“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” – Bing Crosby
I never liked eggnog. As a young man, I hadn’t really developed the taste for it. Even though it was always around during the holidays in my family, it just wasn’t my thing.
That is until I spent my first Christmas deployed.
I was a junior officer stationed aboard the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee near the end of the Cold War. When we left port, we were gone for months at a time with very little personal contact with the outside world. On this particular patrol, our deployment included both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Strategic deterrence was a 24/7 business and these holidays were just another day for us to “keep the peace.”
I knew our Supply Officer had planned a special meal for Christmas and I understood our families had packed us small gifts to open but I remember thinking how strange it would be to be so far away from my family at this time of the year. I wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on one of the most powerful warships in the world.
About two weeks before Christmas, one of the officers put up Christmas lights around the wardroom. I was surprised by my emotional response to the multicolored lights. I was both excited and depressed at the thought of being deployed for Christmas. Excited to celebrate the holiday with all my shipmates and sad that I would not be with my family.
I had another emotion as well. I felt proud. I felt honored to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew our boat’s mission was important and necessary. I also knew I wanted to be here with my shipmates. Since our country’s founding, men and women of the military have stepped forward to protect America’s interests around the world. I was just another sailor in a long line of mariners who had come before me. It was my turn. I had the watch.
Christmas day was just like every other day at sea. I stood my six-hour watch in the engine room and then went to the mess decks to see what was going on. I was surprised to see the meal that was prepared for us. We had been at sea for well over a month and the meals had become somewhat routine and predictable but today was special. There was a variety of food and desserts being served which had been carefully stowed away and prepared for this occasion. The cooks even roasted an entire hog for the crew in the ship’s tiny galley. To this day, I’m still not sure how they pulled that off.
After our Christmas meal, the officers all met in the wardroom where we opened gifts from our families and talked about our Christmas traditions back home. We were a diverse group from all over the country and from every socioeconomic background. In a way, we represented all of America.
While we enjoyed apple and pumpkin pie that was almost as good as Grandma’s, the thing that really stood out was the eggnog. Our supply officer had managed to hide several cases of eggnog in our ship’s freezer for this occasion. At this point in our deployment, we had run out of fresh fruits and vegetables and the milk was long gone. We drank mostly coffee, water, “bug juice” (Kool-Aid) and an occasional soft drink that we had squirreled away in our personal lockers. The last thing we expected to see on this patrol was eggnog.
They say that the sense of smell is most closely linked to our memories. For me, the smell of eggnog was what brought me back home. When I closed my eyes and took in the spicy scent, I wasn’t in the middle of the Atlantic ocean some 500 feet below the ocean’s surface, I was home for Christmas. The aroma and flavor seemed to be the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. It tasted like home.
This Christmas, hundreds of men and women in our military will be deployed for Christmas. For most, this will be their first Christmas away from home. While each unit will do their best to make Christmas special, there is no substitute for being home for the holidays. Being deployed for Christmas is just another sacrifice our military men and women have to endure to keep our country free and safe.
I hope this Christmas, you will join me in raising a glass to our military and the sacrifices they make daily on our behalf. Our Christmas gift to them should be to never forget the importance of what they have done and what they continue to do for this country.
Photo: U.S. Navy released by Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet