A Long Ago Christmas
(A shorter version of this 769th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 25, 2005.)
With so many of our youngsters overseas serving our country, too often in harm's way, it is appropriate to keep those families in our hearts — especially today.
My thoughts about them have led my mind back to an experience of my own at the end of World War II. I'll share it with you on this Christmas morning. My story begins on December 23, 1946. I could tell that morning when my ship left the Gulf Stream because the color of the water changed, the temperature dropped, the sun disappeared and we immediately found ourselves in a blinding snowstorm. We had passed from summer directly into winter.
We were returning from the Mediterranean where our task unit had spent a month visiting exotic places: Gibraltar, Naples, Athens, Izmir and Marmaris in Turkey, and finally Beirut. It was still a dangerous time then. The war was over but much of the Med was mined and many of those ports were filled with grounded hulks tilted at strange angles like discarded toys. It had been a wonderful experience for a very young navy officer whose only previous foreign visits had been from his home in Rochester to nearby Canada and, aboard this same ship, to Guantanamo, not then a prison but our Cuban naval base.
My experiences on that Mediterranean cruise had been rich and varied. I witnessed spectacular scenery: the Rock of Gibraltar (with no Prudential sign), the Straits of Messina and best of all the Dodecanese Islands, mountains rising straight up out of a beautiful green sea with tiny villages clinging precariously to their sides. Fellow officers tried to get me to visit a submarine that left Gibraltar as we stood arguing. I drank a powerful liqueur called raki in Turkey and coffee that was two-thirds grounds in Beirut. The car we hired had to drive carefully around bomb craters on the way from Piraeus into Athens where the Parthenon was pointed out to me: it was pitch dark and I could see nothing. I bought two rugs in Izmir for pocket change. Sailors told me I should have bargained.
My ship was the Donner, LSD 20 (for Landing Ship Dock), a slow moving tub that carried liberty boats for our companions: an aircraft carrier, a cruiser and a destroyer. One afternoon I watched as those ships ahead disappeared into a mountain on the south coast of Turkey. It turned out that they were entering a narrow channel leading to a hidden anchorage. As we followed, I could see soldiers covering gun emplacements with camouflage netting on the hillsides above us. I'm sure it had once been a pirate cove.
I rode a bus over the mountains from Beirut to Damascus, a death-defying trip. Steep cliffs dropped hundreds of feet just inches from the road and houses were sandbagged because the driver told me in broken English, "Often the brakes go bad." I also witnessed the terrible poverty of war-torn countries. Where we moored in Pizzuoli, locals sneaked aboard to "steal" garbage from our ship's incinerator. While serving on shore patrol in Beirut, I visited a jail where prisoners in tiny cells slept on excrement-strewn floors.
But now I was on my way home. My Jewish executive officer was an excellent chess player and he had offered me a week's leave when we arrived in port if I could beat him. We both knew his was a safe bet but I had to try. I lost all three games but the leave papers showed up anyway with a note that said, "Happy Hanukkah!"
We dropped anchor in Hampton Roads off Norfolk, Virginia the next morning, Christmas Eve. I rolled the two rugs I bought in Izmir into my sea bag and headed ashore. It was too late for trains or planes: I hitchhiked.
A fellow officer drove me to Cape Henry where I took the ferry to Cape Charles — there was no bridge across Chesapeake Bay then. From there I hitched up the Delmarva Peninsula through Wilmington and on northwest toward Rochester. Drivers were kind that holiday season so I made remarkably good time. Despite that, I recall standing at midnight by the highway in the Pennsylvania mountains, my feet so cold that I had to work them under my duffle bag. Thank goodness I had my old seaman's watch cap with me to draw down over my ears. Still it had stopped snowing and the stars were out brightly signaling the arrival of Christmas.
Exhausted, I finally arrived home by midday, my unexpected appearance making a second happy surprise for my parents because my older brother, another naval officer then serving in the Pacific, had also just arrived.
Walter and Emma Rising with sons Vernon and Gerald, Christmas 1946
I hope today's service families will soon enjoy the same kind of relief I saw in my dear parents' eyes on that long ago wonderful Christmas afternoon.-- Gerry Rising