Christmas Starts Early

It was Andy Micklin, of all people, who gave him the nod---and that was in August. Bob Anderson went looking for the chief mechanic after returning from a mission with low oil pressure and found him hard at work in the machine shop. He was tinkering with something that at first glance looked like a midget cousin to the Tin Man from the illustrations in Anderson's childhood Oz books, and the pilot stared at the little mechanical toy.

"It's for my nephew, for Christmas," the sergeant replied from around his cigar as he filed a rough edge. "You college boys have any idea how long it takes for stuff to get Stateside with a war on? Needs to get shipped out by October at the latest." He held up the toy soldier made of discarded parts. "Little Andy's gonna have something to remember Uncle Andy by."

Anderson looked at it and blinked. It was a full four months until the holidays, but he realized the older man was right. He might have one or two leaves between now and then, but there wasn't much in the way of gift-type items at the Espiritos Marcos BX, and still less here on Vella la Cava. He catalogued all the loved ones who might rightfully expect some kind of trinket from him, and almost panicked then and there. Where the hell was he supposed to conjure eight presents from?

He responded admiringly as Micklin showed off the set of checkers he'd made for his brother Ralph---out of bolts with their corners stripped, neatly painted with red and black paint. There was even a canvas checkerboard made from a square of salvaged tarp. Anderson had never given the other man credit for sentimentality, much less whimsy, but by the time Micklin displayed the tray he'd made from some scavenged sheet metal for his sister-in-law---with a hammered design of palm trees, no less!---Anderson had to admit he'd been wrong, especially when Micklin told him he'd started it in June.

It was a sobering thought, and too much sobriety at the end of a long day was no good. He took his concerns to the Sheep's Pen, where Jim Gutterman, Boyle and Casey were playing cards.

"You look like your dog died," Boyle commented. In an aside, he said to Gutterman, "Gimme me two."

"Christmas is coming."

"One for me," Casey requested.

"What calendar are we going by, Bob? 'Cause according to Miss Betty Grable---" Jim pointed to the calendar hanging over the bar "It's not even Labor Day. Are you in?"

"I'm in, I'm in," Boyle said. "I've got half a pack of Camels and I'll raise you a chocolate bar. Come on, even the department stores don't start decorating for Christmas until after Thanksgiving!"

"It's going to take a couple months to make it to the States, and in case you guys haven't noticed, we're about four thousand miles from the nearest Woolworth's."

Casey looked up at him. Boyle and Jim were still studying each other over their cards. "You've got a point," he agreed. "If we can't buy stuff, we'll have to make it, and that's going to take some time. I'm in with a roll of Life Savers and I'll raise you the May issue of Amazing Stories."

"May 1944?" Gutterman asked suspiciously.

"Yup. Just got it in last week's mail, which kinda bears out what Lt. Santa's saying."

"I'll match that with a Zane Grey western---"

"Riders of the Purple Sage?" Boyle inquires.

"Yes, Riders of the Purple Sage."

"I've already read that one. TJ loaned it to me when he was done with it. But if you want to put up that copy of Harper's Bazaar---"

"You want Lauren Bacall?" Gutterman asked in disbelief.

"Who doesn't?" interjected Anderson. "But you can't exactly mail her to your mother for Christmas, can you?"

"Come on, either you've got a hand or you don't," Boyle told Jim.

"I fold," Jim said sullenly. "I'm not giving up Bacall for a lousy pair of fours."

"What kind of Life Savers?" Boyle asked Casey.

"Wint-o-green. And I'll throw in a new toothbrush---my sister sent me two new ones---and a tube of Colgate."

"I'll call. Two pairs of clean socks and a bamboo back scratcher."

Casey fanned out a full house--three threes and a pair of sevens. Boyle dropped a busted flush on the table and groaned. "Damn, there goes my last two pairs of clean socks," he sighed. "Guess I'd better haul out the washtub tonight. I'm through."

"Me, too," Jim Gutterman nodded, reaching for his drink. "Too rich for my blood."

"Okay, so let's talk Christmas," Anderson said, ignoring their jaundiced looks. "What can we come up with for presents?"

Casey was the first one to give the matter serious thought. "We've got two things to take into account," he said. "What materials do we have available here or on Espiritos, and how easy will it be to ship? I mean, there's a whole bunch of palm trees on the island, but I'm not gonna try to mail a totem pole home."

"There are always shells and coral and stuff like that on the beach," Boyle said with enthusiasm. "We've been here long enough that it doesn't seem like much any more, but it's pretty exotic for the folks back home."

Anderson nodded. "Good point. And we might be able to carve on some of the shells or string them as necklaces, something fancier than just throwing them in a box."

"Boxes," Jim said thoughtfully. "I bet I could round up some cigar boxes and glue shells to 'em. For keepsakes and stuff."

