After struggling for a long time with many challenges, I was able to get the ship turned around. I met and married Debbie and forty two years later we are still making new memories.
Dad, my sister Liz and Mom have all gone home to be with Jesus and the rest of the saints in heaven. I miss them but am no longer alone. All the lessons they tried to teach me have come together.
I feel sad for some of the people close to us this year because they will be without a spouse or cherished family member. I can think of a few of them who have lost a loved one in the past few weeks and months and they will be in pain. We pray for them each day and reach out to them to let them know we are thinking of them. It’s probably not enough but my greatest hope is that they find the peace knowing that there is hope for those who believe.
Jesus was born in a manger in a stable in the lowliest of conditions. He would grow to become the light of the world. I hope you know him. Since I have accepted him, I have never truly been alone again.