Holiday Reflections

By K. Corris-Seale

Despite the lack of snow, the Christmas decorations in Santa Barbara were breathtaking.  Being from Rhode Island, Lee had grown up with plenty of snow around him in the winter time.  And plenty of frigid cold temperatures too, something he definitely did not miss out here.   He preferred doing his Christmas shopping in person, online was too cold and impersonal for him.   You could share in the Christmas spirit more this way.   He enjoyed the store window displays, hearing the Christmas music playing everywhere, seeing the gaily wrapped packages people carried out of the stores.   He even enjoyed the shopping, trying to decide on the perfect gift for each person.  They were only token gifts anyway, the people he gave gifts to already had everything they needed and the money to buy everything they wanted.   He’d already sent donations to each of their favorite charities in their names, but he enjoyed having a little something physical to wrap up and put under his tree for them.  He believed he was one of the last people in Santa Barbara to insist on having a real, live Scotch Pine Christmas tree each year.  The smell reminded him of his childhood Christmases, even if he couldn’t have the snow.   The orphanage he had grown up in always had a small tree donated to them, along with food, hats, scarves, and mittens for the boys.  He had beautiful decorations all over his little seaside cottage, inside and out.  Admiral Nelson commented on them every year, said how he loved going there, and got such a warm, old fashioned holiday feeling. 

Lee usually had a quiet little Christmas Eve dinner for the command crew and any one of the officers without other plans.  Kowalski and Patterson, Seaview’s two long standing first mates, both plank holders as was Chip Morton, were also invited.  Most of the time Patterson begged off, too much to do for his family on Christmas Eve, but Lee made sure he always knew he was welcome.   The big day itself was spent at the Admiral’s house, for any Seaview personnel who had nowhere else to go.  An incredible filet mignon dinner with all the trimmings, songs of the season playing in the background, many wrapped gifts under the huge tree.  Rank was forgotten and spirits were flowing.  It seemed the Admiral had some of every liquor and beer that was made.   And, oh my, the desserts!

Kowalski and Paterson.  Lee thought of them as officers simply because there was no doubt in his mind that there wasn’t anything on the boat either of them could not do.  Lee would never forget the time they left a foreign port where several members of the crew, including most of the command crew, had caught an unusually virulent strain of flu while in port.  Within a few days the entire crew either had it or was getting it.  Jamie was going crazy trying to take care of everyone until he collapsed himself from it.   Lee tried to fight it off; he hadn’t even left the boat but had gotten it anyway.  They were on too tight a schedule for Lee to do what he wanted, put the boat on the bottom and leave her there until some of the crew recovered.   The Admiral and Chip couldn’t get three feet from their heads, and pretty soon Lee was just that bad.  He was trying to stand watch in the Control Room, between running to the head every few minutes and burning up with fever, when he was so overcome with dizziness he knew he had to lie down before he fell down.  There was only him, the sonar man, and the helmsman in the control room at that time trying to run the boat.   They were running submerged so they were a little bit safer.  Just as he thought he was about to pass out, Kowalski, still looking like death warmed over himself,  came back on duty and asked the Captain where he was needed most.  “Right here, ‘Ski.  I know you have never been in command, but I have to lay down for a while.  I’ll be right over there in the observation nose, just wake me if there is a problem.”  With that, Lee fell into a deep sleep, waking up four hours later and actually feeling a little bit better.  He’d only meant to doze for about 15 minutes!  Kowalski was still there, had handled what few problems that came up without a problem, and actually seemed to be enjoying himself.  Lee went down to his cabin, took a quick shower and put on a clean uniform, stopped at the galley and made a cup of tea for himself.  Apparently, judging by the few poor souls there looking just miserable, Cookie was still down and everyone was fending for themselves, at least the ones who were finally getting a little bit of an appetite back.  He went back down to the control room and found the Admiral, standing in his bathrobe and white as a ghost, talking to ‘Ski.  I’m dead, I left the boat in the command of the first mate.  Harry’s going to kill me!  But Harry was just relieved that they were still on course and were still going to make their ETA.  He understood what Lee had done and why, and thanked him for it.  He knew Lee was as sick as he was, yet the Captain had somehow stayed in command most of the time.   He even told Lee that as long as ‘Ski felt he could continue, Lee should just go lie back down.  So after the Admiral had gone back to his cabin, Lee went back to the nose, had his tea, pulled the blanket over himself, and was out like a light.   When he woke up again a few hours later and looked over at the chart table, Chip was standing there and ‘Ski was back at his sonar post, and Patterson was on hydrophones.  The crisis was passing.    And if it hadn’t been for ‘Ski, Lee would have had to bottom the boat and cancel the mission.  

Every year there was a family Christmas Party for all the Institute employees and their families.   The Admiral didn’t skimp.  On top of the $200.00 dollar Christmas bonus each employee had already received, there was a beautiful gift for each child that matched their age perfectly.  Different employees took turns playing Santa.   Each family had received a personally signed card from him, with a handwritten message thanking them for their hard work and dedication, and the card contained a gift card for the local supermarket for $100.00, so their Christmas dinner would be taken care of.   All of this came out of the Admiral’s own pocket, no expense to the Institute.  Admiral Nelson himself was the main reason his employees were so dedicated and loyal.  He truly cared about each and every one of them, no matter how little he interacted with them in the course of business each day.   The party was usually around the 22nd of December, and after the party he closed down the Institute until right after the beginning of the New Year so his employees could enjoy their families and the holiday.  He was aware that not all of his employees celebrated the day, but so far it had not been a problem.  They still were welcome to come to the party, got their bonus and a gift card, the time off.   And they were certainly allowed to take off any time they wanted for their own religious observance or celebrations. 

