Monday, January 16, 2006

Latest Excerpt From Notes of Joy and Sadness

Christmas, Even Here

Last night I walked the nearly two miles from the compound where I work to our squadron. I could have signed out a truck and driven there, but it was a beautiful night and the walk provided an opportunity for some solitude. The waxing moon outshined all but the brightest stars, and cast its light across a far-flung layer of thin, high cloud. My walk carried me past a large spherical antenna shelter. The moonlight gleamed on the top and faded down the curving sides. In the darkness, the shelter seemed to be a planet, reflecting the light of its small silver sun.

I had a cigar in my pocket, and paused a moment to light it. Then, marked by its glowing orange tip and a wreath of silver smoke, I left the road, cutting across a broad, dark patch of desert. Had I not walked this route before in daylight, I wouldn't have done it last night in the dark. Concertina wire, which is the tinsel of deployed bases, is invisible in the dark, and once wandered into, is difficult to get out of without leaving something precious behind.

Absent razor wire though, the desert is a beautiful place at night. Having no particular schedule to keep, I sat for a bit on a rock, accompanied only by the darkness, the silence, and a tiny desert fox that flirted with the limits of my peripheral vision. On a night like this, not far from here and not particularly long ago, shepherds keeping watch over their flocks were amazed by the sight of a heavenly host. Angels shouted, trumpets sounded, and the word went out. The world is changed forever.

On the distant end of a momentarily forgotten runway, a pair of fighters lit their afterburners. They shattered the silence and leaped into the sky, trailing 20-foot cones of pink flame. No angels for me this night (none that I can see) but I am no less aware of Christmas for the lack of them. This night, this place, my circumstances - as foreign and as far removed as they are from the Christmases I have known, they are somehow appropriate. Christmas exists outside the presents, the trees, and even the company of my family.

Maybe that explains what happened on this day during the First World War. The German troops, facing the British across a blasted landscape, caroled them with Stille Nacht. The British answered with a carol of their own. The Germans sang another, and as Christmas Eve wore on, the night was filled with songs, back and forth across no-man's land, celebrating something that transcended even war. On Christmas day, a small number of Germans climbed from their trenches. With one exception, they held their hands in the air. In the center of no-man's land, the man with his hands in front of him dropped his burden. It was a soccer ball.

The day was filled with games. Schnapps and whiskey were exchanged. Men who had faced each other across the most brutal battlefield known to man laughed and ran and drank together like brothers. Even for those men, whose world was bounded by machine guns, barbed wire and slaughter, Christmas was transcendent.

We won't be playing soccer with terrorists over here. We won't share any sense of brotherhood with them. Our religions and their conduct of war preclude that. Still, Christmas is here. This evening the open space outside the chow hall was covered with tables and chairs, and burgers and hotdogs smoked over charcoal grills. We ate under the same sky I noted last night, while the general and the chief handed out stockings filled with gifts.

After supper two of my colleagues and I retired to the smoking area - a dusty corner protected by 12 foot high concrete barriers - for a Christmas Eve cigar. (I know, that's two cigars in as many days, but it's Christmas.) We were surprised to find that the camo netting overhead, through which the silver moonlight filtered, was strung with Christmas lights. Someone had spread Astroturf over the gravel and set out chairs, and from a radio came Christmas carols. I might have failed to notice these improvements were we at home, or noticing them, failed to be affected. Here though, they mean a lot to me.

When we finished smoking and talking to the airmen gathered there, we wished them all a Merry Christmas and returned to the facility where we work. On entering, we were arrested by the sound of a flute. On the operations floor, below the many screens showing maps and aircraft, and video footage from our unmanned surveillance aircraft, a group of carolers was finishing Oh Come Oh Come Emanuel.

Normally I can't decide what I want for Christmas, but this year I know exactly. To read again to my children. To say their prayers and put them to bed. To spend a quiet evening with my wife and, when the evening is over, to peer into our little ones' darkened rooms and listen to the softness of their breathing. I will have those things. It will take a little while, but don't feel bad about that. As with many things, the waiting will make the realization that much better.

I've long been a little cynical about decorations and carols and wishing people Merry Christmas. Not long ago I told a friend that I wasn't sure why we made such a big production out of the day. Easter I understand, because Jesus' resurrection seems to me so much more miraculous than His birth. But I've come to revise that philosophy. The angels who appeared to the shepherds clearly thought Jesus' birth warranted celebration on a grand scale. I find, now, that I am inclined to agree. That alone might be worth the trip.

Merry Christmas

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