1963 — Sunny Southern California was not sunny that day. The sky was a gloomy gray, a fitting compliment to my already downcast mood. The season was certainly a contributing factor to my depression, not to mention my current employment. Christmas and the military were not a good mix, at least for me. I was stationed aboard the USS Jason, a repair ship, that for all the sailing we did could have been welded to the pier. I had joined the Navy to see the world and I kept getting stuck in one place, first Kodiak Island and now San Diego.
If that wasn’t depressing enough, my whole world was controlled by three words: Mid. Eve. Day. I was a radioman and the radio shack had to be manned twenty-four hours a day, every day, in port or at sea. We had three watch sections of six men a piece to do this. So simple math tells you we worked eight hours a day, seven days a week. For relief however, the Navy had arranged a schedule that allowed us some time off. We worked a shift called mid-eve-day. We’d start with the mid-watch, which ran from midnight to 0800 hours. Then we’d have eight hours off. At 1600 hours we’d go back for the eve watch from 1600 to midnight. Another eight hours off followed by the day watch from 0800 to 1600. After that we were rewarded with thirty-two straight hours of our own. Thirty-two glorious hours to try find something fun to do. The night after the day watch was our Friday night. We were free from responsibilities, from restrictions, and it was a time to let loose. The next day not so much because we had to be in shape to stand the mid-watch again that night. Mid-eve-day dictated my life.
I had just finished my day watch and it was Christmas Eve. I was twenty years old, having left my teenage years behind two months earlier. JFK had been assassinated a month earlier and the pall of that tragedy still haunted the nation. I had been in the Navy over two years and still had almost another year to go. That thought, the reality of what seemed to me to be an endless cycle of mid-eve-days, and a lonely Christmas Eve accounted for my depressed state of mind.
I saluted the officer of the deck, then the flag flying on the stern of the ship, and walked down the gangplank. The sun was setting as I walked across the expansive naval base to the main gate. I was wearing my dress whites and encountered the usual hostile attitude from the marine guard at the main gate. Theoretically we were on the same side but there wasn’t a lot of love exchanged between the two branches of the service. He checked my pass to see if I was authorized to leave the base and in doing so acted as if he was the one granting me that privilege. And I acted as if he were of no significance whatsoever, purposefully designed to annoy him.
Once I was on the freedom side of the gate my life was my own…but to do what? I took a bus to downtown San Diego. Broadway Street was usually flowing with streams of sailors and marines in search of a girl, fun, or a fight. Only one of those three had a reasonable probability of happening. Tonight the street was nearly deserted. No jostling crowds of young men, just a few other solitary sailors wandering about. A light fog drifted in intensifying the dreariness of the scene. Even on a good night the area was not where one went to seek enlightenment. Movie theaters, dive bars, tattoo parlors, a Greyhound bus station, pawnshops, tacky arcades, and swaths of neon. A few strings of lights and some artificial trees were the only indication of the season.
Devoid of hope, even direction, I wandered the streets. If I was looking for anything, I did not know what it was. Another mid-eve-day completed, for this? The arcades bored me and I had already seen all the movie playing. I wasn’t old enough to get into any of the dive bars and faking it wasn’t an option because at age twenty I still looked about seventeen. Usually I went to a locker club where I stored my civvies, since civilian clothes weren’t allowed aboard the ship, but tonight I didn’t bother. There probably wasn’t much point anyway since there was little doubt who was military and who wasn’t. I think it was just a way of shedding a little bit of our military skin.
As I ambled aimlessly I glanced down a side street. I saw a small, lighted sign that had the letters USO on it and my hopes took a sudden leap upwards. This was it! That’s why the USO existed, for guys like me, in this kind of situation. I had visions of young women whose sole purpose was to talk to, to entertain young servicemen. Loneliness swept aside, I hurried toward the entrance. Already I was fantasizing, quickly extrapolating from a hello and sweet smile to a potential love affair. I opened the door, not into the expected roomful of gaiety, but a set of dark stairs leading down into a basement. But I did hear voices downstairs. Still hopeful I literally skipped down the stairs and threw open the door. There I witnessed, and entered against my will, into one of the most dismal Christmas setting I could imagine. Starting off with the absence of any young women to greet me. I was greeted with enthusiasm however, probably the same enthusiasm these same women had shown the Doughboys of World War One. Every woman there was old enough to be my grandmother. My heart dropped even further as I understood I was trapped. For despite being old, they were amazingly quick. They were on me immediately and had me by the arms, dragging me into the festivities, such as they were.
The room had all the charm of a bingo hall, replete with long tables and folding chairs. A valiant attempt at Christmas cheer had been made however. There was a real tree, wreaths, strings of lights and cutout letters proclaiming “Merry Christmas, and “Peace On Earth” hanging from wires. I felt desperation in the room, not only mine. I was the needed, more than the needy. These nice old ladies were in search of more lonely souls upon which to bestow their good cheer. There were only four other young men present, three sailors and one marine. These enlisted men all reminded me of a guy on my watch section, Baker. Baker was what we called a bible-thumper. Along with his stripes he also wore God on his sleeve. Sometimes he even walked around carrying a bible. Not a bad guy, he was just way too serious for my blood. These guys all had that same look. I liked to laugh, have some fun, and I could tell that fun wasn’t going to be the order of this gathering.
“There’s snacks and punch on the table, and in a little while we’re going to be singing Christmas carols.” One of the elderly ladies gushed to me.
Oh man, I can’t handle this, reeled through my mind. Feeling panicky I took off my white hat, thinking it might relieve the tight band I felt around my head. I did not, did not want to be here. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t even fake it.
Then I remembered seeing the head on my way in. Politely excusing myself to use that facility, I made my escape. I bounded up the steps, dashed through the door, and back onto the dark and foggy San Diego streets. I felt both better and worse. I had done what I had to do. That scene was too sad and I was already too down the way it was.
At that point in my life I possessed most of the faults a young man typically has. But one thing I generally wasn’t, was mean. As I walked away from the USO I felt like I had just done a very mean thing and it made me feel shitty. Those nice ladies were kind and sincere. They genuinely cared and I had just crapped all over their night. But I didn’t feel bad enough to return. If I had been depressed at the start of the evening, I felt even worse now.
I decided to go back to the ship. Even riding the bus was lonely as I was the sole passenger. Just me and the driver. I can’t imagine he was having all that nice of an evening either. Back on the base I bought a Hostess Twinkie from a vending machine and ate it as I walked to the ship. A caustic Merry ******* Christmas flitted through my mind. Even mid-eve-day looked good right now.
I have no memory of how I spent the next day, Christmas. I do know however, that Christmas Eve was the worst one of my life. And I still feel shitty about the USO. A more generous soul would have stayed for them, and not thought only of self. And as one of my shipmates later said, “Who knows, maybe one of those old ladies had a cute granddaughter.”