December 15, 2017
By Rick Smith
My fast pitch-softball teammate jabbed my ribs with the end of a bat while advising, “Wake-up, Smith. Don’t be missing any more signals.”
In my prior time at bat I’d missed a bunt signal from our third base coach. I assured my teammate that I wouldn’t miss a signal again, but he continued to poke at my side and declare, “Wake up, Smith.”
Then I did wake up.
On the Way Home
I wasn’t playing ball at all. I was dreaming — asleep in a chair in the terminal of San Francisco International Airport. It was December 16, 1971. Twenty hours earlier I’d departed Long Binh, Vietnam and was heading home in time for Christmas after having been honorably discharged from the military.
I’d spent 10 months in Vietnam and nearly two years in the U.S. Army as a draftee and military journalist. Now, it was all coming to an end, complete with a surprise ending for my girlfriend.
Connie and I had dated for three years and had been planning marriage when the lottery draft took me into the military in 1970. She said she’d wait for me and I hoped she would. Her letters in the daily mail call always lifted my heart – even the prank Dear John letter she sent me one time.
Connie knew I was coming home, believing my arrival date would be January 10. But back in Long Binh some good luck sped-up my out-processing and I departed earlier than scheduled. I decided not to call Connie from San Francisco, opting instead for the surprise ending.
But, first I had the poking issue to resolve.
Take Nothing for Granted
“Wake-up, Smith” said the military policeman poking me with his billy club. “You can’t be sleeping here. Wake-up Smith.”
I was traveling in uniform which allowed the MP to read my name tag. Sleeping in a terminal in uniform was considered behavior unbecoming to a soldier and was not allowed. He directed me to a USO room where I attempted to sleep on the floor with minimal success.
My flight home was set for 9:30 a.m. At 5:30 I returned to the main terminal and found a restaurant for some breakfast. Eggs, bacon, toast, hash brown potatoes. A slice of orange. I lingered over the meal while reading the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the quiet of my solitude, savoring the taste of the meal and enjoying the paper, my heart swelled with peace and thanksgiving. I vowed to myself that I’d never take anything for granted again.
Clear Connection Surprise
As for Connie, it was a surprise ending but not a BIG surprise ending. I’d contemplated surprising her while she walked home from work, but settled on simply calling her at home to tell her the news.
“Hi, honey!” she answered after receiving my call. “What’s going on?” “What do you mean?” I played dumb.
“Well…the connection. It’s so clear. And there’s no delay in saying and hearing words, like last time. Where are you at?” she asked.
“Well,” I dragged it out, “how would you feel if I told you we’d be together again before Christmas?”
“Oh, my gosh, Rick, what’s happened?” Connie’s energy surged. “Where are you at? What do you mean before Christmas? When before Christmas?”
“I guess I could say,” I replied, “do you have any plans for …tonight?”
Minutes later I was on my way to Connie’s house. It began to snow as I drove along. hadn’t driven in a while, so I carefully navigated, enjoying the snow and the houses decorated for Christmas along the way.
Then Christmas Came Early
Finally, I parked along the curb, right in front of Connie’s house. As I walked to the door she came out. We met on her covered porch where we embraced and kissed. We held each other tight and laughed and cried.
Our two years of separation were over. We were back together again. As the snow continued to fall, the bells of St. Patrick’s Church a block away began to play Joy to the World. We laughed and cried and kissed again.
Without a doubt, for each of us, in 1971 Christmas Day came on December 17.