Lee loved seeing this side of the man who meant so very much to him.  As their CO, Nelson could, when necessary, be every bit the tough four star Admiral he was.  Lee would always smile inside when he saw a new crewman tremble at meeting the great Admiral for the first time.  Little by little, they would relax as they got to know the real man, the kind hearted humanitarian that was behind those four stars.

Nelson had been successful almost every year in keeping Seaview in home port for the holidays.   And fate had favored them; only once had there been a mission during the holiday time.  But with only the barest of a skeleton crew available if there were one, they probably would have to pass any problem on to the active Navy.   It was also a good way to occasionally remind the powers that be that Seaview was privately owned and operated, a resource belonging to the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, not at everyone’s beck and call, although Admiral Johnson of ONI certainly felt like he had some kind of dibs on her when need be.        

The Institute itself had a huge wreath hanging over the main entrance, small ones over the other entrances, and medium sized ones on the fronts of the other buildings that made up the NIMR campus.  Giant Nutcracker soldiers stood at attention at each corner of the main building. Giant green pine garlands dotted with red bows wrapped their way merrily around the buildings, hanging and dipping just a few feet down from the rooftops, electric bulbs hidden inside them gave a festive glow to the buildings at night.   A well decorated tree stood in the lobby, across from the life size manger scene.   Each department had their own decorations up as well.  Lee had a surprise and a good laugh when he walked into his office yesterday morning.  In a conversation with Paterson a few days before, the Captain had jokingly bemoaned Santa Barbara’s lack of snow, even at Christmas time.  Pat’s two daughters attended the on-site day care center for Institute employees.  After Pat had a talk with one of the workers and then supplied a pack of computer paper, all the children who were old enough were taught how to fold the paper and cut out snowflakes, which were then strung together.  After Lee had left for the day, the Admiral had let Paterson and Kowalski into their Captain’s office.  He was absolutely shocked when he opened his office door.  There were snowflakes hanging everywhere, from everything, they were even in his head!   He found a card on his desk, signed by all the children and workers, saying ‘Merry Christmas Captain Crane!  We made you what you wanted most for Christmas.  Snow!’   He was so touched he was actually close to tears when he read it.  This little thoughtful gesture was what Christmas was all about.   And it had come from innocent little children.  During his mid-morning break he went over and thanked all of them, commenting on their skill and creativity.  But he also had another way of thanking them forming in the back of his mind. 

He paused as he passed a menswear store.  In the window a mannequin was wearing a slate blue cashmere cardigan, V-neck button down with mahogany wooden buttons, oval, rust colored suede patches on the elbows.  The coloring matched Harry’s auburn hair and his blue eyes perfectly.  It looked so comfortable yet stylish.  He came out of the store fifteen minutes later, carrying a bright red wrapped package with a gold ribbon and bow.  Ok, one gift off the list.

He started down the street, when some little voice told him to cross over.  Further down the same street, he came to a Christian book store that was packed with customers.  A painting in the window caught his eye.  A doctor was sitting at his desk, talking to a man sitting next to the desk.   The other man was Jesus Christ, the painting was called “The Great Healer”.   There was a manila folder on the doctor’s desk, his mouth was open and his arms raised, it was if he was trying desperately to explain to or seek advice from the Lord about a certain patient.  Jesus sat calmly, legs crossed and hands folded in his lap, a twinkle in his loving eyes and a small smile on his lips.  His expression seemed to say he knew exactly what the doctor was going to say next.  This would be the perfect gift for Jamie, whose father had been a chaplain in the Navy.  Most people didn’t realize how devout the good doctor was; he pretty much kept it to himself.  But Lee had spent enough days and nights in Sick Bay to have not seen Jamie reading quite often from his Bible.  And he had a terrific idea how to personalize this painting. He bought it, and they graciously agreed to hold it for him until he could come back with his car later in the evening. A few minutes later and it was two down, one to go.

As close as he was to Chip, it seemed strange he always had such a difficult time buying a gift for him.  Of course Chip would like anything Lee gave him; Lee knew his tastes so well.  But he wanted to give him something special, not just another common everyday gift.  Something from his heart.  He knew without a doubt that he would never be the man he was today if it wasn’t for Chip and his family.  He’d had miraculously gotten into Annapolis almost directly from 17 years of growing up in an orphanage for boys.  He’d had no family life whatsoever, and so was rough enough around the edges to actually be called crude.  He was a good person, he’d taught himself good moral and values, but he needed some polishing, how to act in situations he had never experienced.  Everyday manners, dinner table etiquette, knock off the swearing and spitting around the ladies and children, how to be a gentleman around women.  Things like that.  Fortunately, Chip’s father just took Lee under his wing and made a new man out of the lonely boy, and Lee was forever grateful.   The Morton’s took him in as one of their own, and whenever he went home with Chip to visit them, he truly felt like he was going home to his own family.  Chip was more like a brother to him than a best friend.   One night when they had been celebrating at a wetting down for one of their former classmates, Lee had gotten drunk enough to tell Chip how very much it bothered him whenever Chip called him ‘Sir’.  He knew Chip had to do it, naval protocol and setting a good example in front of the crew. But in his heart, he felt he didn’t deserve it or want it.   After all he had done for him, Lee felt he should be calling Chip ‘Sir’.  He had earned it, and such was Lee’s respect for him.

Well, he was getting hungry.  He’d get a bite to eat, and if he still couldn’t figure out what to get Chip, he would just walk back to his car and then drive back and pick the painting up, call it a day.  He still had a bit of time.            

Every year, he had gotten one big gift for all the crew.  He’d given them a VCR for the lounge, complete with a couple dozen movies, action, thriller, sci-fi, and of course all of his favorite classic submarine tales.     Another year, he’d given them an X-Box with one of every game that went with it when it first came out, and extra controllers.    He’d gotten them portable basketball nets and balls to set up in the cargo hold when room permitted.  This year, he’d ordered a pool table that when you flipped it over, it became a ping pong table, complete with nets, paddles, balls, cue sticks, and triangles.   He and Chip had spent many fun filled hours on the basketball court at Annapolis, and occasionally still enjoyed a little off duty one on one when the baskets were set up and duty allowed.  He knew they would try out the pool and ping pong table as well

Ok, back to Chip.  Let’s see.  He’s into computers, jeeps, horses . . .  horses.  Lee would never forget that time.  He’d never even seen a real live horse before let alone rode one.   But Chip talked him into trying it when they went home on summer vacation to his family’s ranch.  Lee was sitting in the saddle, listening intently to Chip’s directions on how to hold the reins, when suddenly a car backfired.  And the horse was off!   Lee hung on for dear life, his long legs tightly wrapped around the horse’s belly, his arms clenched around the horse’s throat with his chest and head pressed firmly down against the horse’s long neck.  The horse ran and ran and ran, as fast as he could, going around in huge circles.   A few minutes later a terrified Lee realized another horse was coming up alongside them.  Chip caught up and grabbed the horse’s bridal and pretty soon brought him to a stop.  Lee fell off the horse, right onto his butt, jumped up and ran back to the house.  And he has never been on another horse again, to this day, not in all these years.  And he never would be. Who names a horse ‘Skyrocket’ anyway?

He took a few gulps of the ice cold beer the waiter had just put down before taking his order.  He looked around at all the other patrons, so many of them obviously taking a break from their shopping as he was doing.   So many of them couples and families.   He wondered, certainly not for the first time, whether he would ever have a family.  Most of the time he was too preoccupied to dwell on it, but at this time of year, when the focus was on family and loved ones, he felt it more.   He wasn’t getting any younger.  So many of the Navy men he knew were bachelors, making their career their whole life.   Nelson seemed content with his submarine and his marine biology passion.  He was probably way past the time to want to start a family anyway.  Both Lee and Chip dated, but it was difficult to maintain a long term relationship when you were gone so much.  Lee had been with a beautiful model, Bridgette, for over a year before they finally called it quits, mutually.  When he was in port, she was on location, when she was home, he was at sea.  But they were still good friends, and occasionally had dinner or enjoyed a movie together.   Maybe more. Chip’s romantic life was pretty much the same story, except he had his parents on his back.  They not only wanted more grandchildren, but since his brother died when they were teenagers, he was the only son left, the only one to carry on the Morton name.   This meant not only marriage, but producing a male heir.    Lee had always believed that if he could find a woman whose life wouldn’t be centered around him, someone who had her own interests to keep her occupied while he was at sea, a relationship might work.  But it sure hadn’t worked that way with him and Bridgette.  Chip had dated a physical therapist with her own practice that kept her busy, but she didn’t want an exclusive relationship.  She continued to date other men while he was at sea, and he never knew what he was going to find when he got home.  He got tired of it and ended it.  Oh well.  They were both still pretty young, not over the hill just yet.  Neither one had trouble getting a date, so there was hope the right ladies may come along yet.     

The waitress brought his chicken Caesar salad and broccoli cheese soup, and another cold beer.   The food was good, but his mind was still on Chip, or more accurately, what to get him.   Of course there was always the old standby, a shirt or sweater. But what was so special about that?  This was his best friend, for goodness sakes.   Lee finished his meal and gulped down the rest of his beer, and soon was on his way.

He took the long way back to his car, looking in all the store windows, but couldn’t find any inspiration.  Well, he still had time.  He picked up the painting and headed home.  For some reason on the ride home, he started thinking about his first Christmas at the Academy.  He intended to spend it alone, no family to share it with, not even any of the other boys he’d grown up with at the orphanage, not that he was close with any of them.   Then his roommate, one Charles Phillip Morton, insisted he come home with him to Kansas.   It almost turned into a fight.  While he was certainly curious as to how a real family spent Christmas together, Lee not only felt he would be imposing, but the other reason was that he and Chip hadn’t been getting along too well.  They were from two different worlds, had nothing in common except a love of the ocean and boats, and Lee just felt he would be too out of place.  He was also aware he didn’t know how to behave properly in front of someone’s parents.  But then Chip told him it was too late, the Morton’s had already bought his plane ticket and that was that.   Lee stormed out of the dorm room, even then not liking other people making his decisions for him, but he did calm down, and the more he thought about it, the more he started looking forward to it, even if it was only out of curiosity. 

Like all the other boys at the orphanage, Lee had always dreamed of being adopted, and even had his own idea as to what the perfect family would be like.  And the Mortons were pretty close to it.  Not only were they a close knit, loving family, but just by being themselves, they managed to make him feel like he had always been part of their family.   And even after all these years, his feelings for them only grew stronger.  He would never forget the gift they gave him that first Christmas.  It was a beautiful burnished leather 2- piece travel set, a grooming bag with all the tools that fit right into the larger overnight bag.  It was the very first gift he had received in his life that was specifically for him, not donated to the orphanage for any boy to receive.  That was 17 years ago, and he still had it.  He hadn’t been able to use it for the last few years, it was too worn out, but he would never throw it away.  And he even still had the card that went with it.   Well, he knew Chip didn’t need one of those.  Lee had given him a new set two Christmases ago. 

He got home and brought the painting in, and put the Admiral’s gift under his tree.   Then he laid the painting down on his table and got out his fine line black magic marker.   He had seen Jamie’s file on him many times.  He set about to write ‘Crane, Lee B., Captain’ on the top of the manila folder laying on the doctor’s desk in the painting, making it look exactly like his real file.   He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was Jamie’s worst patient; it certainly wasn’t farfetched to believe it was Lee that Jamie was complaining to the Lord about.  Then he pulled out his NIMR ID badge, and drew a miniature of it clipped to the Doctor’s front top lab coat pocket, making wavy lines for all the information except the name, where Lee carefully printed ‘Lt. Cmdr. William A. Jamieson, MD’.   He thought about adding ‘NIMR’ on the line after it, but Jamie might not always be working there.  He would leave his name on the folder though, he was certain Jamie would never have another patient as exasperating as he was.   He toyed with trying to make the doctor’s facial features resemble Jamie’s, but figured he better quit while he was ahead.  Maybe he could white out some of the doctor’s hair in the painting?

While that dried, he got onto his computer and researched snow making machines.  He wanted to give the children in the Day Care Center a special treat, real snow. He knew a lot of them had never experienced it.  He would have to run it past the teachers there, but first he wanted to see what was involved, be sure it was feasible.   He called several of the places listed, got prices and what was involved.   Looked like it was doable, but they all warned him that they were in high demand for the holiday; he had to make his mind up fast.  So he picked the nearest one and left a deposit, telling them he would make it definite tomorrow. 

Okay, another beer while he wrote out some late cards and then it was time for bed.  And he still hadn’t the foggiest idea what to get Chip. 

The next morning found him at the Day Care Center early before he went to his own office.  He took the Director aside and explained his idea.  Would they let him do it?  The women called in several of the teachers, and they all thought it would be a wonderful Christmas treat.    They would have to send notices home to the parent’s, make sure the kids came in that day dressed properly for the event.  The center was closing early for the holiday on the day of the Christmas Party, so they thought that would be a good time to do it, if the kids got wet or cold they would be going home soon anyway.  Letters were quickly made up and sent home with each child that day.  When Lee got to his office, he called to confirm the arrangements.  He was even getting excited himself!

At lunch that day in the NIMR cafeteria, he told the Admiral and Chip what he was doing.   Both wanted to be involved with it, helping the children make snowmen, having snowball fights, maybe making snow angels.  “Yeah Chip, and who is going to teach you how to make a snowman?  You told me Kansas only had ice storms and scant snowfalls that melted the next day.  And I thought I had a deprived childhoodl!”  The conversation turned to the first time Chip had seen heavy snow. It was the first winter at Annapolis.  It didn’t snow there often, but one time that year, by some fluke of nature it sure did.   Growing up in Rhode Island, Lee was plenty use to snow,  especially when it came to snowball fights with the other boys.  He was merciless, and soon was targeting all of his experience on poor Chip.  But Chip caught on fast, and they had the time of their lives until the snow melted.   That snowball fight was an ice breaker, they seemed to be a bit closer after that, and it helped to make them feel more comfortable and at ease with each other when they flew to Kansas a few days later for Christmas.

After work he went to the supermarket to get most of what he needed for Christmas Eve dinner, perishables would wait, and then he headed for the liquor store.    He got beer, whiskey for his Christmas eggnog, and selected a couple of bottles of fine wine for whoever wanted it with dinner, and 10 bottles of good liquor, 3 whiskey, 4 scotch, and 3 vodka to give out to any officers that showed up for Christmas Eve dinner.  He headed back to the front of the store when he was detoured from the aisle he intended to go down by a stockboy refilling the shelves.  He had to take the next aisle over, and was glad he did.  Chip’s favorite liquor was rye whiskey, and his favorite flavor, almost to the point of being an obsession, was maple.  There on the shelf was a ‘New Item’, a beautiful glass bottle in the shape of a maple leaf, and in it, a Canadian Rye Maple Whiskey.  Chip would love this!  The perfect gift!  He couldn’t wait to try some too!  He paid for his purchases, feeling very proud of himself.  And relieved.  Ok, he was done.  No, wait! Damn!  He almost forgot the ladies at the office.  The three of them, Angie, Katie, and Trish.  He bought gifts for them every year, how could he have forgotten them? 

Well, he had food in the car. He would have to go home first and put it away, and then head back out.   He usually got them all the same things, maybe in different colors or styles, so there would be no hurt feelings.  They had all loved the designer leather pocketbooks he had gotten them last year, each one a little different.

He parked a distance away and started walking toward the stores.  He hadn’t gone far when a sign in a window caught his eye.  It wasn’t a store, looked like maybe some kind of high class beauty salon.  He read the sign again.  ‘Thank her for making the Holiday so wonderful with a day for herself at the Spa.  Holiday Special’.  He went in and found out all he needed to know and purchased three gift certificates.   Then he went back in and bought two more.   He had suddenly remembered the Admiral’s sister Edith was joining them for Christmas.  And he wanted to do something nice for Mrs. Brady, Harry’s housekeeper, as she was the one doing all the cooking and baking for their Christmas dinner, same as she did every year.  Chip and Lee always insisted on doing the dishes while she finished cleaning up and served the dessert, but this year he wanted to do more for her.  Ok, I’m done now, I’m sure of it.  

Today was the day before the Christmas Party.  So much to be done, even with the Christmas Committee so on top of everything.   And he had to remember on the way home tonight to swing by and pick up the Snow-for-U machine.   He had planned his day out to the minute, but then the Admiral called him.  “Lee, I’m sorry to ask you this, please let me know if you can’t do it, but Edith got an earlier flight, and I’ll still be in a video conference with Washington when she lands.  Can I impose on you to please pick her up and bring her to my house?   It’s all right if you can’t, I can get someone from Security to do it, but you know how she gets.”

Lee did indeed know how one Edith Louise Nelson could get, that’s why he always gave her a wide berth, and went the other way when he saw her coming.  But what was he going to say?  This was his CO’s little sister. His spoiled, temperamental little sister, who had her big brother wound tightly around her little finger.

“No problem Harry, I’d be glad to pick her up.  What’s the airlines, eta, flight and gate #?’     Grr-rr-rr.  Ok Lee, remember it is Christmas. And every Christmas had to have at least one difficult relative to put up with.  Fortunately, all went well,but Edith seemed a bit subdued, it was a long flight.  He dropped her and her twelve bags off at the Admiral’s house.  

Early the next morning found him outside the Day Care Center, in the yard near where they had the playground amusements.   It was still a couple of hours before the kids started to arrive. He had no trouble starting the machine up, and soon it was spurting out snow all over, nice, clean, white, cold snow.  He stood there watching as everything got covered, hoping it wouldn’t melt before the kids got a chance to play in it.  Maybe he should have waited a little bit longer to start it up.  Well, the weather forecast didn’t call for it to be too hot today.

Lee left the machine running while he ran over to the Administration building.  Checked his email, did some paperwork, went over the few things left on the list of his responsibilities for the party tonight.  No one really got a lot of work done on the day of the Christmas Party, they were in too much of a festive mood.   Tomorrow, after he recuperated, he would get the rest of his groceries for Christmas Eve dinner.   It would be a small crowd this year; that was fine, more intimate.   He was happy Jamie was going to be there, the doctor spent alternate Christmases with his daughter and her family in Florida, the holidays that were in between the ones she spent with her husband’s family down in the Florida Keys.   They used the same arrangement for Thanksgiving.  So he was home here in Santa Barbara every other year.   They usually came west sometime during the summer for a couple of weeks, and Jamie would take off to spoil his grandchildren.  Even after all of these years of being a widower, he still missed his lovely wife, Julie.  He’d dated a few times, then gave it up.  It wasn’t fair to the women he went out with, he knew there would be no relationship in the future, it was giving them false hope and wasting their time.  And it had nothing to do with being at sea so much like it did with Lee and Chip.  He would just be forever hopelessly in love with his Julie.   He even talked to her all the time, like she was sitting right next to him.  Well, all the time when he was alone anyway.

Lee looked down at his watch.  Wow, that hour went fast.  Time to get back over there, the kids would start coming soon and he wanted to be there.   But first, he had to change his clothes and put his boots on, and his waterproof gloves.  You needed them to make good snowballs.  He also brought one of his old scarves from the box in the back of his closet shelf, a handful of beer caps he had in a pile for the recylcling pick up at home, and some pebbles from his driveway.     

Wow!  He was truly impressed.   The entire area behind the day care center looked like a winter wonderland.   Snow was everywhere, several inches of it, and none of it seemed to be melting yet.  He took a deep breath, and . . . man, it even smelled like snow!  This was great!  He couldn’t wait to build a snowman, and he was going to throw his first snowball at Chip!  He felt like a kid again!  Lee went back inside to wait for the children. 

As far as he knew, none of the kids had been told what the surprise was that Captain Crane had for them.   He worried that some of them might be disappointed, might be expecting a big, fancy wrapped gift.  He knew how spoiled some kids were these days. And a lot of them went on ski weekends with their parents, so snow wouldn’t be new to them.  But he was also worried that maybe it was just the sentimentality of his childhood memories, some of the only happy memories he had from that time that was making him feel like this was a big deal.   Some of today’s kids would rather be inside playing video games than be outside getting fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.    A different generation, different ideas.  Who was he to judge?  But if he ever had kids . . .

Well, the kids started arriving and soon they were all there, no one had looked out the back windows yet.  The teacher called everyone to keep their coats and hats on and be quiet, listen to Captain Crane.  Lee explained he had been so happy with the snow they had made for him the other day, that he wanted them to see what real snow looked and felt like, and what they could do with it, how they could play and have fun  in it.  He then nodded to the Director, who nodded back, letting Lee know they were ready outside.  One of the teachers had set up a camcorder and was recording the whole thing.  “Ok, everyone put their gloves on!”  One small boy raised his hand and asked, “Captain Crane, there aren’t any buses outside.  How are you going to take us to the North Pole if there aren’t any buses?  Are we going to fly?”

Lee smiled, trying not to laugh at the child’s innocence.  “No son, we aren’t going anywhere, I asked the snow to come to us so you kids could have some fun right here!  Let’s go, follow me!”   With that Lee led the way out the back door, surprised to see both Chip and the Admiral already there, both grinning, then he turned and watched the expressions on the precious little faces as they marched out one by one.   Some of the parents had stayed for a bit to have a look as well.  

The children’s first reaction was pure shock, to see their playground and amusements all covered in white, then they looked around, stamping their feet down and then scooping snow up with their hands and throwing it in the air.  Loud squeals of delight pierced the morning air.  While they played, Lee took a minute to make two big, round, well packed snowballs.   As soon as the first one hit Chip, the Admiral turned, gave Lee a look that clearly said ‘Don’t you dare!’, but it was too late, the second snowball was already on its way.  The following look he gave Lee was just as clear, ‘I’ll get you later!”

 After a half hour of just plain going crazy, rolling in it, putting it on their heads,  sticking their tongues out, and laughing their heads off all the while, they finally started to calm down a little bit.  So far, no one had spied the machine sitting high atop the sliding board.   They split the kids up into small groups, and started making snowmen.  It was going to be a competition, whose group could make the best snowman.  When Lee’s group finished, he pulled off his old scarf and wrapped in around the neck, pushed bottle caps in for the eyes, and made a smiling mouth out of the pebbles.    No carrot nose or branches for arms.  He looked around at the other snowmen, Chip and Harry’s teams.  Harry obviously had a lot more snowman making experience than Chip, growing up in Boston.  He had done the same thing as Lee, started with little snowballs, rolling them on the ground in the snow to make three different size balls, putting the medium one on top of the large one, and the small one on top for the head.   Chip had scraped snow into a pile and sculpted it into a mound that was flat on the bottom, then put snow on top of that and did the same, and then did it that way for the head as well.  It was different, but it was still a snowman.  He put two quarters in for eyes (Chip always had change, a result of his many trips to the snack vending machines), packed snow into his black gloves and shoved them into the sides for no armed hands,  then took off his black tie and forced the clip into the snow.  He went inside for a minute, then came back out with a small empty black box from the trash and put it on top of the head.   He stood back and looked at it, decided it still needed something, then turned around away from everyone, he opened his coat and whipped off his belt, then put it around the middle ball.  With the black hat, tie, gloves, and belt against the white snow, it actually made a pretty classy snowman.   Then he looked at Harry’s snowman, so afraid he was going to see a cigarette stuck out of the face.   But no, the Admiral had come prepared.  No eyes, but a diving mask was stuck into the face, a snorkel stuck into where the mouth would be, diving flippers were put at the bottom as feet, and a couple of tied together empty cardboard paper towel tubes were held onto the back with twist ties, representing air tanks.  The final touch was a diving weight belt with the weights removed wrapped around the middle.   Ok Admiral, you win.

And he did.  Everyone chose the diving snowman as their favorite, not out of respect for the Admiral but because diving was so commonplace living in California, and because it was so comical.  Chip’s snowman came in second.  They each stood next to their snowmen with their teams while pictures were taken.    It was hard to believe they had been out there all morning, but soon it was time for the kids to have their lunch so they were all ushered back inside, amidst very loud protests.  Lee was just about to disconnect the machine when the first one hit him.  Knowing what it was right away, he was smart enough not to turn around until the barrage of snowballs slowed down. Then he quickly ducked to the other side of the sliding board and mounted his defense.   This may be two against one, but he’d been making and throwing snowballs a lot longer than Chip, and he was 15 years younger than the Admiral.  And he had one hell of a pitching arm.    He could pitch with one hand while the other one was busy making another snowball.   He got the Admiral down first, and then concentrated on Chip before Harry could get back up.  And there were no structures for Chip to hide behind, like he was doing at the slide.  Twice he knocked a newly made snowball out of Chip’s hand before he could throw it.   Once he got Chip down, he quickly made several snowballs and cradled them in his arm, then made his advance on Chip hurling one ball after the other in such speedy succession Chip didn’t have a chance to make even one.  He was too busy hunched over protecting himself.  Or so Lee thought.  Just as Lee got near him, the Admiral used the same strategy on him, then Chip turned and slammed one huge snowball right over Lee’s head that he had been busy making while he was hunched over.  He was down, Chip and Harry laughing over his prone body, and the snow all over his head.   Gee, he’d lost the Snowman Contest and the snowball fight!

 Ok, time to clean up and get to their offices.  They each still had to go home to change and then be back here early for the party.   But first, as Chip’s stomach loudly reminded everyone, it was lunchtime!

As the Institute cafeteria had also closed early and there wasn’t enough time to eat or order out, the only thing available were the sandwiches in the vending machines located throughout the campus.  One of those was fine for Chip, but both the Admiral and Captain decided to wait until they got home for a quick bite.  As much as Lee didn’t want to ruin his appetite for the prime rib tonight, he had rushed out without breakfast and was actually pretty hungry.  Must have been all that snowball action.  He also had to stop and return the snow machine to the rental place.   It had turned out to be a good idea, and a whole lot of fun for everyone involved, not just the children.  Who knew the Admiral could throw that hard?

Lee got to the party about the same time as the Admiral and Edith, and Chip arrived a few minutes later.  The decorations were as classy and elegant as they were every year, always done in good taste.   Lee and Harry  took their spots near the doors to the Institute’s Great Hall, to greet the incoming guests, while Chip went to check on the caterers, bartenders, musicians, photographers,  and most important, Santa.  Everyone was ready for another wonderful event.   Edith of course had headed to the nearest Ladies’ Room to be sure she didn’t have a hair out of place from the ride over. Lee let out a long sigh.  She’d outdone herself this time.  He hated to have to admit it, even to himself, but Edith Nelson was an incredibly beautiful, sexy woman.  Problem was, she knew it.

The party was in full swing, people mingling and dancing before the dinner was served. As had become a Holiday tradition at the Institute, the band asked Lee to come up and sing a couple of songs.   This year, remembering the white snow that morning, he did ‘White Christmas’,  ‘Jingle Bells’, and his favorite, ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.   He’d been watching for a certain signal from off stage, and when it came he went into a spirited rendition of ‘Here Comes Santa Clause’ as one of Security’s gaily decorated travel carts transported Santa Clause across the floor to his huge red chair against the left wall of the Great Hall.  By the time he got himself settled into the chair, over a hundred children of various ages were already in line.  There were huge piles of gifts on either side of Santa, the left side for boys and the right side for girls.  His two helpers, dressed as elves, would hand him the appropriate gift for each child, pastel pink or light blue for ages three and under, red paper for 4 to 7, green was for 8-11, and blue gifts for 12 and up.   This year, Santa was Pete Wagner, head of the Institute’s Human Resources Department.  With eight kids of his own, Pete was pretty good at guessing ages and dealing with kids.  In addition, he needed very little padding and had a great belly laugh.  And it really did.  His belly really did shake like a bowlful of jelly when he laughed.    

The meal was stupendous.  And Lee was more than ready for it.  He hadn’t had a chance to grab a bite when he got home, returning the snow machine had taken him longer than he expected.   The prime rib melted in his mouth, the shrimp scampi side had just enough garlic in it, the loaded baked potatoes with sour cream, scallions, bacon, and shredded cheese were almost a meal in themselves. The broccoli-carrot dish had a nice butter sauce with a slight tang to it he couldn’t quite place, but it was tasty.  The hot bread, fresh garden salad with greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, red and green pepper in a light balsamic dressing and the onion soup were all unbelievably delicious.   Each dish outdid the other.    Lee stuffed himself to the point of actually having a stomachache.  How did Chip do this all the time?  Every time Lee looked over at him his plate was empty and he was taking seconds.    

