The year was 1943. It was Christmas in the South Pacific. The U.S.S. North Carolina was adrift somewhere between Australia and the Edge of the World.
The BB-55 battleship was alive with the excitement of 2,339 foul-mouthed sailors, swabbies, Marines, and brass hats who had been at sea for a month. Most of whom did not bathe regularly.
Tonight was the annual Christmas party. The highlight of the year.
There was a holiday feast served on the mess deck. The turkey dinner tasted like lukewarm cardboard doused in Pennzoil gravy. But it worked.
There was the Christmas show. The crew always put on a slam-bang show, complete with skits, music, tap dancing, and a burlesque striptease wherein sailors dressed up like Hedy Lamarr and Veronica Lake and disrobed before a deafening roar of laughter.
Before the show, Chaplain Everett Weubbens was preparing the stage, getting the PA system ready, positioning the spotlights.
He was a Lutheran man with a meek disposition and an easy smile. He was excited about tonight’s show because he had a big surprise in store.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all started months earlier when the Chappy decided to take up a collection so that crewmen could send Christmas gifts home to their kids and loved ones.
Chappy collected five bucks from dads, husbands, and sons aboard. The men picked out gifts from the Macy’s catalog. Fathers selected Tinkertoys, toy pianos, dresses, dolls, Goldenbooks, and Louisville Sluggers. Others selected gifts for their wives.
The Chappy crammed the cash into a shoebox and typed a letter to Macy’s Department Store, begging Macy’s to deliver these gifts to the respective addresses enclosed:
“Dear Sir,” he began, “we realize that we are asking a great deal but… You will be adding greatly to the happiness of our children and to our own Christmas joy out here in one of the war zones.”
When the letter made it to Macy’s, employees took turns reading the note. By the time the note made it to company headquarters, the paper was already stained with tears and snot.
Macy’s employees wrapped 729 gifts, and delivered them all over the U.S. When their task was finished, Macy’s sent a return package back to the North Carolina.
Inside the package was an unexpected gift.
Chappy removed the gift from the parcel. It was a tin film-reel canister. “Merry Christmas,” the attached note read.
That night the Christmas show was a big hit. The band played Cole Porter tunes. Men passed around hip flasks and laughed at the ribald jokes told by hack comedians.
Everyone sang along with Christmas carols. Everyone shouted. Everyone was filled with Christmas cheer. Some were filled with so much cheer they puked cheer all over their shoes.
And when two extremely hairy sailors did a striptease with blond wigs made from old mops, wearing eye makeup that brought to mind blowtorched crayons, everyone howled with laughter.
You had to be there.
Then it was Chappy’s turn to take the stage. Chappy approached the microphone and cleared his throat. He began by wishing everyone a merry Christmas.
The reply was over two thousand voices in unison. “MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
The Chappy explained that the gifts back home had all been delivered, courtesy of Macy’s.
Chappy then told the men that Macy’s had sent an unexpected gift in return. He asked the stage hands to dim the lights. A white projection screen was unfurled. A film projector began flickering softly. The band played “Silent Night” quietly.
On the screen was the black-and-white image of a beautiful young woman holding a baby, waving animatedly at the camera. She wore long dress, and her hair was flawless.
The lone voice came from the audience. “Oh my God! That’s my Ella! That’s my wife! I miss you, baby!”
More images graced the screen. More wives. More babies. More scenes from the homefront.
A slender woman, rocking a newborn, smiling at the camera. Waving.
The image of a freckled little girl, missing her front teeth, waving hard enough to break her arm.
A 5-year-old boy and his mother posing before a Christmas tree, blowing kisses to the lens.
This went on half the night.
When the film finished, the South Pacific was filled with the sounds of noses blowing, men sniffing, and weeping.
Chappy explained to the men that Macy’s had tracked down their families and filmed hundreds of wives and children, all waving to Daddy. Then the chaplain probably said a prayer because, you know, Lutherans…
The men watched the film again. And again. They watched it until the projector began to overheat.
And now you know why I like shopping at Macy’s.