The peacetime Air Force is a bit like a 9-5, M-F job. People work regular shifts and almost no one flies on weekends. On holidays – especially big ones like Christmas – anything short of all-out war couldn’t blast an airplane or crew loose for a mission. Christmas is one of the few totally down days of the year. The military is sentimental like that.
But there are exceptions and twenty-six years ago today, I lived one.
Returning from Italy to my temporary home at Mildenhall, England; my airplane was diverted to the big Royal Air Force base at Brize-Norton, England. Diversions were commonplace, so most crews simply accepted their roles as wandering nomads. After all, my crew was returning from a two-week swing through Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Turkey, and Israel. But Brize-Norton was a double surprise. It was a rare diversion spot and it was Christmas Eve.
The RAF cargo crew at Brize arrived with our emergency load – 3000 lbs. of smoked ham, a few bags of Christmas cards, (and inexplicably) a well-worn bicycle for a Royal Army contingent in Mombasa, Kenya. The RAF blokes graciously thanked us for coming out of our way to take the load and explained that we were the only NATO aircraft still flying in Europe or the Middle East. We were going to spend our Christmas Eve flying ham to Bitburg, Germany where a commercial charter flight would take it to Kenya in time for the contingent’s Christmas dinner.
We arrived by late afternoon, reeking like a flying smokehouse. The winter sun was already setting and it was totally dark by the time we unloaded and buttoned up the airplane. There were no more rooms in transient quarters so Base Ops sent us to a small hotel in town. The prospects for dinner seemed slim though. Everything on base was closed and Ops told us the restaurants in town probably were too.
“Merry frickin’ Christmas,” I thought. “I should’ve “liberated” one of those goddamn Brit hams when I had the chance.”
When we arrived at the hotel it looked deserted. We had difficulty rousing the surly innkeeper who only reluctantly let us in. He complained – in an excellent English stage whisper – about Americans who pull poor, beset-upon Germans away from their Christmas dinner.
When we asked about food, he smiled and said, nein with obvious pleasure. Only some delicate prodding – in German, despite his previously excellent English – revealed the location of a restaurant that might be open.
It was a small, neighborhood place located in an ancient building. The Germans inside were laughing and swigging great steins of beer next to a huge hearth with an equally mammoth yule log. They were having a grand time, at least until we came in. The singers fell silent and the steins returned to the table. Their convivial conversations changed into whispers and sidelong glances at der Amerikaners.
We retreated to the most unobtrusive table we could find and placed our orders. As we quietly waited, their conversation slowly returned – although the sidelong glances remained.
Around mid-dinner, we noticed the Germans had fallen silent again. We glanced over as a middle-aged man stood up and slowly approached our little group. Although Bitburg wasn’t known as a particular trouble spot, it was common at the time for Americans in some German cities to be treated poorly. We weren’t sure exactly how this encounter would shape up.
The man spoke to us in a halting pidgin made up of equal parts schoolboy English, dunce-level German, and hand-signals. Surprisingly, his little speech was as queer as its delivery. The famously taciturn Germans were inviting us to join them.
We followed him to their table next to the fire. The Germans all smiled in unison and motioned for us to sit. Using the same pidgin, they introduced themselves and we returned the favor. Soon, we were all drinking beer and singing as if we were life-long friends. We discussed food and fussball . They told us about their families and their lives. We told them about being half a world away for the holiday. All of them seemed shocked when we explained the last Christmas most of us had at home was at least five years ago.
Finally, we tore ourselves away to return to the hotel for our mandatory crew rest. We rebuffed offers from the Germans to pay for our dinner, and between us, did the usual confusing calculation of who ordered what. We decided to split it equally, six ways. None of us were in any condition to do the math.
As we paid our bill, we talked quietly with the woman who owned the restaurant with her husband. Her English was excellent and she seemed as shocked as the other Germans that we would be working on this special night. Suddenly, she asked us to wait a moment while she fetched her husband to join us. She was sure he would like to meet us.
She returned with a stooped and hobbling man. Because he spoke no English, his wife translated. Through her, we learned both of them had a special fondness for Americans – an unusual thing in Germany back then.
She excused herself and as she turned, I noticed a small number tattooed on her forearm. Her husband bore a similar one crudely etched into his skin.
The woman reappeared a few minutes later with a huge box.
“I have a little gift for you. No one should be away from their family for das Weihnachten,” she said while handing a box to our pilot. “Perhaps these will keep you from getting hungry on your trip home. It is a terrible thing to be hungry. I know about such things,” she said.
As predicted, there was no food to be had on Christmas morning. We simply climbed aboard our airplane for the hop back to England. It was Christmas Day and we were still the only NATO airplane flying.
Shortly after take off, the navigator tuned in a German radio station playing Christmas music. As we listened to those familiar songs sung in an unfamiliar tongue, we opened the box and passed out the contents – several dozen hand-baked Christmas cookies and marzipan treats.
We ate them quietly and listened to the music. After some long moments of silence, filled only with the carols, the loadmaster’s voice crackled through the interphone and said, “Load to crew. Merry Christmas guys.”
“Load, Merry Christmas,” we answered in unison.
“Damn, these cookies are good,” he responded.
“Yeah, they are,” I thought to myself. “They surely are.”