Christmas Joys

By Helen H.

 

 

 

“… the results of the gradient readings indicate a preponderance of… damn, that’s not right!”  A hand slapped down on the desktop, and the dark haired girl sitting on the other side winced.  A long sigh filled the air.  Forgive me, Angie.  Give me a minute, and we’ll try this again.”

Angela Williams rested her pencil and studied her boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson.  Head bent over the research reports he’d been trying to make sense of, a finger rubbed across his forehead, trying to rid himself of a headache, no doubt.  He’d been dictating for over an hour now, and the thoughts and words were increasingly disjointed.  He was tired, and with good reason. Lee Crane, Seaview’s commanding officer, was a day overdue from another of the cursed ONI missions he’d been commandeered for yet again. The admiral didn’t get much sleep when that happened. His normally pink skin, roughened from a lifetime spent at sea, was very pale today, lifeless almost.  She could tell from the wan look in his eyes and the dark circles underneath that it had been another night of tossing and turning and worrying.  Would this be ‘it,’ the day that Lee didn’t come home from one of the crazy operations that Admiral Johnson, director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, had sent him on? That was the deal when Lee came aboard; Nelson could have him, but not all of him, not now or for the foreseeable future.  Every minute that he didn’t report in, didn’t stick his head around the door with that big grin on his face, was nerve-wracking for those concerned.  This time the admiral seemed unusually subdued.  Maybe because it was near Christmas; the stress of waiting, especially the not knowing, was a heavier burden.

 

To top it all off, the annual company holiday party was tonight.  The guys took turns being Santa -- Lee had to have extra pillows to fill up the costume -- and it was his turn this year.  Despite her misgivings, since Angie Williams was never one to tempt fate if she didn’t have to, she’d already spoken to Chief Sharkey about getting a stand-in, firmly telling him that one wouldn’t be necessary, of course, but just in case….    

 

She had dressed for the occasion, in a simple dress of dark green jersey, the pencil skirt emphasizing the slim lines of her waist and hips.  Pinned at the neckline was a large Christmas wreath brooch with green, red and gold stones.  Her chestnut hair arched back from her forehead and hugged the sides of her head to just below the ears.  A bit of mascara enhanced dark brown eyes.  Naturally pink cheeks needed no enhancement.  She had touched up her bright red lipstick before coming in to take dictation.   

 

Patting her bob with a manicured hand, Angie said decisively, We can pick this up on Monday, sir.  After all, we’ve got a Christmas party to get ready for.”

 

Christmas party… my God, is that tonight?”  The shocked look on his face told her this was not a joke; he really had forgotten.  Oh, Angie, I don’t suppose… no, I’ve got a duty to perform, and I won’t disappoint anyone.”

 

“They’d miss you, sir.”

 

He looked up at her and smiled sadly, the blue eyes unusually dimmed.  Would they really miss another reading of The Night Before Christmas?”

 

Yes, sir, they would,” she said firmly in her soft but ‘take no prisoners’ southern accent.  Besides, it gives us adults a moment to compose ourselves before Santa makes his appearance.  After that, bedlam takes over.”

 

Santa.” Nelson’s brow clouded.  “Wasn’t Lee supposed to have that duty this year?”

 

Yes, sir.  I reminded him just before he left.”  Her eyes narrowed.  He won’t forget, sir.  He knows I’d have his hide otherwise.”

 

A threat he takes very seriously.”  He tried smiling, and almost pulled it off.  However, these reports need reviewing, and in a --” Nelson stopped, swallowed, then began again.  In a timely fashion.  It’s necessary… the submitters expect it… can’t make them wait on me….”  Finally losing control of his voice altogether he fell silent, thoughts chasing across his face like the spray off a windy sea.  Suddenly he swiveled in his chair and stared out the big window behind the desk, the one that offered up a view of nothing but blue water.  

 

Her eyes followed his direction.  It was across this very ocean that Lee had flown two weeks ago, destination a secret base in the depths of an Indochinese forest, somewhere that somebody needed help.  Why it seemed like it always had to be him, Angie couldn’t fathom.  She had stopped thinking about it, knowing that it was useless to worry about circumstances she had no power to control.  She could still get angry, though, at the effect these disappearances had on the man she worked for.  Lee hadn’t been with them long, but he had found a place in everyone’s heart, and although they kept their relationship strictly upon professional and traditional lines, Angie knew how close Admiral Nelson and the younger man had become.

  

Nelson gave a shake of his head, and the chair spun back.  I think you’re right, Angie.  This job would be better done on another day.”

 

Angie shut her steno pad with a snap.  Let me get everything put away and I’ll give you a ride over to the center, sir.”

 

His voice was sardonic.  Think I’ll skip out on you otherwise, Miss Williams?”

 

Now, Admiral Nelson, that thought never crossed my mind.  I was instead thinkin’ that a good secretary can be a good chauffeur when the need arises.”

