"Sir, Merry Christmas, Christmas Tree, Sir!"

By Thomas Charles - Originally Published December 1987

I think the Christmas tree had to be the rank of sergeant. In any case, it outranked us boots. A salute and proper greeting were required whenever we passed by or were summoned to the duty hut.

I love Christmas time. I always have. However, there are two Christmas holidays which never fit in my usual thoughts. For one, I was halfway across the country. For the second, I was halfway around the world. These memories come back to me every year. I don't want to forget them.

The first "different" Christmas came just after I joined the Marine Corps. That November, when I enlisted, it seemed that spending the winter in sunny Southern California was a good idea. It may have seemed right at the time, but believe me, it turned out to be wrong. Boot camp is the wrong place to spend winter-or any other season.

While most civilians had been preparing for Christmas since Thanksgiving, we were trying to survive until February when we would graduate. We would then be Marines and no longer the "lowly boot." (The Marine Corps never did define the meaning of "boot" as used in boot camp. At least not that I remember. It doesn't need to. To those of us who were there, the definition is clear. To those who never go, there is no way to explain it.)

Our drill instructors helped get us in the Christmas spirit. They provided a Christmas tree for the platoon. The DIs placed it in front of the duty hut in its own little stand. I think it had the rank of sergeant. In any case, it outranked us boots. A salute and proper greeting were required whenever we passed by or were summoned to the duty hut. "Sir, good morning Christmas tree, sir." Or "Sir, by your leave, Christmas tree, sir." A very awkward, one-sided greeting, but to forget to greet or properly acknowledge its existence meant a minimum of 25 push-ups as an apology.

The DIs also involved the tree in our nighttime routine. After smokers had been allowed one before lights-out, the rest of the platoon would fall out in formation in front of the duty hut. The first time this happened, we assumed a careless smoker had allowed some of his ashes to dirty the platoon walk. But no, we weren't out there to clean the walk. It turned out that our Christmas tree had requested the DI have the platoon sing a Christmas song to it. Our DI was happy to oblige. The first night we sang "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Gene Autry didn't have to worry, but it was apparently good enough for the Christmas tree. These command performances would continue with a different song each night until Christmas.

The colors of Christmas were everywhere at the recruit depot. Red is the main color of the Marine Corps flag and platoon guidons. Some ranks wear a red stripe on their dress blues. Our faces were often red after only 20 minutes in the sand pit. Our DIs often took us there to exercise until they got tired. It was funny how quickly we tired, doing push-ups, running-in-place and squat-thrusts, while our DIs managed to keep their cool, barking orders while they watched us. And green! We were part of the "Green Machine." We had green uniforms, green rocks, green blankets, green helmets, and green faces when we ran the obstacle course after a meal.

And lots of twinkling lights. Just as you thought you were going to pass out from a three-mile platoon run, you'd see twinkling lights. Or when the hand-to-hand combat instructor demonstrated a new chokehold on you, you'd see twinkling lights. But when the giant Q-tip, called a pugil stick, caught you square under the chin during bayonet practice and sent you flying, you saw an explosion of multi-colored lights. The twinklers came as you regained consciousness.

With just a week to go before Christmas, we made it back from the rifle range to our cozy World War II Quonset huts in San Diego. Here, we would lie in our metal bunks, snuggled between the luxurious 2-inch mattress supported by wires strung between springs and covered by the deep pile of the military blanket, while visions of sugar plums danced in our heads. Or was it nightmares of DIs dancing on our heads?

Our Quonset huts were healed by oil stoves. Those stoves were very economical for the Corps. Most of the time, we were allowed to light them for only 30 minutes before lights-out and then for 30 minutes in the morning just after reveille. Now, the weather was getting colder and the stoves were left on all night. Due to the real danger of fire or explosion, a fire watch was needed and each boot took a turn during the night.

