Sunday, December 21, 2014

Home Away from Home for the Holidays

(In the ER) There is an irony at this time of the year, described as "the most joyous," which produces the most noxious music to the ear. Some of the  "new" Christmas tunes are still recognizable, but only barely, their melodies paired with arrhythmic tempos and tattoos.  The most onerous of these collections are generally  found in hospital waiting rooms, where the wailing and bleating blends nicely with the suffering of the injured.

Some examples of such musical travesties include a Dixieland treatment of "Sleigh Ride," with a non-stop back beat that totally ignores the nuances Leroy Anderson wrote to mimic the crack of the whip in the tune.  Then there's the abominable arrangement of Franz Gruber’s "Stille Nacht--" for my money, one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written--totally destroyed by the application of a disco beat.

There are new Christmas songs being produced by a younger crop of "artists" that defy definition. In the past hour and a half that I have been waiting, one such "song" has played twice in the ER area here: A female singer whines through the same four notes for bars and bars and bars against an electronic drum track.

It's a song that's something about the memories of Christmas. I know this because at one point, she speaks over the accompaniment about eating ice cream at Christmas time; the rest of the words of the song are totally unintelligible.

The music never changes chords, either. Sometimes she sings the notes in reverse sequence, just to break the monotony. It doesn't work.

The reason I'm paying such close attention to this musical tripe is to drown out the conversation in the next bed on the other side of the hospital curtain. A man has brought his elderly father in for care for a case of "the trots." The discussion of his rectal effluent is being graphically described in color and consistency,  and a comparison to pancake batter has been effectively,  irreversibly made. The culinary history of the older gentleman next door is also being re-hashed in minute detail.

Suddenly, the shrill of a Phil Specter arrangement of "Christmas" doesn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Family Traditions at Christimas

Lots of families have traditions at Christmastime that are passed down from year to year.
Some of them are so old, no one remembers exactly how or why they came to be; it's just the way things have always been done. In our family, a great-grandmother's recipe for ginger bread cookies, made from pure cane molasses is the most anticipated, most sought after gift of the season. 


As my great grandmother and grandmother did in Christmases past, my aunts and mother and father have faithfully replicated the recipe each year. My Bride now does an admirable job of precisely duplicating the flavor and texture of those beloved gingerbread cookies, as well. And so that tradition will continue with the next generation.

Other traditions are more recently inaugurated, and with the advent of the Internet and social media, their origins can be more precisely traced.  Such is the annual re-gifting of the opened jar of chocolate nuts in our family. 

Admit it--we all re-gift.  But who would re-gift an obviously opened package?

The year before my younger brother died, our family had gathered on Christmas Day to exchange gifts and share a meal, before driving to nearby Wharton County for an extended-family holiday reunion.  There were four siblings in my immediate clan; I am the oldest, followed by three years by Craig. Our sister, Kay, is five years younger than me; and Scott, the youngest brother, is 12-years my junior.

Scott was always the one getting into mischief without really trying when he was growing up. He wasn't a bad kid--he was uniquely intelligent, and always wanted to keep up with his older brothers and sister. Our mother had her hands full as she raised us, and being frugal, she would plan ahead for things like Christmas gifts--often buying items earlier in the year for Yule time giving.

For this particular Christmas weekend, our mother had placed jars of chocolate covered almonds in a festive gift bag for each of us. One by one, we each opened our jar of chocolate nuts, and immediately munched on a handful. Craig, however, had a bemused expression on his face, and nudged me to show what was in his bag. It was the same jar of nuts, alright, but the vacuum seal had already been broken...and half the contents were gone!

(We later learned Mom had bought the nuts back before Thanksgiving. Scott had apparently been unable to wait, and opened one of the jars to "sample" the wares. Our mother, unaware of the pilfering, prepared the jar for giving...to Craig.)

When Scott looked over and saw Craig's half-empty jar of chocolate nuts, he burst out laughing, as did the rest of us, when we learned what had happened.
By the Spring, Craig would be gone, a victim of Leukemia.

 The following Christmas was a somber one; the first one without Craig. We all put on brave faces and gathered again for gift-giving and meal sharing, with an even closer bond with one another because of the shared loss of our brother, spouse, father, grandfather and son. 

My daughter made a special Christmas tree ornament for everyone that year with a photo of Craig placed in the center of a large, wooden snowflake. There were more than a few tears and sobs as we each opened that gift.

