Once upon a time, very long ago, a young sailor wrote a letter to his parents from aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga to relate the story of a memorable Christmas party. And this is it:
23 December 1955
Two days from Christmas and 3,000 miles from home. But only 283 days more in the Navy. How wonderful it will be to be free again!
Last night was the Division party. I left the ship about five o’clock; it had been raining on and off all day, and the streets were shiny black, reflecting every light in long, wavy strips.
The party was to be held at the “Little Paradise” restaurant, far on the other side of the city, overlooking the Bay of Naples. I decided to take a bus instead of a cab, not only because it would be cheaper but also more fun. After wandering aimlessly about looking for the bus, and with the aid of a non-English speaking policeman (who for some reason was dressed just like a British Bobby) I found the right corner and stood there. My bus was number 240—an electric trolley. After a few minutes, one turned a corner and came my way. I got ready to get on, but it whizzed right by—you’ve got to flag them down, which is quaint but a little inconvenient. The next one that came along I waved at wildly and it stopped. You enter from the rear—that is, if you can. It must have been the rush hour, for every bus was jammed with people, to the very doors. After getting on, you pay the conductor, who sits in a special little booth just behind the door, 35 Lire (4 ½ cents?). And off we went, stopping every block or two as the guidelines to the wires bounced off with a boom and a great flash. The conductor would patiently get off, put the guides back on the lines, get on, and we’d be off. Most of the time he didn’t even have to bother getting off, as there was a transit company employee on almost every corner, evidently for just that purpose.
No matter where you go in Europe, you run into at least one American. On the bus were a woman and her mother, whom I knew immediately was American (you can spot them in any crowd). She looked exactly like thousands of American women on our own busses, going home from a day’s shopping. We exchanged a few words as they squeezed past me on the way to the door. And then they were gone.
The conductor signaled me about a block before we got to the restaurant, but by the time I fought my way to the door (helped by an American man and a friendly Italian who pulled me through by my coat sleeve) it was two blocks past my stop.
By the time I got to the restaurant, everyone was nearing the saturation point, and a couple were past it. We’d rented the whole place for the night, so there was no one else coming and going.
The two chaplains on the ship are leaving for other duty soon, and so both were invited, and a cake, white frosting with green trimming and a green cross in the center, had been made for them. One had gone to Rome, and Father Kelly was just getting ready to leave, tactfully pleading another engagement.
Along one wall a buffet had been set up, with food commandeered from the ship. Drinks were served at a bar at the far end, and a three or four piece band was at the other.
One of the cooks, Botz, was already fairly well on the way to oblivion, and was at the stage where everything he does is immensely funny (he thinks). He came staggering by the table with the cake and, grabbing the knife, started brandishing it at everyone. Someone told him to put it down, so he swung it with all his might and stabbed it into the cake, then walked away, laughing, leaving the knife sticking out of the cross.
And so the party progressed. I satisfied myself by grabbing a plate of food and a glass of gin and soda (mostly gin). Soon, Botz tore a photograph belonging to one of the other guys (Winston). Winston then proceeded to pour his beer over Botz’s head. The fight was broken up quite nicely and no one was hurt.
By this time, Tiny Lishman (6’3”, 320 lbs), who had been completely smashed and was dancing with everyone and everything, disappeared. General speculation was that he’d fallen over the outside balcony and into the sea, but no one was in much of a state to care. Pappy Daniels, who after his last liberty was found asleep on the floor of an officer’s stateroom, had been carried into an adjoining room where our coats were stowed, laid out in state on a couch, and covered with a white sheet.
Several of the guys had crowded around the microphone and were singing, marvelously off key on every note, as the band struggled valiantly to keep up with them
When arrangements for the hall had been made, it was agreed that, along with ice, Coca-Cola, and waiters, the management would also furnish girls (“…the best!”). Well, they were girls, anyway. I had my gin to keep me warm and, since there weren’t enough to go around anyway, didn’t press the issue. It was amazing to watch the contrast—the Americans, drunk and reeling, happily singing and shouting, and the Italians—the waiters looking disdainful and the girls looking completely bored. They kept busy by eating and wrapping sandwiches to take home.
Pappy came out of seclusion to join the line at the balcony railing and, somewhere along the line, lost his teeth.
One of the choir had taken over the drummer’s position and was keeping fairly good time, except that he’d slow down when the band went faster, and sped up when they slowed down.
Girls kept popping in, taking one look, and popping out. The midget, whom we’d met at the “private home” a few days before, was there, as were several of the girls.
At about 9:30, feeling very nice but definitely not drunk, I and three other guys set back for the ship.
On the way, Grinshaw, the kleptomaniac among us, stole the little doll that dangled on a string from the rear window of the taxi….
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1).