As was expected of him, he danced with all the ladies from Administration, Angie, Trish, and Katie, and then of course, Edith.  He had to admit, she had been patient.  Usually, she was the one who asked him for the very first dance!  At the very least, he hoped he was working off the big meal so he had room for dessert.  He could never say no to cheesecake, but this year’s other choice was even harder for him to resist, Tiramisu.   He wondered how many dances he would need to give him enough room for two desserts.

Well, since this was a family event with many little children in attendance, it usually ended fairly early.   By eight o’clock the place was pretty much empty, and the cleaning up had already started.  As he had done every year after the party, the Admiral invited everyone still there over to his place for a nightcap.  Lee didn’t stay too long, he was tired, and Edith’s constant comments about herself were starting to get to him.   How did Harry put up with her?   He took care of a few little chores at home and then crashed. 

Lee was up with the sun the next morning, as always.  He did his usual workout, running two miles down the beach then jumping in the ocean and swimming back.  He hoped he had burned off some of the calories from the party last night.  He still had his dinner tonight, and Christmas dinner at the Admiral’s tomorrow.  He wasn’t concerned about his weight for any vain reasons, he just felt absolutely lousy, tired and sluggish when he put on a few extra pounds.  As active as he was, it didn’t stay on for long anyway, but he was still eager to get it off as fast as possible.  He got home, took a fast shower, and soon was on his way to the supermarket.

He got the rest of his groceries for dinner, and was amazed at how long the checkout line was at the market.  There was a young mother in front of him, trying her best to control her four little children.  The oldest couldn’t be more than six, one sitting in the cart, a toddler holding her hand, and a fairly new one in a sling across her chest.   Finally it was her turn, all basic food items, store brands, no junk or candy here.  She gave the man a handful of coupons and he scanned each one and told her the total.  She handed him a food stamp card, but apparently there wasn’t enough left on it for all she had bought.  She quickly began taking things out, handing them to the cashier, when Lee stepped in.  He handed the cashier a hundred dollar bill to cover all her groceries, told her to save her food stamps for next time, just please have a nice Holiday.     He would never forget the shock on her face, or how she just turned and walked away with her groceries. No thank you.  Oh well.  Lee quickly reminded himself that not all rewards, or punishments for that matter, were given right away or even in this lifetime.  That didn’t mean you stopped doing nice things for people. It would count somewhere, sometime. What goes ‘round come ‘round, sometimes in ways or at times you least expect.   Besides, whether it was appreciated it or not, it still made him feel good to help out other people in any way he could.  He checked out his groceries and left.  

He put his groceries away, and gave his house a quick going over.  He wrapped the painting, and all of the gifts were all in place under the tree.  The Christmas music was on, and the beer was getting cold.  He still had a little bit of time before he had to start dinner, so he grabbed a beer and headed out for his deck, bringing his laptop with him.  There had to be fifty emails to be answered, most of them Christmas greetings.    What the heck happened to good old fashioned mailing of cards you had written out yourself?  Lee had already sent out about 35 of them, but had only gotten about twelve back.  But he had no intention of ever abandoning the tradition.  Call him old fashioned, he didn’t care.  

Just as he was about to get started, Chip arrived, eager to lend a helping hand.   Lee had bought twelve swordfish steaks to grill, to be served with a dill and lemon butter sauce, all the ingredients for a dish he had eaten a couple of weeks ago and loved- Cranberry Chicken;  a  rice dish to go with both, everything for a garden salad, and rolls to bake in the oven.   Oh, and the snow peas, one of his favorite vegetables.  He would steam a whole pile of them.  For appetizers he’d gotten fresh raw shrimp, fresh clams and mussels, cocktail sauce and lemons to squeeze on them, and calamari. And of course, there were the old standbys, cheese and crackers, potato chips and onion dip, a fresh vegetable platter with dips.

As Lee started making the salad, Chip set all the snacks out and got to work on the clams, shrimp, and mussels.   The Admiral arrived, with a tray full of Tiramisu for dessert, he knew Lee loved it.   Jamie showed up with a plate piled high with Italian cookies wrapped in a bright red plastic with a green bow.    About a half hour later, everyone else was there, every one of them bringing beer or a treat of some kind.  Chip played host, handing out beers and making drinks while Lee made the rice dish, the snow peas, and the butter dill sauce, and put the rolls on cookie sheets.  Then it was time to fire up the grill.  But before that . . .

“Admiral?  Where is Edith?  I expected you to bring her with you.”

“Uh, Lee, you didn’t invite her.  Normally she would have just tagged along, but I think she knows this is usually an all guy event.”

Lee felt like two cents.  He went out onto his deck to start the grill, but first pulled out his cell phone and called the Admiral’s home phone.  Edith answered on the fourth ring.

“Edith, it’s Lee.  I guess I just naturally assumed you would come with Harry, I didn’t realize you would think you needed an invitation.  Please, there’s still time for you to get here before dinner.”

She just laughed.  “Lee, you know me.  If I really wanted to be there, I wouldn’t have waited for you to say something.  No, I really have a lot to do here, you know, last minute Christmas stuff.  I was actually glad to have Harry out of the way for a while.  But I will look forward to seeing you tomorrow.   You guys enjoy your dinner.  Thanks for calling, but please don’t worry about it.  Bye.”

Whew.  Gee, she handled that like a real classy adult, same as at the party last night, and the ride home from the airport.  Was Edith finally growing up?  