Scott passed to me a rumpled gift bag with tissue paper stuffed in the top. I reached in and pulled out a jar of chocolate covered almonds...half empty. As I opened the lid, I noticed a post-it note stuck to the vacuum seal, still partially attached to the mouth of the jar.

"Remember last year when we all laughed so hard together!" the note said, written in my youngest brother's unmistakable architect's scrawl. "Will be one of my favorite memories!" 

I think I had a pretty hard time reading the last line because my vision had become suddenly blurry with flurry of tears. And then I laughed, and Scott laughed, because it had been a pretty funny incident.

That was three years ago.
This year, once again, Craig's ornament graces our tree, smiling back at the room as if to share a private joke or two. This week, as my Bride and I re-packed that same, opened jar with more chocolate covered almonds, I noticed it looked odd.
It was full.

In order to maintain the authenticity of the tradition, I had to "remove" a few of the nuts.
The tradition will continue.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Lest We Forget..."



The loud roar of an aviation engine shattered the calm of Sunday morning's routines. Two ten year old boys, playing in the stillness, rushed outside to see the source.

Japanese aerial photo of first torpedo splashes and
first hit on USS West Virginia/Photo Credit: USN Archives
Tommy pointed to the sky as a line of twenty low-flying monoplanes lumbered past the roof of the two-story house, barely 50-feet in the air. The pilots' and gunners' faces were clearly visible as they flew past, cockpit canopies opened to allow the cool morning slipstream inside. Below each planes' belly was slung a long, metallic cylinder with wooden fins.

"Look, Ma, at the torpedo planes!" Tommy shouted back at the house.
"I know, dammit; they aren't ours!" his mother shouted back. "Get the hell inside!" she screamed.

An escort fighter roared overhead, spraying the house and yard with machine gun fire. Two rounds landed in an upstairs bedroom, where Tommy's older sister lay sleeping. Just a few hundred yards away, explosions began to rock the ground, thick, dark smoke stained the sky, and the buzz of warplanes filled the air. The boys scrambled back inside, and the family huddled in the house until the sounds ceased.

USS Arizona burns
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
It was December 7, 1941, and Tommy Gillette had just witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the vantage of his front yard on the Naval Base. Gillette's father was a Navy Captain, responsible for managing all repairs and salvage at Pearl, a post he would retain until just prior to the Battle of Midway.

Recently de-classified information from both sides about the attack has revealed that while the United States was clearly surprised at Pearl Harbor, Japanese aggression was expected--and that the US Military had been instructed by President Franklin Roosevelt to allow Japan to draw first blood. They just didn’t think it would be on Oahu.

Pearl Harbor Survivor
Thomas W. Gillette
Photo: Brent Clanton
These revelations were the topic of a presentation by Thomas W. Gillette in ceremonies Saturday aboard the Battleship Texas commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Gillette says Roosevelt recognized the Japanese threat to America's interests in the Pacific as early as World War I, when he served as Under-secretary of the Navy. When FDR became President, he silently began to upgrade the US Naval Fleet by replacing older vessels with more modern warships.

Gillette says FDR anticipated Japanese aggression against the US Fleet in the Pacific, and also authorized the construction of new Navy drydock facilities at Pearl and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the late 1930's. Those drydocks would prove crucial in repairing warships damaged at Pearl Harbor.

Capsized USS Utah
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
Gillette says as a teenager, he remembered watching workers at the Puget Sound yard rebuilding the U.S.S. Nevada, Tennessee, California and West Virginia in succession, battleships all sunk in the attack at Pearl.

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was a tactical win for Japan--but only partially so, as the US Navy’s ability to repair its warships escaped damage. Gillette says, “In retrospect, it was a strategic victory for our Allies,” he says. “It unified all Americans with fierce resolve to defeat the Axis powers.” 

USS Arizona Memorial
Photo Credit: Brent Clanton
"Pearl Harbor taught us the need to be prepared, and the folly of underestimating your enemies," Gillette said on Saturday. "We should never forget those lessons."


Tom Gillette served in the US Navy as a Ship Repair Officer from 1952-1955. He later went to work for Exxon, and was responsible for the salvage of the Exxon Valdez. Tom's father, Claude Gillette, achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Tom donates his time to the First Texas Volunteers, giving guided tours aboard the Battleship Texas. You can usually find him in Boiler Room #3.