A Very Personal ‘Twas The Night

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - December 23, 2009
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If you have never been away - far away - from home and family at Christmas, you have missed out on something very special. Of course, no one would wish that for one’s self or even for anyone else, but sometimes the most valuable experiences in life are those we would not choose, especially if they are a result of serving a cause greater than one’s self.

For the first 25 years of my life, my Christmases were chock-a-block with family and friends and presents and Nativity scenes and carols and good food and drink and merriment. The sole exception was the Christmas of 1942, which my mother and I spent quietly and frugally in a small apartment in Reno, while my dad was a several hours’drive away in the high Nevada desert with a construction crew building an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Strangely enough, of all the Christmases of my youth, that’s the one I recall the most clearly.


Christmas Eve of ‘59 found me at the rail of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, away from my shipmates, alone by choice to compose our annual family poem:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the ship was at peace;

The flying, the working, the hum-drum had ceased.

On the flight deck and hangar deck, relieved of their pace

The airplanes were nestled, each in it’s place.

From somewhere deep in the ship’s many spaces

I could faintly hear carols of Bethlehem places.

And across the shimmering surface of light

Could be seen the harbor we’d chosen this night.

In gem-like hues it sparkled and danced

You could tell in a moment it must be Cannes, France.

While I in my solitude there at the rail

Let the scene take me back along the year’s trail.

And so it went to the last lines:

Tho the Coffees once more share their Christmas apart

Our thoughts are joined and come straight from our heart

We wish you a season of joy and good cheer

And hope that shore duty soon will be here.

I savored the memories called up by my prose; another unforgettable Christmas.

I have already shared in this column my Christmas Eve ‘69 in the solitude of a tiny cell in Hanoi, North Vietnam. In the spirit of the season, my jailer had dropped off three chocolate bars that were too rancid to eat, but the red and silver foil in which they were wrapped inspired a folded swan, a rosette and a star - the most beautiful Christmas ornaments I’ve ever seen ... to this day!

And even there - or I should say especially there - in my head I composed our annual poem:

‘Tis the night before Christmas in North Vietnam

As a prisoner here, I can feel the calm.

The calm which prevails throughout the compound

As each man prays for true peace to be found.

And the silence is touched by my whispered prayer,

As I think of Baby Jesus, my family and friends everywhere.

And so it went on until the last few lines:

Please join us in prayer on this Christmas Eve,

Thank God for our country and the things we believe.

Pray for His guidance in ending this war,

For our world needs peace more than ever before.

But we’re grateful the most for our family and friends,

And we ask God to bless you ... as our Christmas poem ends!

So this Christmas eve give yourself the gift of peace and quiet - a time to think gratefully of all your blessings, not the least of which are all the young Americans in lonely foreign outposts as they whisper their prayers for their loved ones and for their safe return to them. Think of them composing their own poems as they experience perhaps their most meaningful and memorable Christmas Eves.

And think of young Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, captured last June by the Taliban under uncertain circumstances but confirmed as a POW by videotapes released by his captors. May he benefit by recent breakthroughs by the International Committee of the Red Cross who - for the first time - have actually been able to talk with Afghan soldiers held by the Taliban. May his Christmas eve prayers - and/or poem - be full of optimism, hope and faith.

And may your Christmas be peaceful and blessed, and your new year be prosperous and bright.

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