Mike Tharp: Spending Christmas in a foreign land

12/25/2009 11:39 PM

12/28/2009 9:35 AM

Christmas away from home.

We've all gone through it sometime in our lives. The song says, "I'll be home for Christmas," but once in awhile, we find ourselves far away from where we'd want to be on the most traditional family holiday.

Three times it's happened to me.

One was lovely. Two were tough.

The first time came in graduate school at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Because I was a Rotary Foundation Fellow, I was lucky to be with my foster family in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, a mining town 24 miles north of Cardiff. John and Mabel Edwards, son Martin and daughter Hilary took me into their home when I first arrived from America.

"Whenever you find yourself at a loose end" was their permanent invitation to visit. That's where I spent Christmas 1967. John, an accountant and high-ranking member of Rotary's British leadership, emerged as an influential figure in my life. Didn't drink, smoked cigars and taught me about history and human nature.

Mabel was a fabulous cook, and her dessert trifle was to die for. I'd gotten audio tapes from my folks and other family members and played them, alone in my room. But thanks to the Edwards' family, it was almost like being home.

In Britain, the day after Christmas is also a holiday, Boxing Day. So on Dec. 26, I bused to Swansea, west of Cardiff on the south Welsh coast. There I spent the day and night with Eiryl (which means "snowflake" in Welsh), a young woman who worked in the university's student advisory office. They catered mainly to foreign students. I was the only Yank at the university that year, so I guess I was easy to remember.

What I don't remember is what I gave Eiryl as a present. She got me a bright orange sweater from a posh London store. That day we watched the Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" -- and I became one of the few Americans to see it for years. The film was panned so badly in the British press that it wasn't released in the U.S. for a long time. Even so, I liked it because it showcased the Beatles, who had become the prophets of my generation.

The second Christmas away from home I was on guard duty in Vietnam. Three soldiers to a bunker, about a dozen bunkers our unit was assigned to protect. We got inspected in company formation after chow at 6 p.m., then picked up an M-60 machine gun and an M-79 grenade launcher from the armory, as well as the World War II radio you had to crank like a Model T to use on hourly "commo checks."

I forget which bunker we manned on Christmas. It was one of them on the front perimeter, facing Highway 1 which led to Saigon. A South Vietnamese village lay beyond the highway. Even with no wind, we could always smell the scents that forever remind of Vietnam -- charcoal smoke, human waste, gasoline fumes and nuoc mahm, a fermented fish sauce the Vietnamese applied to most of their food.

Three shifts: 9 to midnight; midnight to 3; 3 to 6 a.m. The middle one was hardest because you'd almost never sleep on the cot you carried to the bunker -- instead staying awake to BS with the other two soldiers. Then you fought to stay awake for three hours. Christmas night '69 I got the middle shift.

To stay alert I moved in front of the igloo-shaped concrete bunker and leaned back against the sand bags. Cradled my M-14 (we didn't get M-16s till late in my tour) and looked out beyond the wire. I recall a vague loneliness, imagining what the family was doing 16 hours earlier in Kansas. But like most soldiers, I'd long since built a bunker around my heart. "Don't mean nothin'" was the mantra for a lot of us by that stage of the war.

That helped get rid of homesickness. But the feeling I could never surrender was: there's a guy out there I've never met who wants to kill me. In other times or places, we could've sat down and swapped war stories over bottles of "33" beer. But this was not the time. And this was not the place. So you had to be on guard.

Like most soldiers, I got through Christmas as we did every day of our tour. Each night in the hootch, we'd scratch off one more number on our Short-Timer's Calendar -- 365 spaces to X out, counting backwards till DEROS, Date Estimated Return from Overseas.

And as if to show me who was still the boss -- Uncle Sam or Santa Claus -- I also pulled guard duty New Year's Eve. At least I got to fire, against orders, a few rounds into the sky when midnight rolled around.

Third time away from home at Christmas was in Somalia 1992. Covering the famine and civil war. My third day in-country I got mugged and robbed at a makeshift market in Mogadishu. The AK-47-wielding bandits didn't get the money belt around my waist inside my shirt that held $3,000 in $100 bills. But they got the fanny pack with my passport, credit cards and photos of my kids. One rifle barrel through the car window against my cheek, another in my ribs.

Stupidly, I'd gone into the city without my three bodyguards, $100 a day each.

But I was lucky. Two days later I got everything back, after I paid an Ethiopian interpreter $100 to give to one of the Somalis who'd taken me down. They had no use for a company credit card or photos of infidel children. A week later at the same street market, an Italian journalist was blown away for his gold necklace. I was lucky.

Christmas that year I was sick. A gastrointestinal infection, probably caused by eating camel meat, led to my losing 20 pounds in a month. Ray Homer, an ABC correspondent, invited me to the network's Christmas party. They rented a villa a kilometer or so from the "hotel" where a couple dozen of us hacks had rooms. I couldn't eat much of the American fare ABC had flown in for their people, but I managed to finish half a warm beer.

Then I went back to the hotel and my room. Read a biography of Hank Williams Sr. till I fell asleep. Around 9 o'clock.

Like an amputee who still feels his missing arm or leg, somebody away from home at Christmas still senses the absence of his family. But those times away also make you appreciate even more what it means to be home at Christmas.

This year, as on the last two, I worked Christmas Day. Son Nao and daughter Dylann drove up from L.A. to spend last night. They got me what I asked for -- an iPod loaded with Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Dire Straits, Creedence, Temptations, Doors, Eagles, Dylan, Seger, Springsteen -- and Nao's own music, which I describe as Zen reggae funk.

The iPod will come in handy on the Stairmaster at the Oblivion Gym, which is my name for the Millennium Club. And this year, with my son and daughter here for conversation and company, Christmas came home to Merced.

Merry Christmas. And Happy Year of the Tiger.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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