 

She was happy to get a chuckle out of him for that.  Well, a good secretary would also know that I need to go home and change out of this uniform.”

 

I am a very good secretary, sir.  That’s why --” she rose from her chair and crossed to the closet built into the wall in the furthest corner of his office “-- she plans for every contingency.  I’ve got your Christmas sweater right here, sir.”

 

His eyes widened in alarm.  You didn’t… I thought I threw that away last year.”

 

You did try, Admiral.” 

 

Pulling the sweater off its hanger, Angie held it out for inspection. A giant reindeer with a very large, very red spangled nose took up the front, embroidered over the alternating stripes of red and green knit.  Someone had attached ribbons of material around each arm that resembled gold tinsel.  A torn cuff had been mended with something shiny and silver.  ‘Hideous’ barely described it.  She had found it in a small thrift shop in Santa Barbara three years ago, persuading Nelson to put it on for the inaugural party that year, and then the next and the next. 

 

No one at the party would recognize you anymore without this sweater, Admiral.”

 

Nelson’s lips thinned to a tight smile, and then his eyes twinkled.  Rubbing his ear, he said, Better that they shouldn’t, I’d say.  Since bribery would be useless, I’ll take your word for it.  What would I do without you, Angela Williams?”

 

You would be as bereft as Robinson Crusoe on his desert island before he met Friday, sir.  Now put this on and let’s get going.”

 

Aye Aye, ma’am!”

 

* * * * *

 

The party for the children of parents working at NIMR was, as usual, a great success.  Large Christmas trees dotted every corner and tables in the middle of the room held goodies for parents and children alike.  In one corner sat an armchair, fronted by child-size chairs, waiting for first, Admiral Nelson, and then jolly old St. Nick.  A month or so back ‘Letters to Santa’ had been collected from each child, and one present selected from the lists, to be handed out at the annual party by Santa Claus.  Only Santa hadn’t shown up yet.

 

Angie kept looking at her watch, alternatively smiling at the children enjoying their light dinner and then staring towards the door, waiting.  She had called Chief Jones, who assured her that he had spoken to the new crewmember and that he knew where to go and what time he had to be there.  And knowing Curley’s fashion, she had no doubt that he’d put the fear of God into the new man.  Unfortunately, that deadline had come and gone twenty minutes ago.  It would soon be time for Admiral Nelson to sit in the big overstuffed chair, wait for the laughter to die down after the kids got a look at his sweater, and recite Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem, in his beautiful baritone.    And after that -- Santa was supposed to make his appearance.  Only there wasn’t a Santa yet, neither Lee nor the substitute that Sharkey had promised.  What was she going to do? 

 

And never mind Santa, where was Admiral Nelson?  He had come in, greeted the parents and other adults at the party; he would see most of them again the next night, arrangements made to keep the children happy at home while their parents and other invited guests enjoyed a lavish holiday dinner at the Biltmore Hotel.  He’d slipped out while she was distracted with something or the other.  She was starting to panic -- just a little bit -- when Nelson walked back in through the door.  His face and nose were flushed, and he smoothed down his hair as he walked toward her.

 

Before you wonder, I was just outside, taking a short walk.”

 

And checking with Security to see if anyone had driven in through the gate, I don’t doubt.”

 

He harrumphed at that, and said, Are we ready?”

 

She handed him the large illustrated edition of Clement Clark Moore’s beloved story, the one they used every year.  It had belonged to her as a child, one of her happiest possessions.  Nelson ran his hands lovingly over the book.

 

Your audience awaits, Admiral.”

 

And I won’t disappoint.  Thank you, Angie.”  Nothing would prevent him from performing this duty, even if it was only a ceremonial ritual. 

 

He walked up to the front of the room, the book under his arm.  He allowed himself to sink into the deep softness of the cushioned, burgundy velvet armchair.  The chair had a spotlight overhead, making it easy to pick out the words.  Settling into his seat, Nelson had a smile on his face that Angie knew he didn’t feel.  His iron self-control, honed from long use, would keep the children from even a hint that there was anything wrong.

 

Nelson cleared his throat and opened the book.  He lifted his head and looked around the room, at several dozen young, upturned faces.

 

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house….”

 

Please call us, Lee.  That’s all I want for Christmas,” Angie said to herself. 

 

* * * * *

 

Nelson gave a magnificent performance, as always.  The words perfectly enunciated, complete with gestures when required, set the stage for the moment when the children joined in:

 

Now Dasher!  Now, Dancer!  Now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet!  On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!

Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

 

He was almost done, and no Santa had appeared.  She thought he had spoken unusually slowly tonight, delaying the moment when an announcement would be necessary.  Thinking about that, and standing behind and to the side of Nelson’s chair, it took a few seconds for her to notice Melody Chase’s frantic beckoning from beside the hallway door.  Heels clicking, Angie crossed the room. 

