Santa Cruz ‘62
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
The fragrance of evergreen brought back a cascade of memories, happy and sad. Dad opened the front door and there was the Christmas tree was in its usual place by the front window, our old Noma bubble lights doing their thing. Christmas music played on the stereo. More memories. Good ‘ol Bing. Aunt Kate, gone last October, wouldn’t be with us.
I took a deep breath, set my suitcase down with a clunk. “Man! Feels good to be home again!”
Mom waited in the foyer, arms out. Time for a hug; common currency in our family. “Nice to have you home again, sailor, even if it is for a few days.” She was wearing a dark blue dress with a white cardigan sweater, not her usual jeans and Dad’s cast-off khaki shirt. The hug felt great.
“Wow, Mrs. Stevens! You get all gussied up just for me?”
“Yes, I did, Mr. Smartypants. Can’t get over how handsome you look in uniform.”
“You look really nice too, Mom. Beautiful.” I gave her a deep bow. “And thank you.”
“Thanks to you, too. Put your stuff in your bedroom, Ensign, come have a cup, tell us all about a sailor’s life.” Dad stood at her side, beaming.
In the bedroom, I checked my reflection in the full-length mirror, felt a spark of pride at the shiny gold braid, even though it was just a single stripe. I nodded, smiled. I had done it. Ensign Martin Stevens. Cool.
Couldn’t wait for Charlie to get here, although he’d be full of advice on how I should conduct myself. My brother had served on a destroyer during the Korean brouhaha and would gladly tell me everything I needed to know. That he was enlisted and I was an officer made no difference, Navy was Navy. I’d have to remind him that my getting a commission was his fault: “Being an officer is a better way to go, L.B.,” he’d said. “You get to tell the enlisted men what to do while you sit around and drink coffee. Get paid more, too. You should do that, you know, go to OCS.”
Good suggestion. I took it.
I tossed my cap on the bed, hung my coat in the closet. My white shirt, black tie and Navy blue pants were a lot less impressive without the double-breasted uniform coat and the shiny brass buttons, but a lot more comfortable. I unlatched my suitcase, pulled a copy of my orders. Mom and Dad had to see this.
My parents and brother had come east for my graduation on the 3rd, arrived a day early, time enough for a quick snowy tour of Newport and attend our final Pass In Review Ceremony. Although marching around Kidd Field in dress blues and bridge coats, passing the grandstand, saluting the flag and Captain Roberson and the rest of the brass was a thrill, the even bigger thrill came when I stole a sideways glance and saw my family wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, standing elbow to elbow with other freezing families. The biggest thrill of all came when 550 men of Class 55 stood together, right hands raised, and recited the oath of office: “I, Martin Stevens, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
Mom said after, “Marty, the cheers in the auditorium were almost deafening. And it was exciting to see all you men throw your caps in the air, but how do you ever get your own cap back?”
I took my cap off, feeling a little zip of pride at the officer’s silver eagle and gold crossed anchors gleaming on the front, showed her the little pouch inside that held my card. “Ah. Ensign Martin K. Stevens, USNR. I see. Can I have one of your cards? And what’s the R for?”
“Sure, Mom.” I fished one out of my wallet, handed it to her. “Me, too,” said Dad. “And me,” echoed my brother.
“The R is for Reserve. Officers who graduate from Annapolis are commissioned regular navy, USN. Graduates of OCS are commissioned in the reserve navy. Don’t ask me why ‘cause I dunno.”
The family flew back home the next day. Before I could go home for Christmas, I had to transfer to the U.S. Navy Schools Command, move into the BOQ, Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, take care of more paperwork–what do they do with all that stuff!–get oriented and sit through two weeks of Communications School. I detached on the 16th, took the bus to T.F. Green in Providence for a Commuter Airlines shuttle to La Guardia, caught a United flight home.
Logs burned in the fireplace, warming the den. I sat in the easy chair opposite the couch, a little surprised to notice that my parents looked older now, like they’d aged during my four-month absence.
Dad, still ramrod tall when he stood, showed a few more lines and wrinkles in his craggy face. His chin was showing a bit of jowl I’d not noticed before. His temples had gone grey.
Today, he was the man of leisure in his decrepit Bass Wejuns, well-worn khakis and an ancient flannel shirt that had been a blue and green Blackwatch plaid when he bought it, was just a faded muddle now.
“Dad, your shoes look like they were cobbled during Garfield’s administration.”
“Naw, they’re newer than that. Bought ‘em when Roosevelt was President. That’s Teddy, not Franklin. These shoes were a little big then, I was only a year old. Y’know Bass Wejuns last a lifetime. Certainly true in my case.”
The shake of my head questioned his sanity. On the job, Dad was the epitome of seriousness but had this goofy streak no one ever saw except family.
The lines in Mom’s face had more definition, too, and now there were threads of grey in her blonde locks. She handed me a mug of coffee, sat next to Dad and looked at me, her blue eyes shining.
“Speaking of shoes, Ensign – I have to say that as often as I can, Ensign, I like the sound of it – yours are so shiny I can see my reflection in them.”