The grilled swordfish steaks with the dill lemon butter sauce came out mouth-wateringly perfect.  They were all gone in an instant. All but one small piece of the chicken went, too, and so did all of the shrimp, mussels, and clams.  There was one little piece of lettuce left in the salad bowl, no potato chips, cheese or crackers.  A handful of snow peas and a couple of tablespoons of the rice dish.  Having a small but healthy appetite himself, Lee thought he had more than enough food.  Goodness, did they all eat like Chip?  Lee had a divided plastic dish with a plastic cover that snapped over it, perfect to toss in the microwave.  One of his best finds at the dollar store.  He put the rice in one section, then the chicken, then the snow peas and the one lonely little piece of lettuce in the last section.  Well, he had another meal all ready to eat.   He put a pot of coffee on and started putting out the desserts.   Chip had already started clearing the table and ‘Ski was washing the dishes.   Soon they were all sitting down picking out their desserts, all except ‘Ski who was still washing dishes.

“Seaman Kowalski, get your butt in here, that’s a direct order from your Captain.  Hurry, before Chip eats all the desserts!”  A laughing first mate came out a minute later.  “Aye, aye Sir!  Seaman Kowalski reporting for duty as ordered, Sir.  Captain, Sir.”  Naval protocol was so lax on Seaview that Ski’s response drew a couple of good laughs.  It took a minute for Lee to realize that the man was still standing still, at attention.  He stood up, walked over to him, and standing nose to nose, quietly said to him in a Popeye voice,”Youse is relieved.”  Another good round of laughter.

The men started drifting out one by one, Lee handing each of them a bottle of whatever was their favorite liquor as they left, and thanking them for coming and for their service on the boat.  Lee knew he had a great crew.  The last of the regular crew to leave was Kowalski.  Lee walked him to the door, handed him the last two bottles left asking him to please give one to Patterson.  “Ski, thanks for all your help here today, and you know how I feel about your service on the boat.  Your command material and I wish I could do more for you.”

“Skipper, serving on Seaview, especially under you, working at NIMR with Admiral Nelson, is, well, believe me, Sir, it’s been a true honor and  one long adventure, I never expected to have a life like this.   I couldn’t be happier, even just doing what I am doing.  And to tell you the truth, Sir, I could never deal with having the responsibility of 125 lives on my shoulders the way you do.  That strength is what makes someone command material.  Good night Skipper, see you tomorrow.”

Lee closed the door and stood there a moment considering ‘Ski’s words.

 Okay, they were down to just the four of them, time for the rest of the gifts.  Lee handed Chip and Harry their gifts first, then went back to get Jamie’s gift.  Then he sat down to watch them open them, using the video function on his cell phone to record it.  He loved the big grin on Harrys face, and he immediately began to unbutton the sweater to try it on.   Chip got a look of love in his eyes when he read the label on the bottle.  “Maple whiskey!   I never even knew they made it!.  We all have to try some right now!”  He jumped up and went over to where Lee kept a few little shot glasses.   Lee turned to Jamie.  He was sitting there quietly, with tears running down his face.  Harry and Chip went over to see what was triggering this reaction in the usually very controlled officer.  Both realized not only what a great and perfect gift it was, but how true a scene it portrayed. 

Jamie spoke first.  “Lee, you have no idea what this means to me.  You have no idea what significance there is in this painting for me.  No idea.  You see, I always wanted to be a doctor, but my father wanted me to follow his footsteps into the clergy and the Navy.  It wasn’t that I didn’t hear the calling; it was that I heard it telling me to serve the Lord in a different way. Right after I finished my internship I tried to appease my father by enlisting in the Navy right away.  It was so important to him, so much a part of how I was raised, and I didn’t really care where I practiced,  I just wanted to be a good doctor.   I couldn’t wait to tell him.  I called my mother to find out where he was currently stationed, but a family friend answered the phone and told me my father had been killed the day before on the battlefield, administering the last rites to a dying 18 year old soldier.  He never found out I had joined the Navy.    This painting, I. . . gee Lee, the minute I looked at it, a feeling of peace swept over me.  Like my Dad was trying to get me a message that being a doctor was a good choice that even the Lord approved of, like he was finally all right with it.  That my being a doctor was serving God, too.  ‘The Great Physician.’  Lee, this is the best gift I have every gotten.  You have no idea how much this means to me. I’ll put it up in my office on Seaview.”

It was the Admiral who found his voice first; they had all been so moved by Jamie’s admission.  “No Jamie, too much can happen to it there.  Either hang it in your office at MedBay or over your fireplace at home. It is a one of a kind gift.  OK Lee, how do I look? It fits perfectly!  I love the colors and it feels so soft.”

The Admiral stood up so everyone could see his sweater. And it did look handsome on him, and fit perfectly.   Chip passed out shot glasses of the maple whiskey and they all toasted Christmas and a New Year.  Boy that stuff was delightful!  He was going to have to get his own bottle of it.

They all knew better than to ask Lee to open his gifts that they had brought him.  He would be all alone Christmas morning.  Harry had Edith and her gifts, both Chip and Jamie had gifts sent from their families to open up.   Lee would be alone and only have their gifts to look forward to.

Well, tomorrow was a big day, time to call it a night.   Harry and Jamie left first.  Chip did a last minute look around, satisfied that everything was cleaned up properly, then grabbed his gift and then grabbed and hugged Lee.  “Merry Christmas pal.  See you tomorrow, get some sleep.  You did another incredible job with dinner this year, thanks.  Now, I am going to go home and enjoy my whiskey.   Good night.”   Lee watched Chip get in his car and leave.  Then he grabbed a quick shower, put his good suit on, and headed down to his Church for Midnight Mass.   He got there early enough to not only get a good seat, but to hear the choir perform before Mass started, and to see the beautiful candlelight procession.  It was, as always a beautiful, heartwarming service, and to him, the most important part of Christmas.

Lee got home, grabbed a beer, and headed out to his deck for a few minutes of quiet meditation.  He was in bed a half hour later, after saying a prayer thanking God for all his blessings, especially his wonderful friends, and another lovely Christmas.   


The End

Merry Christmas to all my Voyage friends and their families.  I hope this next year is a happy, healthy one for everyone. With LOTS of new Voyage stories being written!