His Santa hat sagging in the driving rain, Ray Blackman peered through binoculars across every catwalk and every inch of the flight deck of the USS George Washington as it was tugged into Pier 14.
"There's my boy!" he shouted exultantly, throwing his arms into the air as he leaned into a metal barrier beside the looming behemoth of gray steel where hundreds of sailors in dress blues stood waving at the crowd below. "Underneath the tower. That's my boy!"
His wife, Maggie, clutched her heart as she turned her gaze underneath the tower and sighted Boatswain's Mate Gabriel Blackman, who turned 21 during a six-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier everyone calls the GW.
"All I wanted for Christmas was to get my boy back," she said, prompting a slight correction from her teary-eyed husband.
"He went away a boy, but he came back a man," he told her.
In a scene that seemed to spring to life from a Norman Rockwell painting, the relatives of 7,500 Navy men and women got what they wanted for Christmas today when the five ships of the George Washington battle group arrived home for the holidays.
Most of the carrier's pilots had flown their planes to Oceana Naval Air Station on Thursday. The sailors who returned to the Norfolk naval base today sailed into port past warships decked for the holidays. Destroyers, carriers and other warships were lit up with Christmas lights shaped like wreaths and Santas and pine trees.
The GW was no Grinch. Red-and white-striped streamers resembling candy canes flew from the stern between red and green banners that read "Happy Holidays." A red-suited Santa Claus stood in the hangar bay waving hello.
As long as there have been navies and families left behind, sailors have spent lonely nights at sea dreaming of days like this.
With only five port calls to break the monotony, the GW had spent the deployment in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The sailors held joint exercises with navies of 28 nations. They interdicted ships suspected of smuggling cargo to Iraq in violation of the U.N. embargo. Pilots from the carrier flew hundreds of dangerous sorties over Afghanistan and the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
Until a few weeks ago, many suspected that their deployment would be extended to support a new mission against Iraq. Even now, they remain on a short tether. The GW is the designated "surge carrier," the ship that could be called back into action at a moment's notice should war disrupt the season of peace.
"Enjoy yourselves and have a happy holiday," Rear Adm. Joseph A. Sestak Jr., commander of the battle group, told his sailors as they approached shore. "And be ready to return if you need to."
But for the morning, at least, worry was banished.
Homecomings are always special times at a Navy yard after a long deployment. Thousands of friends and relatives crowd the pier waiting; high school bands play marching songs; and loudspeakers blare the ubiquitous tape of Lee Greenwood singing, "I'm Proud to Be an American."
But Christmas -- and a looming war -- brought an extra sprinkling of magic. A Santa and his elves held camp in a tent, painting candy canes on the faces of children. Tables were laden with sugar cookies shaped like bells and Christmas trees. The emotions are even more heightened than usual.
"You've done your duty; you're waiting to see family and friends; and it's Christmas," said Adm. James Zortman, commander of naval air forces for the U.S. Atlantic fleet, who came out to greet the returning sailors. "It's almost more than you can bear."
Rick and Jane Amelon arose early to be on the pier for their daughter, Mariah, a pilot who stayed aboard the ship because her plane, an E2C Hawkeye, was going through routine maintenance. A former Navy pilot himself, Amelon said the last homecoming he attended was 18 years ago when he was the one sailing into port.
"Any homecoming is miraculous, but this is an even greater crescendo," he said, as he held aloft a University of Missouri pennant so his daughter could pick them out in the throng waiting under the flag from her alma matter.
That sentiment seemed particularly apt for the 115 sailors who were allowed off the ship first because they had someone new to meet -- the babies that were born during their deployment.
Sheltered from a hard rain in the "new moms" tent, Julie Naylor cradled her 2-month-old son, Jamie Jr., as she kept an eye on her 15-month-old daughter, Madison. Naylor has been showing Madison photos of her father, Aviation Machinist Mate Jamie Naylor. Madison looks at it and says a word she did not know when her father left -- "daddy."
Naylor has been saving her Christmas decorating and shopping to share with her husband in the final rush toward Dec. 25.
"He has a lot to do. He just doesn't know it yet," she said. "All I want for Christmas is a little bit of help with diaper changing."
Sitting beside Naylor, Juliette Gooden waited with her four children, including 4-month-old Aaron. Her husband, E-6 Franklin Tyrone Gooden, flew home for Aaron's birth because of a problem and the infant was not expected to survive. When Gooden left to rejoin the ship, his son was in a hospital incubator. Yesterday, the 16-pound boy was sleeping in his mother's arms wearing a tiny flight jacket complete with patches.
At home, Juliette Gooden has plastered the yard with signs her other children made. "You're my merry daddy," wrote Ariel, 7. "Christmas with dad," wrote Angel, 6.
"This is the best gift I can have, besides our son being okay," Gooden said. "I told my husband not to get a gift for me. I have mine already."
Many sailors were speechless when they saw their children for the first time.
AMC David Lusk, a troubleshooter on the GW, walked down the gangplank, called "the brow," and up to his wife, Tiffany, as she held their 10-week-old daughter, Abby, wrapped in a pastel blanket. Lusk put his arms around them. He kissed his wife. His kissed his daughter. He put his head on his wife's shoulders, and his face crumpled with emotion. He kissed his wife again.
"It's the best feeling in the whole world," he said as he looked in awe at the bundle in his wife's arms.