“Spit-shine, Mom. Had to do it every night so’s to pass inspection every morning.”
“When to you have to go back?”
“I fly back on the 29th. Comm School starts up again on the 2nd , we’re done on the 13th. I get three days to report to my ship, have to be there by January 16.”
Dad said, “Can’t believe it’s almost 1962 already. So you’ve got your orders?”
“Hah! Do I!” I handed him the page. “You’ve got to read this!”
He skimmed over the BUPERS boilerplate, got to the good part, smiled, hooted, “Marty! This is too much! Was this intentional or is it a coincidence?” He handed the copy to Mom. His grin was broader than usual, showed his gold filling.
“You got me. All I know is what you see.”
Mom said, “Okay, buster, what’s this boopers outfit, anyway?”
“That’s navy talk for Bureau of Personnel. The navy has to abbreviate everything. Write it all backwards, too. I’m now Stevens, Martin K., Ensign.”
Just like Dad, she whooped and laughed, waved the page in the air. “Marty, this is for real?”
“Absolutely. The Santa Cruz kid has been assigned to the USS Santa Cruz, CA-50, based in Long Beach.” I grinned. “I’ll be able to come home when I get leave, enjoy some home cookin’.”
“When do you get leave? The USS Santa Cruz? Really? Didn’t know there was one.”
“In theory, I’ll be eligible for leave after six months, probably more. Kind of depends where the ship is at. The Santa Cruz is a cruiser, built in late 1945, right on the tag end of World War Two. Served in Korea, mostly. I’ll bet Charlie saw it when he was over there. I expect we’ll head for the Far East sometime mid-year. I’ll send you my schedule.”
The doorbell rang. Mom got up to answer it. I heard her whisper a ‘shhh.’ When she came back to the den, a familiar stocky shape and a tan face topped by a thatch of black hair was close behind. I jumped up, wrapped my friend in a hug. We pounded each other’s backs.
“Mitch! Talk about a Christmas surprise! Hey, couldn’t be better!”
“Hey, Tomo. I saw you and your Dad drive up.” The Takahashi’s lived right next door. “Had to come over, say hello, see what you were up to. I take it you’ve graduated from Canoe U?”
“I did indeed. You’ll have to put your dark glasses on when I wear my uniform, might get blinded by the bright gold.”
Mom said, “Mitch, can I get you some coffee?”
“Oh, no thanks, Mrs. Stevens. I’m coffeed out for now.”
I said, “So, Tomo, tell me how grad school at USF is going.”
Mom made a uh-umph, said, “Excuse my interruption, but will one of you tell me again what ‘tomo’ means, please?”
Mitch laughed. “Sorry, Mrs. Stevens. It’s short for tomodachi. Japanese for ‘friend.’
“Ah. Thank you. I know you and Marty have been calling each other that since you were kids.”
Mitch gave her a polite nod, showed his pearly-whites. “Anyway, I’m just about done with an accelerated International Studies program, took 20 units this semester. It was a lot of work, but doable. I’ll graduate early, head off to D.C., hope to get a placement in Japan.”
Dad asked, “Mitch, did you go for a masters or a PhD?”
“Masters for now, Mr. Stevens. I might go for a doctorate later on, got plenty of time to decide. So, Marty, tell me about OCS.”
“First, you’ve got to read my orders. You’ll get a kick out of this. Mom, show Mitch my orders.”
He read. “You’re kidding! The USS Santa Cruz? Really?”
“Really. Cruiser, out of Long Beach.”
“West coast. That means you’ll be going to the Far East. Shoot, you’ll probably get to Japan before I will.”
“Yeah. I expect we’ll deploy late Spring, early Summer.”
“Cool. Wish I could go along for the ride. Can’t wait to see where my roots are planted. Anyhow, OCS?”
“Lots of marching, lots of overcooked high-carb institutional food. Our Company Chief assigned me as the section leader right off the bat. I was in charge of the 30 guys in our section, responsible for getting them together, march ‘em to the chow hall, then classes, back to the chow hall, more classes, like that. Most of it was just routine, classes in navigation, gunnery, seamanship, operations. Protocols. Navigation was a kick. Engineering, not so much. Those power plants are complicated!
“Had a swim challenge, had to jump off this twelve-foot platform fully dressed, swim the length of the pool and back, a couple hundred feet or so. Spent one day on the USS Buttercup–that’s a mock-up ship for damage control drills, has a big hole in the side. They flood the doggone thing, so we’re inside trying to block the hole with mattresses and sheets of plywood and 4x4s to keep from sinking. It actually works. That was a hard, wet day. Slept good that night.
“The BZ Trainer was cool. It’s a ship formation simulator.”
“S’cuse me, tomo. BZ?”
“Um, sorry. Bendix-Zenith, that’s who made it. Anyway, our ships are projected as white silhouettes a black screen, move around like the real thing. We each get a chance to be officer of the deck, you know, drive the ship, do formation exercises, try not to collide with other ships, avoid torpedoes. It was fun.
