It was December, 1968, the world beginning the countdown to Christmas, and at Fort Rucker, Ala., that meant a tape of Lou Rawls singing Christmas carols was piped into the dinning hall. I was serving a four-month stint as a military policeman, by days spent cruising the sprawling base in an olive green sedan, a .45 pistol at my side. At night we drove miles out into the countryside, past the scrub pine and the "Jesus Saves" signs, to a roadhouse where the jukebox gobbled quarters and spat out songs about lost love and dreams that ran out of the money. Guys in cowboy boots sat drinking at the bar. There was a tattered Santa on the wall, but it didn't seem much like Christmas. The surprising thing was that it bothered me.
Christmas had been something I took for granted. As a kid there had been family rituals with presents in front of the decorated tree, late-night rides by quiet houses with candles in the windows, scenes out of a Norman Rockwell album. Sometimes there was snow, and all the time there was the feeling that the world would always be tucked warmly in bed on Christmas Eve with the air clean and cold outside.
Then came high school, other interests. Trips to the relatives became the baggage of childhood I wanted to stow away in a footlocker. The downtown lights that went up before Thanksgiving, the endless hawking in department stores, the commercialism that got more frenetic every year seemed to make the spirit of the season as authentic as a tinsel Santa. So I guess I became sort of a dime-store Scrooge. By the time I found myself at Fort Rucker listening to Lou Rawls, I figured Christmas was something I could ignore.
One part of my job was to escort the guy who collected money from the various stores on the base. His name was Junior and he was a grizzled old codger who bore the indelible stamp of southeastern Alabama. Crow's-feet walked away from eyes that had squinted down miles of bad roads. Nicotine-stained fingers held endless cigarettes.
"Stuck here for Christmas, huh kid," he said in a voice that didn't need an answer. It was Christmas Eve day, the rain-slicked streets full of people on last-minute errands. Instantly Junior was off on a reminiscence of the one Christmas he had spent away from home. It had been during the war, and I forget just where fate had deposited him in 1944, but the gist was that it had turned out to be the Christmas he remembered the most. "Sometimes ya get your best memories from things that are bad," he said.
It was muggy, unseasonably warm even for Alabama, and when night began creeping into Fort Rucker, it found a near-deserted base. Only a skeleton crew remained on duty. The people who earlier had filled the streets were gone. I walked from the PX to the barracks in the early evening, past the darkened motor pool as a tinny-sounding "Silent Night" blared from a speaker. But all was not cold and bright. I wanted to walk down quiet streets and see candles flickering in the windows, wanted to smell a Christmas tree. And most of all I wanted to go back to when everyone sang carols and everything was warm, back to those earlier times when everyone was younger.
A handful of guys were in the barracks. We sprawled on bunks, played cards, killed time. Someone wondered whether Santa visited army bases. No, someone answered. Only Bob Hope did that.
Around midnight, the barracks dark and quiet, I went out and sat on the back steps. Across the parking lot was a row of abandoned barracks, their outlines visible in the murky dark, boarded-up silhouettes far away from a greeting-card Christmas. I don't remember how long I sat there as the ghosts of Christmases past paid their visits, but I thought of how one's life takes sudden turns. My life, once so secure, was starting to unravel. What would the future be like? I was 23 and just beginning to be aware that life could give you a kick in the teeth every once in a while.
But Junior was right. It is the Christmas I remember the most, the one that gets clearer in focus as time slips by blurring the memories, running the years together. And no. I didn't rush home and wrap myself in mistletoe every December. I just appreciate the season more. Appreciate being with family and friends. Appreciate, finally, that the season is about special things like closeness and sharing, things so easy to take for granted in this jingle-jangle life. Who knows? Maybe this year I'll put a candle in the window. But I still can't listen to Lou Rawls.