Every year around this time, somebody will inevitably ask me to tell them about the most memorable holiday season I have experienced during my lifetime. And when considering the question, I always find myself thinking that the Christmas of 1984 probably should not be the one that occurs to me first.

And yet it always is...

Whether we choose to admit it or not, all of us have experienced moments in our lives when we have felt like loners or believe that we do not fit in with whatever group or situation we are experiencing at the time. To some extent I have felt that way for much of my life – but never more so than in December of 1984. 

I was serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time, and was stationed at Hellenikon Air Base in Athens, Greece. Although I was no longer a child – I had turned 21 earlier in the year while in basic training – it was my first holiday season away from home and as far as I was concerned I was misery personified. 

Everyone I cared about most in the world were clear over on the other side of the planet. My parents, my two little brothers, the girl I would eventually marry, the friends who had been such an important part of my life for years... all of them were back home making the holiday plans just like they did every year. Except that, this year, I wasn’t there being a part of it all. For the first time in my life I wouldn’t be there celebrating with them. 

And in my darkest moments, when paranoia took control of sorrow and made me think things I should have known had no basis in truth, I found myself believing that perhaps they all preferred that I wasn’t there. In my heart I knew it wasn't true, but that didn't stop me from thinking it anyway. Powerful is the dark side of the Force...

It wasn’t as if I was lacking for friendly companionship while stationed at Hellenikon. But my two best friends among my fellow airmen, Tom Slezak and Lorenzo Kidd, had both been sent to other bases in Europe on temporary assignments. And most of the other guys in our dormitory tended to be the hard patying kind whose idea of celebrating the holidays were to get just as drunk as possible as often as possible and brag later about how sick they’d made themselves. I never was one for that kind of so-called social activity; I’ve always been more of a stay-at-home, sipping on a root beer while reading a good book kind of guy.

Adding to my sense of holiday unease was a fear that I had made my parents angry with my most recent letter home. Around Thanksgiving I’d gotten a letter from Mom asking if there was anything special I wanted them to send me for Christmas. I immediately wrote back: “Yes. A car.” It was a joke – I knew my parents couldn’t buy me a car and ship it overseas, and would never expect them to do so even if they could – and I really thought they’d get a laugh out of the silly request. But when I didn’t hear back from them for some time I began to wonder if they’d finally written me off as a waste of their time and energy.

So deep was my self-inflicted depression that I spent most of my off-duty time that December alone in my dorm room, leaving only to eat in the chow hall or to check my mailbox at the base post office. But after nearly a month of nothing but chow hall cuisine I needed a change, so one night I walked to Mackie’s, a local eatery located just a few blocks off-base that was popular with a lot of us stationed at Hellenikon. Mackie’s was the home of what to this day is still the BEST grilled chicken and fried potatoes I have ever eaten in my life. It also sold Fanta Orange Soda in big glass bottles like I used to get at Kaveney’s Store back home in Bradley, Ill. It was hard to stay moody with a dinner like that on the table in front of you. 

As I ate I talked with Mackie and his wife, and the conversation eventually turned to my lack of holiday cheer. Mackie nodded as said he knew a lot of people who felt the same way at that time of year. But he also knew a sure-fire cure, and proceeded to administer a dose of it to me. He reached behind the counter and pulled out a bouzouki – a long-necked Greek instrument similar to a mandolin – and he and his wife prceeded to serenade me with Greek versions of Christmas carols I’d heard all my life. If Mackie’s chicken dinner was the cure to sullen moodiness, his singing and playing was like the best possible dessert. By the time we were through I was singing along - badly, of course, and in English; in my nine months in the country I only managed to pick up the smallest smattering of words in Greek and have long forgotten even those. Even so, I still wish one of us had thought to get a tape recorder...

My spirits bouyed, at least for the moment, I thanked Mackie and  his wife and walked back to the base. I stopped long enogh to check my mailbox and found a small package from my parents. Inside was a red Hot Wheels car and a note in my mother’s handwriting that said, “It was the best we could do. Merry Christmas. We love you.”

I laughed until I cried. It was exactly the perfect gift, in more ways than one. I still have that toy car, and I treasure it as much today as I did 27 years ago. In fact I’m getting a little misty-eyed sitting here thinking about it now. 

Some will say that’s silly. Well, that’s their problem.

(Copyright © 2011, by John A. Small)