Many people will be spending this Christmas and New Year’s celebrations away from family, perhaps for the first time. For some it’s by choice, others may not be so lucky and they will not have the luxury of deciding where they will be spending this most wonderful time of the year. Armed forces servicemen and women, police and emergency crews are among those that will be working and looking after us as we enjoy tucking into a family dinner with all the trimmings.
I can readily relate to the feelings these men and women have at this time of year as I can recall my first Christmas away from home that saw me deployed thousands of miles away from my family home.
Your first Christmas away from home is one that you will never forget; it is a time of reflection and memories, and you suddenly realise just how important family is, not just for the holidays, but all year round. A card in the post with a simple message suddenly becomes the focus of your attention, small gifts that can be sent through the mail are suddenly the best presents that you have ever received. Gestures from friends and colleagues who are also in the same situation take on far more meaning and it is true to say that everyone pulls together with even more force than before.
In one way I was lucky for my first Christmas overseas. At 19 years old I wasn’t married and I had no children, I didn’t even have a steady girlfriend to call. My shift partner and roommate was the one I felt sorry for. At 25 he was to me almost an old man, he was married and had two sons at home who were old enough to understand that daddy was away, yet too young to understand why. His locker door was plastered with home made drawings from them and he lived for the mail runs to hear from them. He would spend extra money on his phone calls home after the allocated ten minute phone-card time we were issued each week had been used up, and even though it was not his first time away from home at Christmas, it was the first time he had left his children. You have to remember this was before the time of mobile phones and decent internet and the use of e-mail was restricted in case of operational ‘leaks’, aside from that only two computers in the complex were connected and the queues to use them were horrendous. You had to book your time and if you were lucky you may have managed to get an email chain going with your loved ones back home.
We were working that Christmas Day and as a treat we had all been given an extra phone-card as a gift from the OC (Officer Commanding) of the unit. The good thing was we could use these cards from any telephone so it was great to hear him talk to his family from our cramped workshop at what was morning to them, and lunch time to us. The phone call ended far too soon and I could see all he wanted was to have a few more minutes with his sons. So I handed over my phone card and told him to get back on the phone to his family. A small gesture from me, I mean, the damn thing was free anyway, but I could see how much it meant to him. He got straight back on the line.
At the end of his phone call and before he hung up he handed me the phone with tears in his eyes,
‘The lads want to say something,’ he said as he held out the receiver.
I took it from him smiling,
‘Thank you for giving us the best Christmas present ever,’ a small voice said down the earpiece, ‘Look after daddy and…’ the phone line went dead as the last of the minutes were used up.
With a lump in my throat I placed the phone back into its cradle and looked up. I received a nod, I didn’t need anything else. That nod said it all.
Two weeks later I received a letter which contained a very colourful drawing of two stick-men next to a Christmas tree with one of them holding what I guessed to be a telephone. In bright red letters was written, ‘Thank You and Happy Christmas.’
That drawing went up on my locker door and stayed there until I left. I have had that drawing now for twenty years and it reminds me that it can be the smallest gestures at this time of year that can mean so much. Those two young boys are now 24 and 26 years of age with sons and daughters of their own. The youngest son is this year deployed for the first time away from his family and I will be spending a few days with them after Christmas with his father who has become my oldest and best friend. All because of a simple gesture.
Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.