Saturday, December 19, 2009

How the Grinch and the Chow Hall Saved Christmas

In December of 1990, we were stationed at an air base in Sardinia, Italy with the unlikely name of Decimomannu. Deci (pronounced Dechee) was a barely civilized place at the time and, since it was not an American base but a NATO base, the amenities left a lot to be desired. If you’re saying to yourself, “I never heard of Sardinia! Where the devil is that?” look at your atlas or globe, and it’s that weird-shaped island just to the left of Italy. There was no base housing, a commissary about the size of a 7-11 where the dairy products were usually expired and the meat always had freezer burn, a BX (base exchange) which carried some basic necessities, but stocked no undies whatsoever for women, only socks, underwear and t-shirts for men, and one flight surgeon with one med tech. Our kids were bused to a school a harrowing 45-minute drive away, which we shared with the small group of Germans and Brits who were also stationed there.

Since there was no base housing, we lived in an apartment in a village about 20 minutes away from the base. The place was huge, with wonderful (and slippery) marble steps outside, gorgeous tile floors throughout, and two balconies. But, it did have its drawbacks. The kitchen was very small, almost an afterthought, and the pint-size stove/oven ran on bottled gas. Oh, and there was no hot water in the kitchen. I didn’t discover that until after we had moved in. Who knew that was something I needed to ask about? And forget about air conditioners or furnaces. No such critters.

I should probably also mention this was a few years before everyone had a computer, e-mail, web cams, and cell phones. Not that computers would have made any difference, because Sardinia was barely on the grid. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we didn’t even have land line phones there. We were allowed to go to the base for one 10-minute morale call every Sunday afternoon. More often than not though that call was an exercise in futility and hair-pulling frustration, because of the static and feedback on the line.

Anyway, in early December of 1990, Saddam Hussein was acting stupidly, and everyone was on pins and needles. We got one English-speaking channel on the television, AFN, and they were running CNN coverage 24/7. No one was getting leave for Christmas, because orders to deploy could come down at any moment. In short, we weren’t having much fun and Christmas was not looking good.

In the midst of all this, it occurred to me that there were several young, single airmen who would be left to their own lonely devices for Christmas. The chow hall on base was going to put on the traditional feast, but that seemed cold and joyless. So, without much thought, one day I approached my husband and heard myself blurt out, “We should invite those kids over here for Christmas. We have the room.” So, he made up a notice, posted it on base, and then proceeded to invite well, pretty much everyone. I immediately started laying in supplies by making friends with the commissary manager and knowing exactly when the trucks would be coming in with new shipments. I did pretty well. The only things I had to get my mother to send me were almond bark and lemon jello. And the countdown was on.

Three days before Christmas I was a whirling dervish making pies, cookies, cakes, and side dishes, and throwing Christmas lights at everything that was standing still. Oh, yeah, Sardinians don’t do Christmas trees. At this point I was feeling pretty good and thinking Martha Stewart could just kiss my moon pies, cause she’s got nothin’ on me. I had no idea how many people were coming, but I was determined to have enough food.

Christmas Day I was up at 4:00am slicing, dicing, miceing, baking, mashing, stirring, and putting out napkins, plates, silverware, glasses, and cups. By 11:00, I was beginning to wonder if anyone was going to show up for this shindig and getting a mite nervous about what I was going to do with all this food if they didn’t.

Then, it happened. The door buzzer started going off and guys and gals started streaming in faster than we could greet them. We finally just left the door open, so we wouldn’t have to keep running back and forth. They were everywhere – in the dining room, in the living room, in the kitchen, in the hall, on both the front and back balconies. Of course, then I started to worry that I wouldn’t have enough food for this crew, and I started to panic.

Suddenly, I heard someone yell, “Hey, the guys from the chow hall are here with food!” Turns out practically no one showed up at the chow hall, and they started asking around trying to find out where everyone was. When they were told everyone was at our house, the entire chow hall crew loaded up the food, some tables, sterno cans, warming trays and stands, and headed over. They even brought dishes and silverware. Thankfully, our hallway was wide enough to line the tables up along the walls, because every other surface either had food perched on it or a person draped over it. It was a madhouse. The control freak that lurks inside me looked around, shook its head, admitted defeat, and surrendered to the chaos.

After the initial feeding frenzy was over and things were starting to calm down, I sensed there might be a dangerous, party-killing lull coming on, and I decided it was time to bring out what I hoped was The Secret Weapon. Having been warned before we left the States by our sponsor family that there was no television worth watching, and movies were in very short supply, I had been a taping fool for months and had a ginormous stash. In that treasure trove I had two tapes full of Christmas programs and movies, and I was hoping that at least some of these kids would want to watch them. So, I walked into the living room and announced that I had “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on tape, if anyone was interested. I never could have predicted the response that one sentence would get. Most of those kids were 18-21 but, in that moment, they were all six-year-olds with bright and shining faces saying, “Oh, please, can we watch it now?!” That’s probably the only standing ovation I’ll get in my lifetime. They squeezed onto the couch, dragged in chairs, sat on the floor, and a couple even stood because there was no place else to be. And they laughed just as loudly as our 9-year-old who was squeezed in among them. I have to say watching them watching The Grinch was 100 times more fun than watching The Grinch.

We actually had two Christmas Days that year. There was so much food left over they all came back the next day to finish it off and watch more Christmas programs. And, for that brief time, the sadness of being away from our families and the uncertainty of what lay ahead for all of us were completely forgotten. It’s a magic moment in time that is crystallized in my memory. I will always think of it as one of my favorite Christmases, and I hope they do too.

Merry Grinchmas and Merry Christmas everyone!


Renagade said...

Sounds like a Christmas I guarentee everyone that you welcomed into your home still carries in their hearts ...

Bless you ... you have flooded my heart and mind of Christmases that I have experenced in the past that I really needed to remember.
The true meaning of Christmas is the magic that happens from the love and generousity from angels like you

2woofers said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. It's good to have reminders of what Christmas is supposed to be about

Randy Watson said...

Merry Christmas and God Bless America and all the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines everywhere!

Janice said...

Wow, sounds like the best Christmas ever. You always do such wonderful things. I think you're an Angel in disguise. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year! I'm sure Santa will be very good to you!