The first military ribbon, earned by recruits, represented the National Defense Service Medal. However, to thousands of wintertime USMC Recruit Depot alumni, it will always be known as the "fire watch" ribbon. Your fire watch was a good time to catch up on writing letters home. Watching the stove was very boring and could put you to sleep. As fire watch was actually guard duty, the penalty for sleeping was severe. Letter writing was also prohibited, so everyone became very proficient at wrapping his blanket around him to prevent the glow of the penlight from being seen by the duty DI.

One midnight trip to the exercise pit was enough to sink home the "no lights" order. The order, as explained by the DI, was to prevent an enemy sniper from sighting in on the glow and putting our lights out permanently. We, of course, already knew that from John Wayne films. I don't think we really fooled the DIs. They must have known what was going on. They knew everything else.

As Christmas grew closer, the number of cards, letters and "CARE" packages from home increased. Mail call became a blessing and a curse. The DIs wanted to be sure we appreciated those letters and goodies. They would require five push-ups for each heart or "X" drawn on the outside of an envelope. A "SWAK" (sealed with a kiss) seal rated 25 sit-ups. And how the DIs loved the packages! If one contained something we all liked, and there was enough to go around, those who shared in it would first pay with 10 push-ups. If there was any left over, the recipient had to consume it all and then pay with 25 push-ups and sit-ups. We all enjoyed watching that, as long as it was happening to the other guy.

Finally, Christmas Eve came and promised to be one of the better days in boot camp. The schedule called for marching practice and training films. At morning formation, the senior DI informed us we would be having duck dinner that night as a special treat. I had always thought turkey was the traditional meal, at least it is with my family. But if the Marine Corps served duck, that was fine with me. The day passed slowly. There wasn't much excitement in marching or training films. When the time came for evening chow, we all fell in quickly.

Everyone was ready for the feast that surely awaited us. If duck was to be the main course, we could imagine how great the trimmings would be. As we marched to the messhall, we passed another platoon coming back from dinner. Our DI called out, "How was your duck?" To which they replied, "Sir, delicious, sir! Sir, Merry Christmas, sir" and marched on by with a big, satisfied grin on their faces. Our mouths began to water and we managed to march a little more quickly.

When we arrived at the messhall, we were told to double-time in place. It was then explained, we were to double-time through the cafeteria-style mess and only pick up what we could eat as we passed through. Needless to say, we were all a little confused. This was certainly no way to eat a duck dinner. Our confusion mounted as we passed through, and found no duck, trimmings, or anything out of the ordinary. Most of us stuffed an extra apple or orange in our pockets for after lights-out and hustled into formation. When the ranks had formed, the DIs explained that their promise of a duck dinner had not been a lie. We had just had a duck dinner, boot camp style. We "ducked in" and "ducked out." The DIs were very amused. We were not.

On the way back to our huts, we were lucky enough to pass another platoon on their way to the messhall. As we drew along side, their DI called out, "How was your duck?" We replied, "Sir, delicious, sir." Only then we, too, were amused.

Christmas morning came, but without the usual blaring of reveille and morning muster. Most of us awoke out of habit around 5 a.m. By 6 o'clock when no bugle sounded, we had all showered and shaved, but still there was no call for formation. When a call did come, it was for church services. Breakfast was to be at 9 a.m. Some of the boots took advantage of the chance to get some extra sleep. Some went to church. Those who went to church also got some extra sleep, but did so during services. The church was always warm and dry. This sunny Southern California training was not all it was cracked up to be by the recruiters. Mornings were bone chilling, damp and cold. The church was one place to be warm and dry, if only for an hour or so. No one meant to be irreverent and I think God must have understood. I never saw anyone get caught sleeping, even though the DIs patrolled the aisles. I think He helped us through the motions and prevented us from snoring.

After services, we marched back to our company area and found everyone still lounging around. The smoking lamp was lit and a sheet of paper was being passed around so we could sign up to call home.

Call home! Wow! That would be really something. These past seven weeks, the letters had been plentiful and we'd had plenty of time to read them, but to actually talk to people. Not just Marines, but real people! What if they weren't home? Or wouldn't accept the charges? Well, they were and they did. I think we each got five minutes or so at the phone. We each wanted 30, but made good use of what we were allowed. It was great! I noticed that as some of the guys came back, their eyes seemed a little wet. I know mine were. It must have been that chilly morning breeze.

