Merry Christmas, Navy!
By Gary Wright
“Atta boy, Clarence,” —It’s a Wonderful Life
In order to ascribe the fullest meaning to this story, you have to know that every word of the account is true. Christmas 2014 was a real bummer! It seems that everything went wrong and then piled on after that. But on the afternoon of Christmas day I found something I wasn’t looking for, in the precise place I would never have thought to look.
The holiday was first spent visiting my daughter in the Psych Ward at Mobile Infirmary, Mobile, Alabama. She had been transferred there to learn coping skills after having her right leg amputated just below the knee as the result of a long, slow war against MRSA (staph infection) in her foot. Normal visiting hours at the Psych Ward were from five to six pm, but since it was Christmas, there was a special visiting time from 12 noon until one pm, otherwise my ensuing episode would have taken place in the darkness of a moonless Christmas night.
Under the circumstance, I spent a pleasant visit with my daughter. Then, taking a shortcut home, I drove straight through one of the projects of Mobile instead of going around. I was in a foul mood. Very little Christmas spirit resided in my being, and I looked forward to tossing back a couple of bourbons when I got home. But my bad luck was holding steady, and the engine in my pick-up truck blew, sending a cylinder through the engine block.
Anxiety set in, for I was now immobilized in a questionable section of Mobile, Alabama—not the safest place to be. I called Triple A and was informed that, since it was Christmas, I had an hour’s wait for the tow truck. Here I was, Christmas Day, my truck broken down in an unsafe area of town, with my daughter in the Psych Ward—minus the bottom part of one leg.
So, as I muttered under my breath, I waited for AAA and the forthcoming interactions with citizens of inner-city Mobile, doing some serious soul-searching while waiting. Atop my head was a dirty Army ball cap, so, being a white, skinny guy, I stood out on at least two counts.
I hadn’t waited long at all when a tall, slim, black man appeared—seemingly from nowhere. He just glided into my life on an easy gait, with a warm countenance that immediately put me at ease. He casually made his way across the street and nodded a hello. “You Army?” he asked in a friendly manner, pointing to my cap.
“Yeah,” I said warily.
“Yore hat says you were in ‘Nam. Zat so?” he asked with a toothy grin.
“Yes, sir,” I replied
He responded, “I’m Navy. I spent time with a carrier group in the China Sea.”
He immediately opened up and we became instant friends for all of the five minutes that he was in my life. Veterans are that way—sort of like a huge fraternity.
“I don’t like to talk much about it in this neighborhood,” he said, “but I worked a lot in the Navy’ counter-narcotics unit. Best job I ever had.”
For the moment, his soft, likable manner made me forget my unpleasant day. I found myself thinking how lucky I was to find someone so friendly in a place where I thought only danger and peril dwelt. Since my twelve-year-old F-150 was broken down in a bad part of town, he just assumed that I was on the outs. So, he then asked me, “Do you have any use for this?” proffering a bundle tied with string.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a mat made by knitting tied together Walmart plastic bags .”
I indicated that I really had no use for it.
He sized up my situation, looked at my busted truck and said, “I bought this blanket at the Mission Thrift Store just around the corner. They said I could pick out one other thing for free. So, I picked this. You don’t have to make excuses for your situation. Just take it.” So I took it and thanked him.
At that moment another citizen of the ‘hood appeared, wearing a large, heavy coat on such a warm afternoon. In this part of town you don’t look others directly in the eye so as not to ‘dis’ him, but I chanced a glimpse of this man’s dark Ethiopian face, and was answered with a sour expression and a mean set of eyes. As he took a step toward me, the Navy man moved to intercept him before he got close.
“Whatcha up to, Stretch?” asked the Navy vet.
Stretch said something which I did not understand, but I saw him reach inside his over-sized coat. I do not know what he was reaching for and I couldn’t read his face, but in his dour, hardened expression I saw indications of his intent.
The Navy man said, “Hey, you know me, don’t you, Stretch?”
“Yeah, I know you,” he replied.
“Then you know I ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to my man, Army here,” he said pointing at me. He had given me a street name and, in so doing, had named himself.
The Navy vet repeated what he’d said, in case Stretch hadn’t heard. “You know me Stretch. I ain’t gonna let that happen to my man, Army.”
Stretch eyed Navy, then looked at me and decided that whatever he was intending just wasn’t worth it. It was clear that he respected or, perhaps even feared, the Navy man and did not want to tangle with him, at least not today. Stretch eyed the situation, clearly studying his options, and slowly removed an empty hand from his coat pocket. A look of resignation and a slight smile spread over his weather-worn face, his eyes a little softer than before.
He walked over to me in a purposeful gait and put his fist out in front of me. Apprehension filled my soul as I tried to figure out what was happening. Navy looked at me and gave a slight nod. Then I knew. I bumped knuckles with Stretch in silence, then he turned, sashayed down the street and disappeared into an alley.
“You have a good one,” Navy said to me. “See you around.” Then he ambled up the street the other way. I watched and marveled at what had just happened. I never really knew what was under Stretch’s coat and I’m glad I never found out. I didn’t fully understand what had just transpired but I understood enough. When I looked again, Navy had disappeared behind a dirty tenement.
For a long time I looked silently down the street where he had disappeared, lost in that moment. Absorbed by all my trouble and woe that Christmas, I realized how very much I had to be thankful for. For some time my thoughts were on Christmas, caring, sharing, and helping.
But at last, my Christmas reverie was harshly broken by penetrating red flashing lights and the loud diesel engine of the approaching tow truck.
The driver said, “This is a bad place in town to break down. You definitely don’t want to be here after dark. Some real bad things happen here, even in the day time.”
“Merry Christmas, Navy!” I shouted down the street, as the tow truck driver looked at me, not understanding. “Merry Christmas,” the driver said in a low breath.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I replied.
“Ain’t nobody else around,” he said.
“Yeah there is,” I said, “you just can’t see him.”
There is truly a thing called Christmas spirit. It’s all around us and it shows up when least expected, often emanating from the most obscure and shadowy sources. They’re here among us often, though seldom perceived. They’re like guardians, angels, or benevolent beings who appear for a moment, perform their assigned task, then round the corner and disappear into thin air.
I still hold onto my dearest Christmas present ever—a beautiful mat made of Walmart plastic bags.
“Merry Christmas, Navy!”
Ornament image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.pixaby.com