A Tropical Christmas
Then there was my dad and the stories he told me of his years in the Marines. My dad came home from his last hitch in the South Pacific, full of tall tales for his brand new daughter, me. I didn't grow up with the usual bed-time stories, read to me out of a child's book. I would beg him every night for what I called a "Sea Story". Anything about his life and times when he was in the South Pacific held my undivided attention! I hung on his every word and was verbally transported nightly to a different adventure tale of the Second World War.
My dad was a Marine in Nicaragua in 1928 and told me of his pet monkeys, horse and parrots who talked. I was right there with him. Then the more recent stories of his travels as a Marine Paymaster held me glued to my seat and always wanting to hear more. When the Second WW broke out, he reenlisted andwas sent over the big pond to the South Pacific Islands with his typewriter to pay his fellow Marines.
As a child I could have repeated his stories verbatim. To my sorrow, my memory fails me for the most part and the fine details have escaped me, during the fifty years that have passed between my childhood and the present.
Somehow I always knew they were there though. Those letters. My mother kept them in our big old heavy khaki colored safe with a painting of a ship on the front of it. I always wondered why she chose to keep them there beside the war bonds, a foreign coin collection from dad's travels, pressed butterflies and the family's jewelry. Right along side grandma's upper plate and glasses, and grandpa's hearing aid and a 1927 duck-hunting license. When I was about ten years old I innocently took dad's letters out and started to read them. My mother climbed down my neck with both feet and told me they were her letters and it wasn't polite to read other people's private letters. Besides, they were "love letters" from my dad and meant for her only. As far as I was concerned those letters from my father were off limits for the rest of my life. I minded well.
Why the almost sixty year old, faded and brittle gray folder containing the letters surfaced this year I don't know. Maybe it was seeing the movie "Pearl Harbor" and as a result filled with so much emotion, I sat for ten minutes afterwards and cried. Or maybe it was something about September 11th.
I actually pulled the thick, aged ream of documents out of the safe during the summer and they sat there, untouched for a few months. I felt like my mother was still present and telling me not to pry into her intimate life with my father. As I opened the folder this last autumn, I was prepared for anything. The letters were perforated and bound at the top with a metal clip but they weren't in order. I carefully took every one loose and put each letter in chronological order from September of 1942 to August of 1944. Dad had written them on all types and sizes of paper from ultra thin onion skin to heavier thickness, Marine emblem embossed stationery. Most of them were typewritten, single spaced, written on front and back with little to no typos.
Then I began to read them. Those letters read like a book. My dad told of every condition he observed, every place he moved, everything he saw in great detail. Only thing, he couldn't write the actual name of the place he was until he left it for another island. I do know he was in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, Florida, Tulagi, Russel Island, New Georgia...and of all places— New Guinea and throughout the Solomon Islands! He says of the Solomon Islands, "The sea and islands are very beautiful from the air, coral formations, small islands and jungles are just like a movie in Technicolor."
The letters took me through many nights of sore red eyes, swimming with tears of sorrow because my dad who died in 1975, will never be able to clarify or answer the many questions that came up as I hungrily read on. Of course I also laughed out loud until I cried, over his amazing sense of humor, much like my own today.
My dad had been overseas for about fifteen months, when in November of 1943, he spoke of seeing Eclectus parrots. It was back when folks thought all the red ones were one species and all the green ones were a different species and they were generally referred to as large parakeets. I was thrilled to make this discovery and excited to see him mention Eclectus in many of his letters to my mother. After reading the first news of his Eclectus sighting, it was like a real treasure hunt to read on with breathless excitement, impatient to find out when his next Eclectus encounter might occur.
This Christmas season I asked the spirit of the person I knew my father to be, to help me spin a tale for us. You will first need to be armed with a large mug of hot chocolate topped with two standard sized marshmallows. Kindly move over by your Christmas tree and inhale deeply. And finally, please have some Christmas carols playing gently in the background. Were all set now! It is bedtime, Christmas season and cold outside tonite. I am now with my father, sitting here in my ruffled blue flannel nightie, snuggled tightly against his strong warm body and ready to share the excitement of one of his "Sea Stories" with you.
December 17, 1943
December 17th marks the date of my wedding anniversary. Fourteen years ago I was married to the most gorgeous blonde of my dreams, but out here on the vast Pacific, today is just another day for me. I would never have dreamed that I'd be where I am here today, and my loved ones there, back home and so far away. I know it won't always be like this and clinging to this comforting thought keeps me sane and on track.