 

What is it, Melody?”

 

Two Santas, Angie!  What are we supposed to do?”

 

Her pulse quickening, Angie stepped around her and looked down the hallway.  Striding down the corridor were indeed two Santas, one busy adjusting the pillows stuffed behind the large belt buckle.  Behind them both was a grinning Chip Morton.

 

Oh, Lee!”  Angie exclaimed.  Thank God,” she said, more quietly.

 

It was Lee Crane; the white beard and busy white eyebrows couldn’t quite hide the bright hazel eyes and flashing white grin.

 

Made it, Angie!  We didn’t even wait to make a phone call, Chip just picked me up at LAX and brought me straight here.  Think we broke a few speed laws along the way.  Am I too late?”

 

No, the admiral’s just finishing up.”

 

My timing is impeccable, as always.”

 

She blocked his path, arms crooked on her sides.  When you’re not giving us a heart attack, wondering where the heck you are.  Why are you a day late?  And why couldn’t you pick up a phone?”

 

He held up his hands in mock surrender.  We hit head winds over the South China Sea.  I barely made it to Pearl.  Only had time to make one call, and that was to Chip.  Caught my flight with a minute to spare.”

 

She folded her arms and glared from Lee to Chip while fighting the urge to just grab hold and hug them both.  Chip must have forgotten how to dial a phone too, I take it.  I think you enjoy your little grand entrances.”

 

You wound me, Miss Williams.”

 

“You’re lucky it’s not a real wound, Commander Crane.  Or two.  Who are you, by the way?” she asked, turning to the second Santa.

 

The big, young man grinned sheepishly.  Jim Castlebury, ma’am.  Chief Jones sent me over.  Sorry, I had a little car trouble, or I would have been here a lot sooner.”

 

Well, at least you made it, Angie said.  “From not having one Santa I’ve got two.  Now what?”

 

She was saved from coming up with a solution as a booming voice sounded out right behind her.

 

Lee… lad!  You made it!  You made it back,” Nelson said, whispering the last words.  He, too, looked from Castlebury to Crane and back again.  Lee, since it seems we have an acceptable substitute, I think we might be able to tear you away from here.  I want to hear about everything,” Nelson said, rubbing his hands together.  Chip -- can you join us?”

 

Chip shook his head, saying, Sorry, Admiral, I’m meeting my sister and her husband in town.  They’re on their way north to San Francisco.  Haven’t seen Jennie in a while, it’s going to be great to get together.”  He reached out and grasped Lee’s hand.  Glad to have you back, buddy.”

 

Glad to be back, Chip.  Thanks for the lift -- and bringing the Santa suit.  Say hello to Jennie and Mike for me.”

 

Angie kissed Chip on the cheek and thanked him for picking Lee up, and amidst a chorus of see you Monday!” the XO headed out the door.  Angie had met Jennie Lancaster and her husband, Michael several times as they visited Chip in Santa Barbara from their home in the San Fernando Valley, both being part of the entertainment industry, she as a writer of travel documentaries and he a well-regarded cameraman. She looked enough like Chip to be his twin, but was a little over a year older.  Chip had been excited about their visit for weeks, and she was glad that nothing would now cast a pall over his excitement.

 

Lee turned to the new crewman.  Castlebury was a good six foot four, and his blushing cheeks and bright blue eyes behind the white woolen beard looked authentic.  As did the circumference of his stomach -- not fat, just big in places where it was needed. 

 

“I’ll concede that Castlebury here fits the bill a lot better than I do.  I’ll gladly give up my chance to play Santa if it’s all right with him.  Okay, Castlebury?"

 

"Sure, sir.  I always played Santa or Santa's helper back home in Cloquet, Minnesota."

 

They made way for Castlebury to enter the room -- which immediately elicited a chorus of happy squeals and handclaps.  His heartfelt "Ho Ho Ho" filled the air.

 

Lee reached up and pulled the fake beard off his face.  I won’t miss wearing this thing, it itches like the devil!  After you, sir.  There’s a duty car outside.  Your place is closer than mine, and besides, I’m craving some of that fine Scotch Whiskey you keep.”  He winked at Angie, and added, Oh, by the way, you have my favorite sweater on, sir."

 

"That'll be about enough of that, mister!"

 

Angie waited and watched the pair walk down the hallway.  Slowly, Nelson's arm went up over Lee's shoulder and with a swift movement, he pulled the younger man to him, just as quickly released.  Angie's eyes softened.  All her men were home, Lee and the Admiral together, Chip off to celebrate with his visiting family.  The Institute kids would soon be seen off, hugging their presents.  And she was heading for a nightcap with a particularly handsome associate professor from the college.  Everything was right in the world. 

 

Spinning on a heel, the smile on her face radiant, Angie went back into the conference room to help with the gift giving.

 

* * * * *

 

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

 

 

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days;

that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth;

that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away,

 back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!

~Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers