“Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
--The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Those three sailors. . . I wrote a play about it once. It felt like theatre. Not a novel, not a screenplay. But something you need to sit in the dark and experience with other people. . .with strangers. One day, I will go to the island and drop three pearls in the water, where they rest. . .
Before I write this blog, I think I should tell you why I am writing it. Normally, that is a thing I would never do. A good writer never needs to explain such a thing. The reason, the cause, should be in the writing itself. For the most part, a writer who needs to preambulate by explaining to you why they are going to write what they write is akin to meeting a person who boisterously announces that they are a funny person. “I’m really a pretty funny guy”, many a gent announced to me during my dating days, and that was precisely the point at which I knew that there would be no humor whatsoever transpiring between us that night. Never in the history of civilization or of comedy has some assclown leaned back in his chair, or grabbed your hand for a power shake, barked “I’m really a pretty funny guy”, and then said or done anything remotely witty, humorous, or amusing. Trust me, no genuinely funny person has ever announced it as a part of their opening salvo. Really funny people just start right off doing stuff and saying stuff to make you laugh. But, “I’m really a pretty funny guy…?” Be afraid. Be very afraid. (Usually at this point, I would fake an attack of the Shingles or something, and ask them to take me home.)
And that is how I usually feel about people who explain why they are bestowing this particular blogpost of theirs on poor you. (“I’m superexcited about my blog for today, ‘cause HERE’S WHY…” …“Here’s Ten Reasons why you really, really need to read todays blog!!!!!”)
So here I am, breaking my own rules. I am telling you why I am writing this blog because this blog is very sad, and yet today is Christmas. That seems oxymoronic to me. One should write about joyful things on Christmas. But at the end of all this grim remembrance, it does for me the one thing that Christmas should be about: it makes me feel reborn.
THE BEGINNING PROPER
The Study of History has a sweet spot. Study it too much, and you have virtually no choice but to become a cynic, a depressive, a person bereft of hope: joy and charity and selflessness and philanthropy rarely make the headlines, and they are not chapters in history books. Read history, and you will despair. Sooner or later, any joie de vivre you were born with dies, tromped under the boots of armies, mobs, despots, weirdoes, and the oh just generally apathetic. But not studying history is equally dangerous: you wallow around in the mall and on social media, living in a dopey cloud of unfounded optimism until the Other hauls you away and sticks you behind barbed wire because You differ from Them.
But, the Sweet Spot. Ah! For me, the sweet spot is that magical moment where I have learned just enough to make me incredibly grateful that I am who I am. And I’m betting this applies to you, too: only the ugly, stinky process of sticking your nose right into the cracks of history can remind you, as no other methodology can, how fabulous it is that you were born WHEN you were born, WHERE you were born, TO WHOM you were born, etcetera, etcetera, as the king would say.
These following Christmas stories make me grateful. They make me feel reborn.
FIRST: You have to go back. Not back a long way, just to December 7th of this year. Try to remember generally what you were doing, what was going on, on this day three weeks ago. Or three weeks from last Christmas, if you are reading this in 2016. It was a Monday, if that helps. Now, go even further back. To a date that will live in infamy. To December 7th, 1941. Slowly, get into a meditative place, and imagine what it was like. It is early on a Sunday, not quite eight a.m. The sky is suddenly thick with planes. The famous call to action, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” blasts over loudspeakers. There is no need, right now, to walk you through the entirety of that terrifying day, but do let yourself bask in some of the very true stories, the anecdotes and nightmares, that came out of that bright morning:
A girl dressed for church, daughter of a general, a vision in pastels and proper hat and her spotless white church gloves, remembers a kind of zombie army of men from the ships, wounded and covered in black oil, climbing up the hill from the harbor—she remembered the whites of their eyes, and those blue, green, brown eyes all registering terror, and this is the only way should could even tell that these were human beings. She writes of men dying in her arms, and she could do nothing for them. She remembers black oil on white gloves.
A woman recounts a marital fight to end all fights with her gambling addicted husband: if he spent one more Saturday night gambling with those bastard sailors on the Arizona, only to pass out from whiskey and crawl home Sunday morning, she would take the baby and leave. He took her seriously. And lived to tell tales of Pearl Harbor.
There is the urban legend that is based on truth: a man of the cloth who said “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” It was Chaplain Howell Forgy, aboard the USS New Orleans, trying to encourage men as they passed ammo up to the gun turret. (It got turned into a fabulous song, for what it’s worth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJfJPxLntZU)
Fascinatingly, there is the story of the first prisoner of war taken by U.S. troops, the entire incident a tribute to military discipline (very important part of my legacy—I got a dad buried in Arlington), if ever there was one. You would think that the impulse of any normal G.I. Joe on Pearl that tragic morning would be to beat the crap out of this poor unlucky Japanese soldier, until he was a dead bloody pulp, but no—he was taken prisoner. Kazuo Sakamaki had been one of those little guys assigned to the mini subs that did recon in the waters around the island. Being of Japanese—read Samurai—ideology, he begged for permission to commit suicide, but we wouldn’t let him. Japanese did remove all evidence that he had ever existed from their records, though. In the end, Kazuo not only survived, but got us back for Hiroshima and Nagasaki: he became a big cheese at Toyota, helping to build the car that would do serious damage to the United States automotive industry.
And of course, there was a Redskins game, being played a world away. It was Redskins-Eagles. A Redskin win and a Brooklyn Dodger loss would mean the two teams were tied for first in the East. Imagine the tension as an already tense American crowd heard one high ranking military name after another was called over the loudspeaker to report for emergency duty. And then the reporters and photographers were summoned. . .The World was at War. And suddenly, football didn’t seem as important anymore.
BUT WHAT- you may be wondering, does all this have to do with Christmas? Just this. And I must ask you to picture one more thing: the attack is raging; it is hell on earth. The ships are sinking, and taking with them many trapped men. Oh, the cruel irony, drowning so close to shore. Some of them will be rescued, but even in the attempt to rescue them, there will be carnage: Trying to use cutting torches makes sparks that ignite fuel oil, and even more men are killed in the ensuing explosions.
But the largely untold story that pulls at the heart strings? The three men aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia:
Louis "Buddy" Costin, 21. Clifford Olds, 20. Ronald Endicoott, 18.
…Who lasted, who lived, from the horrific attack on December 7th … all the way until Christmas. Trapped, deep in the USS West Virginia. We know this because they marked the time on a makeshift calendar, as was learned when the ship was brought up in the spring of ‘42. The searchers were horrified at what they found. You see, they had grown inured—for their own survival and sanity—to the body parts, bits of clothing, the muck and goo that was some ghastly mix of ship’s oil and dead human beings. But these three men were, for lack of a better word, intact. They were real. They were sailors, and in just looking at them, it was all too easy to remember the carefree bliss of being stationed in Hawaii and being out on a Saturday night—partying on December 6th.
A unique agony of war was experienced by the men who had to stand sentry duty next to the West Virginia, from the time of the attack until Christmas Day. The tapping—Morse Code--begging for rescue, wanting to know when they would be getting out, asking was the world at war, begging please we are running out of food and water. That was another horrible detail that became apparent in the spring when the ship was raised: flashlights and batteries littered the floor, ration cans were opened, empty, licked clean. A store of water had been opened and every drop drunk. . .
They were just guys, you know? Cliff Olds kept three dollars a month out of his check, sent the other eighteen bucks home to his family. And 18 year old Ronald Endicott? His girlfriend was only 14 when he first swept her off her feet, but even as an old lady, she kept a torch. She is reminiscent of the old lady in Titanic: she went on to have a full rich life, but never forgot her first love—or the Charlie Chaplin movie they saw the night before he got on the bus to go off to another World War. The third sailor, Louis Costin, was a guy who was ready for Christmas, even before the attack. When the salvage crews searched his locker, they found a watch he'd already bought his mom for Christmas. It was broken and waterlogged. But the Navy sent it to Effie Costin anyway. She had it repaired and wore it until she died in December 1985. She was 92 years old.
I wrote a play about this once. . .
I have a friend who was in the Navy, and he told me that the worst thing, probably, would not have been the hunger or the thirst, but the utter lack of even a glimmer of light Even with the most careful rationing of emergency lights, all light would have been gone within a few days. Complete darkness. You can’t imagine that kind of utter blackness, I was told, and it can drive you quite mad.