"It occurs to me," Boyle grinned at them, "that if we can get organized and get goodies made for our own families, that we could sell 'em to some of the other guys, the ones who haven't thought that far ahead."

They shook on it, and soon Boyle and Anderson were headed for the beach with a couple buckets, Gutterman went off to scavenge suitable containers and Casey headed into the jungle, muttering something about palm fronds.

"Sure is a big change from Lake Michigan," Boyle remarked as they winnowed shells from sand. "This is beautiful, but I really miss Chicago."

"It's just as hot as New Orleans," Anderson told him, "but it'll be strange not going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Hey, look at this one. Good size for an ashtray, don't you think? Hope we can find a few more like it."

"I can see these flat ones in a necklace. Grab all you see, okay? I think they're gonna be a bitch to drill."

Remembering Jim's plan to decorate cigar boxes, Anderson took a canful of shells to his tent later. Gutterman sat on his cot, surrounded by at least twenty cigar boxes, looking grim. "I've got some shells here, if you still want to put them on your boxes."

"I guess." Gutterman drew a deep breath. "I got these off Micklin, but I had to trade Bacall for 'em. Talk about making sacrifices!"

"Condolances. But at least she didn't send you a 'Dear John' letter."

"You're a real ray of sunshine, Bob---anyone ever tell you that?" But there was a hint of a smile on Jim's face, and he began picking through the shells as Anderson departed.

The next few weeks were busy ones as the four industriously manufactured gifts. When not flying, Casey could usually be found sitting in a clearing along the path Anderson took to reach his favorite beach on his daily shell hunts. Casey's initial plan to make placemats out of palm fronds fell through as the mats kept falling apart. "What the hell else can you make with palm fronds?" he asked Bob in frustration.

Comparing the heat of the South Pacific to the steamy atomosphere of the Crescent City, one thing in particular came to mind. Hand-held fans turned out to be much easier to make, although constant handling of the fronds gave Casey the equivalent of paper cuts on all ten fingers.

Boyle was also a regular at low tide. He traded Doc Reese a bottle of gin for a spool of silk suture thread to string shell necklaces with. He displayed an unexpected talent for jewelery design, and developed numerous blisters from drilling holes in shells.

Meanwhile, the instigator of Operation Gift Shop raided the paint locker for supplies to decorate some of the bigger shells. Since most of the paintbrushes available were almost as big as the shells he was trying to adorn, Bob experimented with bristles from a shaving brush, grasses, feathers and cotton swabs to get the effects he wanted. He wasn't exactly Norman Rockwell, he'd be the first to admit, but it was a soothing activity after hours of monotony in a plane interspersed with bouts of being shot at.

Despite smelling like he was using turpentine as aftershave, Anderson always seemed to have paint under his fingernails and spattered on his clothing and shoes. Pappy gave him a hard time about it, and he tried to explain about trying to make Christmas presents and the need to do it now, not two months from now, but Greg just shook his head and told him to requisition a nailbrush through the hospital. The hospital didn't have any extras, but when he returned to his tent several evenings later after mess, he was surprised to find three small detail paintbrushes on his bunk. They helped his technique quite a bit and he didn't get as messy, either.

When they finally set up shop in the Sheep's Pen, though, they were in for a surprise: other Black Sheep had been working on projects of their own. Mickin had wised-up the rest of the "college boys" about advanced holiday planning.

Like Casey, Bragg had availed himself of the island's plentiful palm fronds---his were woven into graceful baskets. "Learned it at Boy Scout camp," he announced when his work drew compliments. "Trade you your pick for that big conch with the mermaid, Anderson---she's a peach."

"You got any more mermaids, Bob? What do you want for that Marine Corps eagle?" French, who had three younger sisters, two older sisters, and a niece, had spent his free time in the machine shop. He'd made ornamental metal hair combs for big girls, jump ropes with steel pipe handles for little girls and tiepins for classy gents of all ages. Anderson ended up swapping the eagle for Don's fanciest comb, and throwing in a mermaid swimming on an abalone ashtray for two jump ropes for his sister's girls.

The hit of the "show" was TJ, who'd taken advantage of a disposable commodity and proudly displayed several ships in empty Scotch bottles The ships were hotly contested---there were just four of them, and everybody wanted one---so TJ wound up with enough cigarettes to last him 'til 1945, plus one of Bragg's baskets for his Aunt Milly, six shell necklaces, and two cigar boxes, one encrusted with shells, the other featuring a playing card motif.

Casey's fans were especially popular with Southern boys Anderson and Bragg. They were simple, useful items good for young and old alike and brought back peaceful memories of Sunday morning services and sultry afternoons rocking on the porch. He and Bragg worked out an exchange rate of six fans per basket. Anderson bartered various shells and pieces of coral, and got a supply of fans that he subsequently painted with tasteful landscapes that wouldn't scandalize anyone at church.

