Twas Christmas morning 1982, Fort Clayton, Panama, and about 95 degrees with 100% humidity. I awoke to the sound of police sirens going off, so away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw open the sash! Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a convoy of Military Police vehicles circling the 193rd Infantry Division’s “Mech Loop,” with Santa Claus in the back of a pickup truck yelling “Merry Christmas!!” to everyone sticking their heads out the windows of the barracks to see what was going on. “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” Santa yelled over and over through his loud speaker, followed by one wise crack that made everyone laugh, “It’s a great day to be alive and in Panama!” He was mocking Major Schuler, our Battalion Commander, who yelled every Friday morning at 4 a.m. when in the 95 degree heat and 100% humidity, we’d do a 30 minute, 3-mile long run up and down the hills of Fort Clayton. (And it NEVER felt like a great day to be alive and in Panama at 4 a.m. running 3 miles in the sweltering tropical heat and humidity!)
This was my first Christmas away from home – far, far away from home! That Christmas day, Debbie, Edna, and I decided last minute to pack our bags and head out on a boat to the sandy beaches of tropical Taboga Island. On the hour long boat ride, our Panamanian friend would play his guitar and sing, “Feliz Navidad!” It was quite the adventure, and certainly one I’ll not soon forget! Once back to Panama City that evening, we’d ride a colorful bus playing loud salsa music back to Fort Clayton. I felt like I was on top of the world – living in tropical Central America, basking in the sun on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. (But there’s no place like home, especially for the holidays!)
Years later, I’d find myself in a small barracks building at Camp Coiner in Yong San, Seoul, Korean, home of the 8th Military Police Brigade. Bill, Oz, Debbie, Yong Shin, Donna, and I tried to find a place to have Christmas Eve dinner together off post, but wound up coming back with just a bag of Asian apples, a bottle of Soju, and a monopoly game. We stayed up all night long laughing and enjoying spending the holiday together, each of us telling stories of how we would spend Christmas once returning stateside. Everyone counted the days until we would return home to the U.S., but we had no idea how much we’d cherish these days and this time as the years would continue to pass by.
Christmas 1992, Berlin, Germany. Gina, Misty, & I took the U-Bahn (that’s a subway) to Potsdamer Platz to enjoy walking around at the Christmas Markets, stopping between shops for a glass of hot “Gluwein” or to enjoy some chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Then, back on the U-Bahn to return home with a beautiful pink ornament I’ve hung every year on my tree since then, each time re-telling the story of my trip to the Christmas markets with Gina and Misty. It’s still my favorite Christmas ornament!
Christmas Eve 1993 I pulled into the garage bringing my youngest son home from the hospital here back in Michigan, and Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was playing on the radio. I’ve been home for 30 consecutive Christmas’s since then! Those many holidays so far away from home, in so many places all over the world spent with many friends I maintain friendships with even today, remain some of my life’s favorite memories!
But those beautiful tropical beaches of Panama, the delicious Asian apples in Korea, and the snowy nights walking through Berlin’s Christmas Marts drinking Gluwein will never hold a candle to a Michigan Christmas, having the grandchildren nearby, sleigh rides at Wolcott Mills with family, the Christmas tree walk in Algonac, trips to Frankenmuth, and chicken dinners at Zhender’s. THIS is home, and there’s nothing like it!
And Major Schuler – I’ve got news for you. It’s an even greater day to be alive and in Michigan! There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays! Or for any other time of year!