At 9 a.m., the call for breakfast came and we enjoyed a leisurely meal. We almost had time to finish it. The rest of the morning was spent on free time. That meant polishing shoes, shining brass and shooting the breeze about what we'd be doing back home. Most of us wrote a few letters. At 12:30 we formed up to go to the messhall for what our DI called a traditional Christmas meal. Suspicious? You bet we were!

There are many stories about the food in the Marine Corps. Most of them are true. We knew all the bad stories. We'd been eating them. But today was different. A real feast had been prepared. There was turkey, white and dark. Ham and roast beef. Sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes with gravy. Cranberry sauce and stuffing. Mincemeat and pumpkin pie with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. And plenty of cold milk. We gorged ourselves and actually had time for seconds. It was the best meal we'd had in our lives! Well, maybe not our lives, but after seven weeks of regular boot camp fare, it seemed that way.

We all knew this holiday routine couldn't last forever and it didn't. That afternoon some semblance of training was resumed, and eventually, we wound up at the drill field beside the San Diego Airport. The field is parallel to the main runway. We spent a lot of time there, learning the fine art of marching. We also spent a lot of time watching the planes. We each wanted to be on one. We knew that each plane taking off, even the little regional ones, were heading nonstop for our hometown. Today, that seemed a long way.

Two of the boots wanted to be home a little more than the rest of us. They went over the fence Christmas night. Later, we heard they had both been caught. One of them made the mistake of stealing a car from the naval base next door. It belonged to an admiral's wife. He ended up in the brig. The other fellow was caught panhandling in San Diego. He had ditched his uniform and was trying to get enough money for a bus ticket home. It was the Marine Corps boot camp haircut that gave him away. The civilian clothes he had taken couldn't disguise that. He was lucky. He only had to start boot camp over. I guess that's lucky.

Christmas night we had a meal of leftovers. They were delicious. The rest of the evening was spent on free time in the company area. The smoking lamp was lit until lights-out. The evening passed pretty quickly and quietly. Nobody really talked about home, but everyone was thinking about it. Lights-out came and we all crawled into our racks. We heard taps play and turned over to go to sleep.

About five minutes later, we were rudely called out to formation. The senior DI had us do our "Vienna Boys Choir in skivvies" routine. After properly greeting our Christmas tree, the DI had us sing "Silent Night." We actually sounded pretty good and we all enjoyed it. As we finished, one of the assistant DIs showed up to relieve the senior DI. The assistant thanked the senior DI for taking the duty the last two days. He had enjoyed the time with his wife and kids. Both the DIs had been in Vietnam the previous Christmas. And we thought spending Christmas in boot camp was bad! The assistant wished the senior DI a Merry Christmas and told him to hurry home.

It was then that we all realized these men were no different from us. They had families, too. I think we all felt a little sorry for the senior DI because he had been stuck with us for the last two days. Just a little sorry. We'd have gladly gone home for the holidays to accommodate him.

The platoon was called to attention and the assistant DI asked us how our day had been. We replied: "Sir, very nice, sir." We were then dismissed and headed back to our racks. As the senior DI left, he called out to us, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night." And we replied: "Sir, Merry Christmas, sir."

The next morning at 5 a.m., reveille blew and we all hurried to get ready for morning formation. The senior DI and both assistants were yelling, "hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," in their usual morning manner. We quickly fell in for roll call. Our senior DI told us we all looked fat and lazy from our long holiday schedule, but he promised to take care of that. Gone was his Christmas spirit of the night before. We all noticed that our Christmas tree was gone too. Christmas was over.

I promised myself that would be the last Christmas I would spend away from home. Next year I would be a real Marine and entitled to leave. I intended to spend two weeks of it at home during the Christmas holidays. Under no circumstances would I be halfway across the country.

As it turned out, I was partially right. I wasn't halfway across the country. I was halfway around the world! So much for my planning. . . but that's another story.