Jim's boxes sold out, since it made the presentation of smaller items more impressive. Almost everyone had a sweetheart or momma who'd like a necklace, knew a smoker who could use an ashtray, or had someone who'd be fascinated by a hunk of coral or a fancy shell. By the time the last deal was made, everyone's shopping requirements had been satisfied.

Pappy sauntered in at the eleventh hour with a basket of what looked like laundry. He also had a box of cigars and several fresh decks of cards, and he pointed out that the latter could be included with a box to make a boxed set for poker night. "Chips not included," he said with a smile. "Probably not a good idea to let the folks at home know how many beer bottle caps we've got. It could be bad for morale." He didn't bargain; just nodded at whatever he was offered and accumulated a small heap of items on the table in front of him.

"Okay, listen up," he said when the last of the cards and stogies were gone. "One at a time, no crowding, there's enough for everyone." He reached into the laundry basket and held up a length of white silk. "Great for your mom, your favorite aunt or your best girl. You can tell them this is from the parachute that saved your life! Great story, great scarf---no, there's no charge. Merry Christmas."

Not trade goods, not things to be bargained for---no-strings-attached gifts. "Thanks, Pappy!" they exclaimed, and broke out in a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow'. Never mind that it was only October for a handful of days so far, Greg Boyington said 'Merry Christmas', and with a snappy twinkle of his blue eyes, the spirit of the season came to Vella la Cava.

A stack of wooden crates was piled neatly to one side of the airstrip on a clear October afternoon. The Black Sheep were awaiting the weekly mail plane's arrival, and Anderson was patting himself on the back for being so well organized. There was one box going home to New Orleans, another to Uncle Bill and Aunt Bess in Alabama, and a smaller carton going to a sweet young WAV he'd met in Honolulu when he'd shipped out. The destinations were as varied as the personnel: They were addressed to big, well-known cities like Chicago and Newark, as well as to lesser-known hamlets like Chicasaw and Warm Springs and Lawrence and Barnstead, and the VF214th Squadron was anxious to see their precious cargo loaded up and heading for the mainland.

"There!" Boyle yelled, pointing to a speck in the sky.

A cheer went up, but the exuberant mood only lasted until the aircraft came into view. It wasn't the mail plane---in fact, it wasn't even an American plane. "It's Washing Machine Charlie," Anderson exclaimed, and they all groaned.

Their nemesis was a lone Japanese pilot who periodically made strafing runs over Vella la Cava. He seldom hit anything important, and had never directly injured anyone, but the pile of treasure for their loved ones made his threat today a dire one. Half the Black Sheep raced to their planes. Anderson bolted to one of the machine gun placements and shot back. The last shell casing had barely ejected when Micklin was there feeding in another strip of ammo.

"Damn heathen bastard!" the chief mechanic bellowed after the fleeing Zero. He gave Anderson an approving nod. "I think you winged him, college boy. Good shootin'!"

Boyle and TJ had actually gotten their Corsairs off the ground, but instead of pursuing Charlie, they ended up intercepting the mail plane and escorting it in. The pilot and flight crew were somewhat taken aback by their reception, and more so by the unusually large outgoing shipment. The Black Sheep helped load it all and stood staring into the distance for several minutes as the departing holiday cheer winged its way to the east.

In the weeks after the civilian gifts were sent out, Anderson continued his artistic pursuits. He'd gotten into the habit of beachcombing at low tide, and his friends could always find a place to display a pretty mermaid. Boyle and Gutterman joined him sometimes. The supply of cigar boxes having dried up, Jim had joined forces with Larry and together they were gluing shells to "anything that stands still too long!", as French put it. Empty cans from the mess hall were a favorite target, since they could be used for a variety of things. Bragg gave Casey lessons in basket-making, and French turned his workshop skills to making belt buckles. TJ promised every Black Sheep a ship in a bottle, although he cautioned them it might take him til February.

In November, the weekly army newsletter Yank, ran a picture of Lauren Bacall on the cover, and several copies found their way to Vella la Cava. Jim Gutterman acquired two of those copies, and swapped one with Sergeant Micklin to regain his much-missed Harper's Bazaar.

Washing Machine Charlie made a strafing run on Christmas day, hit an empty oil drum, ignited one jerry can of gasoline (setting a heap of worn-out tires ablaze) and shot down eight coconuts, a personal best. After swilling home-brewed eggnog the night before and rising early to fly patrol, Bob Anderson pulled his blanket up a little higher and slept right through it.

At midnight on December 31st, Anderson lifted his glass as the Black Sheep toasted each other, hoping that 1945 would be the year of peace on Earth and goodwill to all.