Being raised on the subzero shores of Lake Erie I was virtually guaranteed a white Christmas. Old Man Winter would wallop lake effect snow gripping the Heartland with a slashing chill dissecting your marrow. Drifts as high as the tractor trailers that were stopped dead in their tracks on the Ohio Turnpike. Do you recall the Blizzard of 78? Some called it a white hurricane. I get frostbite just thinking about it.
In 1980 I was a young gun, gung ho US Navy Sailor, the pride of the fleet. So imagine the thrill when I received my orders to the USS Patrick Henry, a submarine homeported in tropical Pearl Harbor. It brought a deepened sense of honor and amplified my patriotism to be stationed there. Moreover, I wouldn’t need long johns, nor continue to put Wonder bread bags over my socks to insulate my feet from the biting cold. Goodbye boots, ski mask, gloves, parka and chap stick. Aloha flip flops, shorts, multi-hued Hawaiian shirts, and tanning butter Brudda.
I completed five patrols on the Henry. During one patrol I became a Shellback. A centuries old seafaring tradition when crossing the equator to officially be indoctrinated into King Neptune’s domain. It is an amusing initiation, all in good fun and nothing but great memories of the high seas hijinks which awarded me the honor to become a Shellback.
Another indelible experience is when the Henry pulled into Chinhae, South Korea. It was just before Christmas We had been submerged for 72 days, 120 of the most courageous, if not the craziest Sailors you’ll ever meet. Living in a metal tube, 40 foot in diameter, 130 yards long, with 16 nuclear ICBM’s submerged 350 foot deep in the vast Pacific Ocean for months at a time.
Sub Sailors are a special kind of crazy. They willingly sign up for the all-volunteer force known as the Silent Service. It was the dead of winter when we docked at the South Korean Navy Base. So stingingly cold, as if the icicles were darts, metaphysically piercing our pea coats like it was a linen jacket. There just happened to be a USO tour going on at the time of our port call. None other than the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. The crew created a Texas size greeting card and everyone signed it for them. They boarded the sub for a tour and I had the good fortunate to cook for them.
After the cheerleaders disembarked, the four day excursion came to rapid close. We hoisted anchor, stationed the maneuvering watch and took her down deep, heading east back to Pearl. Christmas was days away. Yet for the crew on the Henry, there would be no Christmas, or would there?
Santa always delivers. Even to Sailors 50 fathoms deep protecting and defending America while operating a multimillion dollar man-o-war. Before we shipped out, the wives of the crew convened and created their own Santa workshop. They got their Elf on, personalizing and stuffing stockings for each Sailor to be delivered on Christmas. The stockings were secretly stowed on the sub before deployment. December 25th was a jubilant day for the Henry crew as St. Nick arrived gifting stockings to all the men. Joy penetrated the massive steel bulkheads, seeping through watertight doors. Melting the hearts of even the gruffiest Sailors, sweetening the hearts of those salty souls. It was a morale booster of the highest order. I will never forget that Christmas, nor the crew, or the Navy wives who doubled as Santa’s elves, delivering delectation to the depths of the dutiful.