Eric Schuck - Home for Christmas

Buried in the console of my car is a 20-year old tape of Christmas music I picked up in college. Seeing as I haven’t owned a functioning cassette player for the better part of a decade, I’m not entirely sure why I still own it. Lack of tidiness, I suppose.

At least that’s what I tell myself. A more honest answer is that I love knowing it’s there, even if I can’t listen to the music. It’s a recording of a USO show from 1943 or 1944, and it features a (now very scratchy) recording of Bing Crosby crooning the then-new “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Even as I write, I can hear the background choir of a couple hundred homesick sailors singing along with Bing. It’s deeply moving.

For the longest time, that chorus held a third-person sort of melancholy for me. I could feel sympathy for the aching emotion carrying through their voices, but I could never really know how it felt.

But then, in Christmas 2010, I did. The previous spring, my Navy Reserve unit had been called up and sent to a thoroughly obscure camp on the edge of the Kuwaiti desert, keeping careful watch over the sometimes comings and mostly goings of military gear for Iraq. Ours was the war of the watchmen, guarding ports and harbors against threats that, mercifully, never came. It was lonely, tiring and, above all, boring. Massively, mind-bogglingly boring. In security, boring is, of course, a good thing, and writing “nothing significant to report” over and over again is markedly preferable to the alternative. I’m eternally grateful for boring.

Unfortunately, boring also brings its own special sort of misery, particularly during the holidays. So, for me, Christmas Eve passed into Christmas Day on an overnight watch, staring at computer screens and satellite displays that never changed. Not. Even. Once. When the watch was over, I headed back to the barracks and collapsed in my bunk. I was so exhausted I forgot to take off my pistol and woke up about an hour later with one boot still on and a holster-shaped bruise on my side — only to remember that, along with the other officers, I was due to serve Christmas brunch to our enlisted sailors. I shaved quickly, brushed my teeth and tried to make myself as presentable as 60 minutes of sleep could muster. Watching our sailors smile and laugh as they were diving into their smoked turkey — make no mistake, the U.S. military does a fantastic job on holiday meals — helped a little. I was genuinely happy for the troops, and they had certainly earned something special, but it couldn’t change the fact I was 7,000 miles from home and desperately missing my family. Boredom had become dejection.

Somewhere along the line, though, it all changed. Maybe it was opening presents from mail call or hanging stockings on body armor — yeah, we actually did — or listening to the camp choir sing Christmas carols. It doesn’t really matter.

All I know is that, eventually, all the officers wound up in the wardroom passing around food from care packages and watching “Christmas Vacation,” scrabbling together a bit of normalcy in the most awkward of circumstances. While we may not have been spending Christmas with our families, we found a way to share our families with one another and, for the briefest, sparest of instants, we felt home.

Which brings me full circle to my Bing Crosby cassette. For the longest time, I mistook the emotion in those sailors’ voices for tragedy, the sadness of young men far from home. Honestly, I felt pity for them.

I could not have been more wrong. They weren’t singing as a lament: they were singing as a declaration. They were homesick. They were lonely. They were tired. But so long as they could raise their voices together, as long as they could collectively capture the parts of the season that made them love what they missed and were missing, they could, in the realest sense of the words, be home for Christmas.

That knowledge has profoundly changed my sense of the holidays. For the fourth year in a row, my wife and I will wake up Christmas morning to the sound of our kids rustling through presents and the smell of coffee in the kitchen. That’s a truly wonderful thing.

Yet, for the rest of my days, part of my home at Christmas will be a sun-bleached barracks in a sand-blown desert, watching movies and sharing cookies, if only in my dreams.

Guest writer Eric Schuck is a professor of economics at Linfield College and a third-generation naval officer. He lives in McMinnville with his wife and three children. He has reached an age where Christmas is less about presents, and more about food and memories — well, especially the food. The views expressed are his own.



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