So. Before you return to the ritual and merriment, the tolerating and the celebrating, the eating and drinking and playing and praying, the spiritual and the secular, I would ask you to look back on the full, rich, busy, crazed life you have led from the 7th of December up until Christmas Eve. Take a moment, please, and think of a few dozen things that have filled your last couple of weeks before Christmas: the shopping, the parties, the annual movies and TV shows, the crisis, the crisis solved, the calls, the skyping, the baking, the caroling, the cursing, the irritations, the visitations, the decorations, the gift wrapping, the gift unwrapping, the feasting, and all the—through this all, through all this, those boys were sitting there in the dark, waiting, hoping, and praying. They gave their lives for their country, so that you might have this holiday, to enjoy—and to make sacrosanct—in the way you see fit.
Well. It appears I am done, here. I was going to add a second wartime Christmas story, but I am so depressed now that I must self-medicate; I self-medicate by eating, and now, God help me, even this fruitcake is looking good. And I am fairly sure that this is last year’s fruitcake. . .
Besides, the second story is one that can also apply to the New Year, so look for it later this week, if you are so inclined.
But I promised you a feeling of being reborn, not sadness. And while you may say I am reaching, here it is: When I think of stories like the one about the three sailors, I am naturally prompted to think of the other soldiers who have had grim Christmases, and other people in general who have suffered at Christmas, both then and now, and, well … well, I know it doesn’t appear that I am doing this very well.
But we are getting to the Sweet Spot.
Remembering all of this makes me grateful. Humble. It makes me feel … “Reborn”. Overwhelmingly aware of how blessed I am … and of how few problems I actually have. And of how great of an obligation—and a privilege—it is for me to try to figure out some way to give back. To ease somebody’s pain, somewhere. To contribute. To show my gratitude. As our friend Tom says in “Saving Private Ryan,” to “Earn This … Earn It.”
Oh, and it’s worth noting: I was not exactly accurate. They did not die on Christmas day, our three boys lived until December 23rd, their scratched calendar marks on the wall told us, so my faith tells me they were in a far better place by Christmas. With my best friend Michelle, perhaps. My friend Michelle was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas Day, so I have dedicated my quirky little miniature museum to her.
So as you go through this Christmas day, and through this holiday season, just let it all roll off of you. That jerk in the parking lot. That huge shopping heartbreak. That issue at work that almost ruined that other thing. That dopey rude relative who you always argue politics with over dinner, ruining the Christmas feast? Smile and nod, tell them you can see their point of view. You don’t agree, but you can understand how a person gets there. Let that be your present to them. And when somebody gives you a stupid Christmas sweater with the big reindeer face on it, wear it proudly. Own it. Be thankful. There are children in third world countries who would love to have that sweater. (Well. Maybe not. Even poverty and suffering have their limits.) But you get the idea. Let go of irritations, and come December 26th, be nice to the lady in the Customer Service returns line. Trust me, her life is far worse than yours. Show some kindness.
You are fine. You are showered with blessings. Your life is a benediction. You have so much to be grateful for, most of you probably would have a hard time knowing when to start, or how to end. You are not shivering or starving.
You have food (too much food) surrounding you. You have laughter and gaiety. You have warmth. You have water, cider, wine. You have Christmas lights.
You are not sitting alone in the utter blackness. And with enough belief—if your faith is strong enough-- you will never find yourself, all by yourself, in the darkness. Never again.
You have everything to be happy about, because it really is a wonderful life. Be happy. Seize it. Go hug someone, so hard they nearly break. Let something move you to actually you shed a tear, today. Today. Today, my friend, along with the Christ Child, you too are born. Welcome to the Human Race.
POST SCRIPT: Oh, and whatever you are having, hoist one for the boys. Here are their photographs, so you can picture them. (We don’t know what young Ronald Endicott looked like.)
REDUX: … Remembering all of this makes me beholden. Humble. It makes me feel … “Reborn”. Overwhelmingly aware of how blessed I am … and of how few problems I actually have. And of how great of an obligation—and a privilege—it is for me to try to figure out some way to give back. To ease somebody’s pain, somewhere. To contribute. To show my gratitude. As our friend Tom says in Saving Private Ryan, to “Earn This … Earn It.”