“Halfway through our training, we traded our white-hat sailor suits for midshipman uniforms, got more latitude for weekend liberty, got to wear civvies off base. One weekend, one of my roomies took me to his home in New York City, saw the Guggenheim, Greenwich Village. That was cool. On an earlier weekend, another roomie loaded up his car and took three of us to Cape Cod. Ha! Heard Patti Page sing Old Cape Cod on the radio right when we were in Nauset, that’s right at the elbow of the cape.”
“Tomo, sounds like it wasn’t all work and no play. I had visions of you trudging through the snow, chanting yo-ho-heave-ho on your way to class.”
“Well, there was plenty of that. I’m going back to finish Comm School on the 29th, then I fly to L.A. when that’s done, get myself to Long Beach and board the USS Santa Cruz.”
“Great. Anyway, Marty, I’ve got to get back home. Mom and Dad are taking me out for an early dinner. The Ideal, down at the wharf. Good to see you, let’s get together tomorrow or the next day.”
“Sounds good to me, Tomo. See you later.”
After Mitch left, Mom said, “I can tell you’re tired from your trip, Marty. Don’t feel obliged to entertain us. Go take a nap if you want to.”
“Mmm. Travel always beats me up. Thanks, Mom. That sounds good.”
Christmas Day was lovely. The night before, we went to a Christmas Eve service at Twin Lakes Church, rich with music and the celebration of Christ’s birth. Sitting next to my mother, I leaned over, whispered to her, “I missed this. We had chapel on Sunday mornings at OCS, but real church, this is different. Better. Really glad we did this, Mom.”
She leaned her head on my shoulder, patted my hand.
Christmas morning, Charlie showed up to help Mom bang and clang around in the kitchen, fixing turkey, mashing potatoes, and making gallons of gravy. These days, Charlie fancied himself as some sort of gourmet cook. When I walked into the kitchen in my robe and pjs, rubbing sleep from my eyes, he was up to his eyebrows in flour and cranberries, waving a ladle around like an orchestra conductor. Mom whacked the back of his head with an oven mitt. “My kitchen, my rules, kiddo. Get your ducks in a row.”
Charlie kissed her cheek. “Yes, Mother.” She whacked him again.
Gramma Grace and Grampa Vernon arrived around noon and I was more than glad to see them–they’d been so much a part of our lives, especially when Charlie and I were kids and Dad was fighting in the South Pacific. I knew they’d want to see me in my uniform. I was glad to oblige.
Our meal together was wonderful, more so because I was with my family. “Everything’s delicious, Mom. You’re still a great cook. Charlie, you’re not bad either.”
Because so many of my needs would now be met by Uncle Sam, everybody was stymied about what sort of gifts would be appropriate. They settled on money as the solution. I didn’t object, still owed some on my uniform bill, despite the generous allowance: bridge coat, dress blues, two sets of dress khakis, two sets of working khakis, dress whites, dress cap and covers, garrison cap, shoulder boards, collar bars, black shoes, brown shoes, and white shoes, not to mention all the accessories – not cheap. Had to buy a B4 flight bag, one of those giant foldover things with fat pouches on each side, to hold all my uniforms. Kept my beat-up Samsonite Two-Suiter for my civvies.
Got a great gift from Charlie, though. When he handed me a small box, I expected folded money, but no, it was the Sterling ID bracelet he’d worn during his Korean service, the same one Mom had given Dad on the eve of his departure to serve in WWII.
“Hey, Charlie. Thank you. This is terrific. Love it. Thanks for remembering this.”
“I had it engraved with your name, got it shined up. Engraving on the back is still the same.”
I turned it over, read, “I am with you always. Matthew 28:20.”
Dad smiled, said, “Do I detect a tear in your eye, son?”
“Of course not. I’m a naval officer. Here, just a minute, gotta get my handkerchief out.”
By the time the 29th rolled around, I made my farewells. Mitch was off to finish up at USF a couple of days earlier. I loaded my suitcase into my folks’ ‘58 two-tone red and white Buick Special and Dad ferried me back to SFO. At the United Air entrance, he pulled up, put the car in park. “I’ll just drop you off, son, no need for me go in. You know the drill.” He looked out the window, then back at me. His kind smile softened his steely-grey eyes. “Martin, I want you to know how very proud I am of you.”
Our eyes met. “Thanks, Dad. That means a lot.” He hardly ever called me Martin; that was my ‘serious’ name. He put his hand on my shoulder, dipped his head, caught my eyes with his. “A few last words before you go.”
I knew what was coming, smiled to myself. His squeeze on my shoulder was reassuring.
“Always remember, son. Never give up. Always do the right thing.”
“Family motto. Got it, Dad. And thanks.”
We hugged. I told him I loved him. He gave me a nod.
After I tugged my bag out of the trunk, I watched him drive away, felt freedom and emptiness all at the same time.
Anchors aweigh, kid.
An older woman decked out in a dress, hat and gloves pranced up, interrupted my reverie. “I say, can you tell me when your flight for New York leaves?”
“Pardon me, ma’am, but I’m not a pilot, just a naval officer. But I think you and I are on the same flight. It leaves at one.”
I picked up my suitcase.
“Come with me, I’ll help you get checked in.”