Uncle Sam and the Marine Corps shipped me over to the Solomon Islands in the late summer of 1942. I know very well what it was like to spend the last sixteen month's worth of holidays pretty much alone. Oh sure, I have the company of two close friends, Brady and Rinehart and among us, we all share a similar form of aching loneliness and longing for home. But we also know we must be here in the vast Pacific to do our part, defend our country
We have been at this particular camp for about a month and set up our office tents as well as our personal tents. Our living quarters tents have sand floors with strips of tarp in the main walk areas. I made use of discarded crates for my typewriter stand and filing cabinets with custom built pigeon holes for my paper work. Just like home! Not quite! I have become quite used to sleeping on a narrow, uncomfortable canvas cot with a wooden frame and legs, in the same tent with three other men. A far cry from the comforts of my soft warm bed at home and my wonderful wife! I miss her so very much particularly during this second holiday season and anniversary we have been apart.
The hardest thing to get used to though, is the switch of the seasons from those at home. This is the middle of December and we are sweltering here on this island with one sultry stick day after another. Just hot, and more heat, or else rain and dampness. When we want to go anywhere in the jeep it is either a matter of surviving clouds of dust or lakes of mud and mud puddles. Every morning I go down to the river and bathe, but within minutes I am already soaking in sweat and feeling like I need another bath! In the evenings I take a shower and it feels good under the water, but ten minutes later the same sticky feeling all over again. What I put up with to draw my six dollars a day pay! Wish I had some of that 37 degree weather I keep hearing about in the letters from home.
By day the jungle and scenery are darn pretty, even denser and wilder than the pictures. Trees of enormous size, vines hanging from the very tops of them, ferns, bamboo and a tangled, impenetrable mass of undergrowth. Even one of the big bulldozers with a CB at the controls has to grunt and groan to make any headway.
A new pest to this camp turns out to be a crab that lives on land only, digs a hole like a gopher but is lazy and if he can crawl under a box or trunk in the tent, he's more satisfied. Don't know how he will like the sand and gravel we spread in our tent today. At least the crab doesn't try to get in bed with us like the lizards and ants do. Rats are not so bothersome, nor are the big bats who fight and screech in the coconut trees at night. We have heard many strange and weird noises back in the jungle, but couldn't tell if the racket was being made by birds or animals. Foliage, trees, vines and undergrowth were too thick to see who or what made the noises.
The natives to this island are quite friendly and enterprising. Apparently the missionaries have civilized them to the point they do not hunt heads on such a large scale as they did some years back. Most of them don't seem to trust us and have moved all their villages back into the high hills for the duration I guess. I have seen very few females and they are not attractive by our standards.
The thing that amazes me is the manner in which the natives can construct a boat. Canoe type, but in sections all throughout and hand carved from very thick pieces of wood. Most of them appear to be the war type, with the high pointed end and can travel darned fast by paddles. Sometimes they get a little lazy and use palm fronds and let the wind sail them.
Two natives came to visit us yesterday. A father and a son named Honorat and Ferdinando. They had a GI pack with their trade goods in it and sat down on the floor of our tent. Not a very fast conversation but we could make the other understood. Honorat, the father, had his ears pierced and was wearing safety pins for earrings. I gave them a 5cent pack of cigarettes and a can of Prince Albert. Then, after thinking it over they jabbered something and pulled out a nice pineapple from their bag for me.
Rinehart and I also each got a grass skirt for ourselves. They aren't the kind used in the Hawaiian Islands or in Samoa but the headhunter type— short, and worn by both the men and women. These skirts are not worn by the natives now the Marines are present. They take Marine pants and cut them into shorts and wear them instead.
It isn't necessary for us to have a bugler in the morning to sound reveille, as our un-caged birds take care of waking me up. So many birds of all colors and kinds and every one I've ever seen in Grant's, Newberry's and other places. I now know where they come from! There are very small ones, and some others very brightly colored. They don't have anything on the ball when it comes to singing like a canary, but a heck of a lot of chirping and chatter. There are great gangs of bright red parrots, green parrots and white "McCaws" that fly overhead screeching in deafening unison. (My father called them Macaws but they were obviously Cockatoos.)
