Unlike a lot of soldiers, I didn’t join the Army right out of high school. I went to college for two years, and the frustration I was starting to feel with school, that was interfering with my studies, was what led me to join the Service. The seemingly endless process had begun.
I scored well on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and had my choice of any job I wanted. For some reason, I wanted to be a cop. I chose Military Police. With MP, Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training were combined in what they called One Station Unit Training. For my training I was in the same company, in the same building, with the same drill sergeants. For five months.
It was October when I shipped out for training. So I was looking at, and expecting, to be gone for the holidays. And for a few of them, I was. Halloween was the day my company went to the gas chamber. That was fitting I thought. Nothing like M40 gas masks and a lungful of CS to bring out the spirit of the holiday.
It was still early when we were taken to the on-post “travel agency” where we all bought flights home for Christmas. Exodus, they called it, as the entire post shut down for the season. Now that I had the itinerary and means to go home, I started planning—scheming really.
We were all still in training on Thanksgiving, but had an easy day of it. The chow hall had quite the meal for us with all the traditional foods expected, and rather than any of us having KP for the day and having to work in the kitchen, the drill sergeants took that duty. We all showed up for Thanksgiving dinner and our drill sergeants—and even our First Sergeant—were standing the food lines to serve us, all decked out in their Class A’s and Dress Blues.
This played into my little Christmas plot perfectly. I wrote home about it and went on about how the drill sergeants had told us that the meal served on Christmas day was even better. With my letters, while never saying it directly, I implied that I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. The secret was killing me with nerves, and I was getting more excited as the time for my trip got closer.
The day did finally come. We were all lined up in the hallways wearing our Class A uniforms with our bags packed, plane tickets in hand, waiting for the buses to come to take us on the two hour trip to the St Louis airport. Since the buses still weren’t there, the drill sergeants were still yelling at some, and they even started joking with the rest of us.
Here came Drill Sergeant Sanchez down the line, asking a few of us about our Christmas plans. Then he stopped at me.
“Who’s picking you up from the airport, Private?”
“No one, Drill Sergeant,” was my reply.
“What do you mean no one?” he demanded.
I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “They don’t know I’m coming home, Drill Sergeant.”
He apparently thought I was nuts, which is quite likely. “What if no one’s home?”
“They will be. They don’t go anywhere for Christmas, Drill Sergeant.”
The back and forth of “What-if’s” from him and “They’ll be there” from me went on for a couple minutes before he decided it was no longer his concern if I got to my parents’ house and no one was there to let me in. The only problem I could think of was that my plane was landing a few hours before my dad would be home from work, and I wanted to surprise the whole family at the same time.
After landing in Denver, I took a cab to the store, thinking that a bit of Christmas shopping would be the best way to burn time before heading home. I walked from the store home, which was an uncomfortable walk in those tight shoes carrying the heavy bag.
I arrived at home and set my bag down. The porch light wasn’t on, and I had on my big heavy black overcoat over top of my dress uniform, my hair up according to Army regulation, and the funny green hat on when I rang the doorbell.
My younger sister answered the door, and I could tell she didn’t recognize me by the tone of her voice. “Hello?”
I just replied, “Hi.” I saw the recognition dawn in her eyes, bringing tears with it. I came inside and my mom was just as shocked, surprised, and emotional to see me.
The only hitch in my plans that year was that I unfortunately did still beat my dad home by about fifteen minutes. Even so, that was easily one of my favorite Christmases, and the surprise trip home was definitely my favorite gift I’ve ever given to my family.