My first Christmas away from home was in Germany. The military made efforts to make Christmas special for the troops; instead the meager decorations and the trumped up Christmas dinner in the mess hall, made most of us miss Mamma’s cooking and the comforts of home even more. I’ll have to give it to the mess sergeant, though: he roasted a bunch of turkeys and the drumstick I got was very delicious. He didn’t seem to sacrifice quality with the large quantity he was obliged to prepare.
The airman’s club had a special program that first Christmas and the main attraction was a group called “Bill Haley and the Comets.” That’s the group that made “Rock Around the Clock” famous. They were already old hat, a group from yesteryear, as the DJ might express it. But the rhythms and the loud electric guitars brought a warm nostalgic feeling to those assembled, especially the older guys, who had been teenagers in the early 50’s when Bill Haley was at his peak. Just after Christmas, the club brought in the venerable comedian Morey Amsterdam. His responses to hecklers were the most memorable part of his performance. I remember one of those responses as if it were yesterday. One newly arrived recruit up front close to the stage was giving Morey a hard time. When the comedian had enough, he simply said, “Son, go rub ointment on your pimples.” That shut him up.
Another good thing the military did to make Christmas special for the troops was to give us some time off. We had leisure to play some pool, to watch the dilapidated old television downstairs in the barracks, to catch up on letter writing and to listen to Armed Forces Network on the radio. My favorite radio program was called “Stick Buddy,” and it was country music, you know, your buddy from the sticks. One of my friends insisted that it was called “Stick Buddy” because, in the Air Force, pilots called their co-pilots stick buddies, because the operating apparatus of the early airplanes was a stick. I could never get a pilot to affirm that intelligence, though. The “Stick Buddy” radio program had a theme song that went, “I don’t want to be lying in bed when they pronounce me dead…I don’t want my hat to be hung when my last song is sung…I won’t be planting potato slips when I cash in my chips, etc.”
We also got a daily paper over there, “The Stars and Stripes,” which was, of course, modeled on the kinds of newspapers we were used to back in the states. I particularly enjoyed the comic section, especially the Beetle Bailey strip. So many things in those clever drawings and dialogue were very much like what actually happened in my unit. We had a sergeant that looked for all the world like Beetle’s Sarge and he didn’t like it at all if we posted a clipping from Beetle Baily on the bulletin board. He never said anything, but the cartoon never remained posted from one evening to the next morning.
Sometimes even now, when I read the funnies or hear a clever country song or bite into a succulent turkey drumstick, I have an involuntary bittersweet memory of my first Christmas away from home.