Clay Rivers
Published in

Clay Rivers

What a Lonely Christmas Can Teach You

Photo by Katie Treadway on Unsplash

Christmas Eve, 2003

“Don’t fuck with me, man! I have a beard!”

The roar of laughter from the rooftop of the Special Operations compound drowns out the next words from comedian Robin Williams’s mouth. A few of the Green Berets have been using a spotlight to grab Mrs. Doubtfire’s attention while he performs standup at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Half blinded, he notices and makes the jab at the bearded men.

I stand under the rooftop chuckling while he points a finger toward the compound. Most of the special operations teams are allowed relaxed grooming standards and have grown beards. To Robin Williams, it’s the ultimate source of their badassery. I’m one of the few who’s clean shaven having returned from the Pakistani border. I now man a radio with my good hand in the main headquarters on Kandahar Airfield. My other hand sports a cast that snakes it way up to my elbow while my fingers curl and look like I’m giving everyone a thumbs up. You look silly when your job is to answer phones and man the radio but you’re rocking a beard like you’re a special snowflake. Our command has me shave.

“What happened to your arm, son?”

When I turn to see who asked, the first thing I see are four stars on the man’s cap. I go rigid and awkwardly salute with my injured arm. But it looks like I’m giving him the Fonz’s “Heeeyyyyyyy” thumbs up while saluting. His lips purse into a thin smile while he stifles a laugh.

“At ease, son.”

I relax and notice his name — Meyers. General Richard Myers. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and highest ranking official in the entire military.

Shit.

“How’d you break that?” he asks again.

“Rocket, sir!” I do my best to appear snappy and professional when I’m anything but that. “I was on a small base next to the Paki border and our base got attacked. Took shrapnel, and the impact broke my wrist. Had to drag a friend of mine to safety while wounded.”

There were guys on base who broke their arms playing basketball or dropping weights in the gym, so I felt I should clarify.

General Meyers asks a few more questions about where I’m from and my family. Then we snap a photo together before he tries to corral Robin Williams away from the soldiers surrounding him.

And some doofus got his thumb in the only photo we took, too…

I head back to our ramshackle tent where people are watching a bootleg copy of the final Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. In the back of the tent someone is playing Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

“Not gonna be home this year…” I mutter under my breath.

Christmas is a sad and lonely time when you’re fighting a war. It’s why they send USO tours to the troops around Christmas. There’s a general mopey-ness as opposed to the energy and excitement back in the states.

I still remember just how lonely and hard those Christmases were. To this day, if I hear the soulful crooning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” I always think of spending Christmas in Iraq and Afghanistan with a pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas tree jammed with Pop-Tarts and Pringles under its waning leaves as presents.

Despite the loneliness, they have become fond memories.

Redemption by Icing

I try to stuff the giggles for fear they’ll betray the fact I hid Smirnoff Ice in Christmas presents this year.

The entire process was easy. Hand your family member a good present first. “You got me an Amazon gift card? Thanks, sis!” But lurking in another wrapped box is a deliciously hideous Smirnoff Ice. It’s like playing Russian Roulette, but with kiwi strawberry flavored sewage water. You don’t end up dead. Just pissed off. Because now they have to chug the abomination, too.

When my brother and his wife unwrap their presents, I squeal in delight. My parents just look confused once they pull out the malt liquor beverage.

“GET DOWN ON A KNEE AND CHUG!”

My brother shakes his head and looks at the floor. “You better hope to God they don’t make Smirnoff Ice in gallon size by next Christmas.”

Instead of revenge, a few Christmases later my brother and I dress up as elves to annoy our wives. Then to continue our Christmas prank we ice them together as a joke. They were not amused.

Iced hardcore (left) | Santa’s little helpers (right)

For the past twenty-plus years, my family has the same meal every Christmas Eve. As my brother is the traditionalist, he refuses to let it change. Even while I was deployed, they continued the tradition, praying for my safe return so I could join them once more in the festivities. When I did, it was as if nothing changed. The pranks, merriment, and laughter went on unabated. The Christmas I returned home from Iraq, I went through a divorce when my (then) wife left and found myself in a deep depression. Despite the dark cloud that seemed to follow me everywhere, my brother was the one to ensure I caught the Christmas bug.

When in the car we’d blast our favorite Christmas tunes, we decorated the tree together with my mom and dad, we’d argue over our favorite Christmas beers, and on Christmas Day he bought me extra gifts.

That memory is like the finale of the movie Inside Out, where the sad memory also becomes a happy one. Despite the pain, despite the hurt, and despite the sadness and loneliness from the divorce, my brother took the time to ensure Christmas was the same, if not better. I even look back on the lonely Christmases overseas with affection and remember my family cared enough to send me a dopey tree and a bunch of presents I could stuff in a go-bag so I could eat something beside an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) on a mission.

Those depressing Christmases also remind me that on a sad and lonely night in the middle of the desert, a young couple got turned away from an inn and spent an evening in a barn with shepherds for company. Yet, that story is one we all look on with fondness during Christmas.

There can be a redeeming value even in a lonely Christmas if you let it. Whether that be a family member walking with you through depression, a friend inviting you to their family Christmas, or a group of soldiers singing carols while away from their families … Christmas reminds us there’s always a glimmer of hope in the dark.

Ben Sledge is a salty, old vet who loves Christmas and writing about the ghosts of his (Christmas) past, present, and future. You can discover more of his writing on life, war, and mental health by clicking here.

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Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.

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Benjamin Sledge

Benjamin Sledge

Author | Combat wounded veteran | Mental health specialist | Former geopol intel | My new book—Where Cowards Go to Die—is available here: https://amz.run/5GAb

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