Christmas, Military Style

Top photo of MCAS Miramar in San Diego, CA by Tim Forkes

It’s probably different for everyone that has exited the military, what it is that we remember about spending the Christmas holidays away from home. First of all it wasn’t Christmas for everyone. It wasn’t until I was in the U.S. Marine Corps that it dawned on me, that I was awakened to the fact, that not everyone worships Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

There was an eye-opening experience I had in boot camp, recruit training if you’d like to be polite, that just made me realize that if a God that I was raised to believe in truly existed it wouldn’t allow humans the capacity to do to one another what we do in the name of nationalism and religion. And of course greed and the lust for power, etc.

Tim Forkes, USMC
Boot Camp 1974
(Provided by Tim Forkes)

The notion that we had free will, the ability to choose whatever path we liked — yet the God in Heaven already knew what choices we were about to make —  it was just a load of horseshit.

So before my 19th birthday I had discarded that nice Catholic upbringing I had been subjected to for 18 years.

Curiously, the novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty was (and still is) the scariest book I’ve ever read and the movie, of the same name,  was (and still is) the scariest movie I’ve ever watched. Although Roger Ebert panned the 2000 version — the director’s cut —  I found it added to the horror of the 1973 version, which was so frightening people would run out of the theaters to puke.

Roger Ebert was a great film critic, but on this one he and I disagree.

I don’t want to get too far off on a tangent here, but it should be mentioned that Roman Catholic Church teaches us a lot about “God,” but they also spend a lot of time teaching us about Satan and all his works, so a depiction of Satan taking over another human is — was — frightening.

Anyway, I spent the holidays away from home while serving in the Marines, mostly Thanksgivings, but twice I was not in Milwaukee for Christmas.

Not everyone can take leave during the holidays. Somebody has to stay on base, sort of ready to get ready should the need arise. Holiday meals on base are special. Everything you could imagine you’d want for Christmas dinner is there. Turkey, ham, roast beef, plus a variety of vegetables, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, dressing/stuffing; a variety of pies and ice cream plus nuts and candies and all sorts of Thanksgiving or Christmas time goodies. It’s a feast. Plus, the mess hall was open a little longer so the men and women could engage in some post meal comradery, although most of us wandered back to the barracks because we had just over eaten and had to lay in our racks and do a lot of farting.

Many Sailors, Marines and civilian support staff will spend the Holidays out at sea aboard a ship like the USS Nimitz, here see returning to NAS North Island, Coronado, CA, as seen from the Coronado Bridge (Tim Forkes)

It was Christmas and everyone knew the mess hall was nothing like mom’s dining room. The food we could argue was just as good as mom’s, but really my mom had a special way with the dressing/stuffing that I try to capture today when I make it. Regardless of what the mess hall lacked in home ambiance, the Christmas meals there were always much better than what we could purchase off base. That’s a fact. Also a fact — I knew some of the guys that prepared those meals and that made it kind of special. “Give my friend some extra potatoes and gravy.”

I often wondered what it was like to be on mess duty during a holiday meal. The people working in the mess hall had the other meals to prepare, at least two others: breakfast and “Mid-Rats,” midnight rations served between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. every night for the men and women that worked the graveyard shifts. It was a military base after all and we had to be at some level of readiness 24/7.

Mid-Rats consisted of a breakfast spread plus hamburgers and fries. When it wasn’t a holiday we would often put on our uniforms and walk over to the mess hall for Mid-Rats. The Marines checking I.D.s at the door could smell the liquor on our breath, but going to Mid-Rats was part of the deal, as long as you were in uniform. If you can back from the Ville after a night of drinking, a Marine had to be sober enough to out on his or her uniform — properly — and walk over to the mess hall. When I was stationed on Oki — Okinawa — my barracks at Camp Foster was right above the mess hall and Senior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) mess hall. The food for both was prepared by the same people, so the only difference between the two is that the NCO mess hall looked a bit nicer and we got more elbow room.

Holiday meals overseas were the same as they were stateside: Not the same as home, but better than what we could get off base.

What a tangent: From Mid-Rats to meals overseas.  What was it like to be on mess duty on a holiday? It had to be a lot of extra work, but the people preparing and serving those special meals got to sit down and enjoy them as well. And I’m guessing, just based on my time spent on mess duty that for holiday meals, mess hall staff got a few extra goodies the rest of us didn’t. Sort of like jump pay in calories.

  • You get paid extra for jumping out of airplanes … with a parachute of course.

There were always long hours for mess duty. We reported for work at about 4 a.m., earlier if you worked in the bakery.  And then you didn’t leave the mess hall until 9 p.m. There were times during the day we could wander away from the dining facility, but we always had to be back. I found it easier and less stressful to find a place to take a nap in the mess hall.

Tim Forkes while stationed at MCAS Yuma, AZ, where he had mess duty twice
(Tim Forkes)

Mess duty was long, hard work and it must have been at least harder for the holiday meals and quite possibly the days were longer. Ask anyone who ever had mess duty during the holidays: Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard — but not the effin’ Air Force! They had civilians cooking, preparing and serving their meals.

  • Me explaining the service to a friend: “I decided to join the military and went into the Marines! Bob here, chose the Air Force instead.”
    Get it? [insert laugh track here]

Air Force veterans will object, although they have their collection of Marine Corps slurs to hurl in my direction. Inter-service rivalry is an integral part of military service. It is unofficial of course and most definitely informal, but essential nonetheless. It builds pride in one’s service and loyalty to one branch of the military. At the end of the day we are (were) all on the same team. We all served and we all served during the holidays when the best we could do was call home on Christmas to wish everyone Happy Holidays.

Local Christmas Display
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
(Tim Forkes)

So at this point I want to wish everyone serving in our armed services — and the Peace Corps around the world — a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. You have to spend the holidays away from loved ones, but you spend it with your other loved ones, the people you are serving with during these difficult times. I guess they are always difficult times. I served during and after the Vietnam War and Watergate. The attitudes towards military personnel was off the hook in those days. The one place I was treated well back then — that wasn’t a military town — was Las Vegas, Nevada. But now that I think about it, with Nellis Air Force Base and Area 51 so close, Vegas is a bit of a military town.

Naval Air Station Fallon is about an hour east of Reno, Nevada, out in the middle of “Who Gives a Flying F***, Nevada.” Being so far away from the rest of civilization has its benefits. Happy Holidays to all those folks as well.

It is tough being away during the holidays, but you are not forgotten.