(Winter scene at the female barracks, Misawa AB, 1979)
I spent my first Christmas on active duty in Basic Training, where the food was excellent and really agreed with me--- gosh, I had never thought of putting a handful of raisins into apple pies--- and for Christmas dinner, we could have shrimp cocktail and take our time. This was greatly appreciated after a month of bolting our meals in ten minutes flat; some of the other girls were afraid they would be spoiled ever afterwards for leisurely dinner dates.
Air Force chow is legendarily great, but Army chow is something else again, as I discovered after three weeks of tech school at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, and several days of what I thought was the flu.
“Gastritis, “said the medical tech, “You got it from something you ate.”
“Ha, ha, ha, “I said, “I haven’t eaten anywhere but your mess hall for three weeks.”
“Ha, ha, ha, “replied the medical tech, “What an amusing but essentially meaningless coincidence.”
I left with a bag of prescriptions and a firm resolve to never darken the mess hall’s door again. I bought a hot plate, a saucepan, a small fry pan, a pottery mug and a stack of paper plates, and defied every existing fire and safety regulation regarding cooking in ones’ dorm room for the rest of my school, keeping eggs and milk on the windowsill outside--- Indiana is cold in the early spring. I also fed my roommate, who was usually so wasted on a variety of substances--- some of which were legal and others that were prescribed for her--- that she couldn’t have found the mess hall anyway. I policed my room carefully, and hid the hotplate and pans in my locker (A no-go area for casual inspection) when not in use.
The women’s barracks at Misawa AFB was a relic of the WAFs, where Air Force women had been a separate unit, with their own command and First Shirt, and only assigned out to work in the various base functions, and it boasted it’s very own kitchen: your basic countertop units, with sink, stove and refrigerator, and sufficient cockroaches for any number of walk-up tenement units. I bought a toaster oven, and storage jars and tins with tight-fitting lids, and went on cooking for myself: not only was the dining hall inconveniently far away, but their meal service was incompatible with broadcaster working hours. And besides, they did strange things like adorn the meat loaf with maraschino cherries.
I only got to know a handful of the other women at first, mostly those who worked shifts and were around during the day, like I was--- Jenny from the hospital, and Tree from the motor pool, a couple of others who worked on the Hill (of which nothing more was to be said) and Hannah the Barracks Ho, who took an energetically recreational approach to sex. Very late one early winter night, the door to my room blew shut while I was in the shower, locking me out. I tapped on the only door in the corridor with a bit of light showing underneath, and met a newer arrival than me: Thea, who let me crawl out her window in a towel, and scamper along the wide ledge to my own window, which I had left open for air. Then I put on a robe, and took my key and went to thank Thea. She was a short and energetic girl, about my age, and the same kind of background, the daughter of a reserve Colonel, who was mildly disappointed in his sons, but thrilled that his daughter was going Air Force: we agreed that we were both Daddies’ girls.
Christmas Day in the barracks in Japan was a drear and lonely thing, compared to the year before. The barracks was silent and cheerless; everyone was either off to their supervisors’ houses for Christmas dinner, or miserably huddling in their rooms, alone. Thea and I walked over to the mess hall, which was almost deserted. We ate our turkey and pie, and walked back along the athletic field, towards the dorm. It was bone-chilling cold, under a lead-colored sky. There was no snow on the ground, but the dry grass crunched under our feet. Every other place on base was closed and the miasma of depression hung over the enlisted barracks: No lights, no cheer, no music, no tree, no tradition.
“This is horrible, “ Thea said, “I thought they would have something organized.”
“Everyone is just too depressed. They hate being here, away from their families.”
“I’m gonna be here next Christmas too,” Thea said, “Damned if I am going to spend it like this.”
“Next year, we’ll get organized, “ I said. Something brushed against my parka hood and fell towards the ground. “Look, it’s starting to snow.”
A few fat, feathery clusters of snow began falling, and then thickened to a thick veil. It was so quiet, you could hear the whispering rustle as it fell.
“My first white Christmas, “ I said, “I’ve never seen it snow on Christmas before.”
When we got back to the dorm, it was thick enough on the ground to begin making a snowman… and we began our plans to be organized for the next Christmas. We would cook ourselves a proper dinner, we would have lights and a tree, and we would not let people drink alone in their rooms, just to get through the day. We would have a Christmas, that if not the Christmases we had with our families, would be merry and memorable, and we would drag the rest of the barracks along with us, even if the other girls kicked and screamed all the way
(Next: Assembling Team Christmas)