The big red parrot is one particular bird that the natives tame and keep as pets and they mak a very good pet too. They live up very high in the coconut trees. Baby parrots can be obtained by climbing the tree, raiding the nest and taking the babies at a very young age. The natives are very skilled at doing this. I have never seen these birds talk though. They just screech and scold. I often see the natives carrying them on a perch in their canoes. Several weeks ago one of the native kids managed to catch one of the red parrots. He clipped the bird's wings and in two days it was already tame. Rides around on the kid's arm but is inclined to pick at humans some. Sure a pretty bird — all red and what a bright red too. They are a rare pet and all but I don't know as I'd want one. Brady thinks they have a horrible "parrot" odor.
As my mind turns back to today I seem to fall into a daydream of what my wife would be doing back at home on our anniversary. Probably just another work-day for her as a drill press operator in the defense plant in Long Beach, California. How I'd love to buy her a bouquet of flowers and take her out to a nice quiet long romantic dinner. I would give most anything just to spend ten minutes with her, listening to the traffic noise on Atlantic Avenue for a little while and watch the yellow light reflection...mesmerized by the way it looks after a certain time.
My sweet reverie was interrupted by a loud whistling noise, coming eerily out of an inky-black sky. I didn't even have the time to make a dive for my newly dug fox-hole. Instinctively, I immediately rolled off my cot onto the floor and was motionless, petrified with fear. The Japs had landed a big one very close. Many things went through my head in a few seconds. Was there to be another bomb to follow? I stayed motionless for about five minutes, then quietly called out to my friends to see if they survived the attack. None of us particularly were in a hurry to move. There was a certain static electricity in the air, a nasty residue that disaster leaves behind. Brady and Rinehart answered back that they were among the living.
After waiting a prudent amount of time, we crept carefully out of our tent and gingerly started to pick our way toward the direction of the crater in the earth. The big one landed far enough away from our camp so none of our structures were damaged and all heads were accounted for as living.
I had my wonderful new early Christmas present that my wife had sent me, right beside my bed. She had thoughtfully bought me a flashlight, plus a good supply of batteries. It came in very handy at this moment as we went to get a better look at the damage.
We spent a half an hour or so walking around the naked earthen crater left in the ground, where the trees and bushes had been blown away and felled. Not much to see or do until we had some daylight in the morning. I directed the beam of my flashlight toward our camp and we turned to head back. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the hint of movement in the bushes. My first thought was perhaps the enemy was in the bushes. We all aimed our guns at the general area. As my eyes focused, I saw the movement seemed to be on the ground under a blasted out coconut tree. Since we detected no gunfire was forthcoming, we carefully moved toward that direction.
I saw what looked like an animal on the ground, cowering and backed up under the bushes, trying to hide. When I had a closer look, it was fluffy and dark gray colored. I reached for it, realizing it was a baby bird, but it lunged at me and backed up into the darkness even more. With a quick motion, I scooped it up into my arms. About that time Brady said, "Look, there's one more over there!" indicating another frightened lump of dark fluff about four feet away.
He bent over and seeing he had to be quick to catch it, rescued it from under the tree trunk it was rapidly scooting under for shelter. We looked around to see if there were any other misplaced birds or animals but found no others, so we headed back to our tent, carrying the newly orphaned babies.
Brady wanted no part of these parrot babies and Rinehart expressed little interest one way or the other. Of course I was soft hearted and they seemed like they would make better companions than the crabs and lizards who invaded our tent. I found an old wooden crate to serve as a nest for them and lined it with a towel. There certainly was no problem about them getting cold in this steaming hot December jungle weather.
December 18, 1943
In the morning I asked the native kids what and how to feed them. They said the bird babies would eat corn and any vegetables we had, plus any of the fruit that grew wild, only a short walk away. I had to grind their food up and could feed it to them from a bent teaspoon without spilling too much. It took me a few days to really get enough food in them. I noticed if I warmed their food up when I heated my meal rations, they ate a lot better. Why they even ate some tiny chunks of my Vienna sausages with me.
Every day that went by I became fonder of the little noisy squawking pair. During the few days I had them I noticed one was sporting a green cap of feathers and the other was getting a bit of red on the wings. At least the bird's coloring gave a semblance of the holidays.
Christmas was almost here and that one isolated Jap bomb had been the only one to rip into our island. We were all very grateful about that. The guys and I saw the big day was fast approaching and we decided to decorate a bit for Christmas. We were also eagerly looking forward to the promised turkey dinner from the mess hall. I remember the previous Christmas I had been sent to three different locations to pay the troops, and I had the famed sausages and canned food dinner for my holiday feast. Big deal.
We really got into our holiday decorating and made some wreaths of green leaves and red flowers from the flowering trees. No Sierra Firs or Holly berries for us this year or even the cold weather to make it seem like Christmas. But on one excursion we did find some Poinsettias. They were small plants and the top leaves were just turning red. We were thrilled to see these plants we associated with the holidays back home. We finally assembled enough colorful plants and wreaths to make it look a little like Christmas.
December 25, 1943
On Christmas day, as it turned out I did get my turkey dinner this year and we also had home- made ice cream. The ice cream went over very well with all of us and turned out to be a bigger treat than the turkey. The cook dumped some canned fruit cocktail into it for flavor and it tasted as good as any we ever made at home.
With a full stomach and a heart aching for home and family, I went to my tent for a rest. Brady and Rinehart were off watching a movie under the stars in our camp's makeshift theatre. So it was just the birds and myself in the tent. I heated up a batch of food for them and fed them until their crops bulged. They were eating very well by now, although it did take time to carefully direct each bite into their mouths.
I had the birds out of their box to feed them and after I cleaned up our dinner mess I folded them both in a big fluffy bath towel. Because I was painfully lonesome and needing the presence of a warm living thing, I laid down on my cot with them. I put them beside me, all wrapped up and lay on my side so I could watch them. Sad little faces they had, like a wise old man, somehow. Rather like a prehistoric old man, half human and half bird with huge, alert eyes that observed all that went on very carefully. We lay there together quietly for several hours and watched the sun set into the Pacific.
After the sun said his final goodbye and slipped into the water, there was left a remarkable warm glowing light that filled my tent. The magical light made everything look a surreal shade of gold. It seemed to be like a liquid gold that coated everything it touched. I felt as if I was bathed in it and somehow I became lighter and was being lifted on the last rays of the golden light. An incredible feeling of buoyancy and weightlessness overtook me. Both of the baby Eclectus parrots grew into adult sized birds before my eyes and developed large, full wings. A power I couldn't identify was lifting me into the air and I felt as if I was melting into and becoming a part of the two birds. Borne aloft by the gentle but strong beating of their wings, we followed the weakening beams of light as we would slowly glide up a stairway.
I experienced no fear from this new means of travel. The feeling of being light and airborne was strange but it also seemed so very safe to me. All we had to do was follow the path of golden light. In what seemed like a few seconds I noticed we were hovering over a frost covered house with a roof that looked rather familiar. So did the naked trees growing in the yard. It looked like my house! It was very cold and certainly most Christmassy here. We landed on the glittering frosty roof, scattering ice crystals as we found our footing.
As well as the ability to fly I also found I had the means to go through doors without opening them. The front door to my house had never looked so good to me. It was Christmas day. My wife was there, my mother and dad and sister, and my in laws too. Everyone was drinking a Tom and Jerry out of the special white mugs with the pretty gold lettering, designating that Tom and Jerry's be consumed from these mugs. The nature of their toast as they held the mugs high, was the hope of winning the war and that I would be home for Christmas of 1944. They had already opened their presents and were getting ready to eat Christmas dinner. I was just in time! The little house smelled of the fresh, crisp odor of the lovely Silver Tip Christmas tree in the living room, with overtones of turkey, just taken from the oven. How I had longed all these months for that lovely smell of my home. The windows were all steamed up, giving the interior a feeling of being snowed in. Boy did I ever love this modest little cottage, but mostly I loved the people inside!
So my two parrot companion spirits and myself settled in to spend the remainder of that Christmas day with my family at home. We stayed until nightfall, watched all my relatives say their goodbyes and head for home. We perched at the side of my wife's bed where I kissed her goodnight and lovingly watched her as she fell asleep. I smoothed the stray strands of her soft golden hair out of her face with my fingertips, as I had done so many times in the past. This time she didn't feel a thing. It was all so real, yet it wasn't. But it was a darn-sight better than the loneliness of a mosquito filled tent in the middle of a hot and humid hell.
My morning came at daybreak with the mingled sounds of thousands of birds in my ears proclaiming the dawn of a new day— again! I quickly opened my eyes, fully expecting to see my wife looking back into mine. But what appeared was the drab green wall of my tent instead. The only things that hadn't changed were the fuzzy gray baby parrots. They were still snuggled up next to me in their big fluffy towel, right where they were when my eyelids followed the path of the great ball of fire as it extinguished itself in the blue Pacific. I then realized that these little creatures were truly a gift from heaven, sent to me to give me hope and help me as I grappled with the lowest and loneliest hours of my life, the Second World War.
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