I can't get enough of the holidays. Bring on the turkey, dressing, and family, and then stand by for Christmas carols. Things do get hectic, and I know the postal delivery people dread the catalogs that flood the mail. We get overrun with our to-do lists, which can be longer than your arm, but I think the bustling is worth it. For me it's because the holidays are a time to let your hair down, reconnect, and get retuned spiritually.
I have a mental category for Thanksgiving: It's a time when family, food, and our blessings are emphasized. Our Thanksgiving table always has exactly the same things, and if my wife Vertis didn't make green Jell-O pear salad or her special dressing, there would be a family crisis.
Christmas is different, and there's something about that special holiday that makes me reflect back on past Christmases. As most of us know, all Christmases aren't created equal. Some Christmases of 50 years ago are as vivid as if they were current, and some of our last few Christmases are so vague they could have happened decades ago.
Many of my earlier Christmases were spent on a small farm about a mile south of Norphlet, nestled in oaks on the edge of Flat Creek Swamp. We moved there when I was 7, and I immediately became a boy of the woods, creeks, and swamps. During the seven years we lived on the farm, I hunted and fished almost daily. Our family, while not at the poverty level, depended upon the fish, squirrel, rabbit, and other game I brought in. During that time I was the Norphlet paper boy, and I had a trap line down in Flat Creek Swamp.
Most of the Christmases when I lived on the farm were pretty simple, with a shirt or jacket as the big gift and a stocking with candy, apples, and oranges. However, the Christmas when I was 12 stands out. That morning I walked down the hall from my room expecting to find the usual. But instead, there with a red ribbon around it with my name on it, was a Browning Sweet 16 Shotgun. The idea that my family would spend over $100 on my Christmas present overwhelmed me. I still have what is now a well-used shotgun.
I remember another Christmas that stands out not because of the gifts, family, or church, but because of the absence of all of them. Vertis and I had been out of college for about three years, and I was working for Exxon as a geologist on the King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas, when Doug Garrett, the district geologist, called me into his office. "Richard, on your job application you checked the box 'Interested in overseas assignments'."
Well, I vaguely remembered that, but then he said, "Esso Libya needs several well-site geologists in Benghazi, Libya. Are you interested?"
I knew enough geography to know Libya was in North Africa, so I was shaking my head as he finished, "Think about it for a few days. You don't have to give me an answer right now." I nodded and started for the door when Doug said, "And they will double your salary."
Because of a huge college debt that was dragging us down, we soon found ourselves in Benghazi. On Dec. 15, I was 150 miles deep in the Sahara Desert on a drilling rig in charge of evaluating an oil well Esso Libya was drilling. My two weeks in the desert would be up on the Dec. 21, and yes, you bet, I was counting the days, so when the small plane landed on the rig's gravel runway that morning, I couldn't wait to get back to Benghazi and be with Vertis for the week I was scheduled to be in town.
Vertis met the plane. We hopped in our little Fiat 500, which was just about the size of the smart cars that are on the market today, and we started our week of Christmas in Benghazi.
I remember Vertis saying, "Richard, I have a couple of surprises to show you. Drive downtown."
Benghazi's population was around 60,000, but it seemed much smaller because so many of the residents lived on the edge of town. They had moved in from outlying villages over the past 10 years to look for work. In the center of town there was a traffic circle, and in the middle of the circle there was a big evergreen tree. When I rounded the corner I saw what Vertis was talking about: The tree was covered with Christmas lights. That's what I thought all the colored lights were, but Vertis corrected me. "Richard, Dec. 24 is Libyan Independence Day. That's why the tree is decorated."
"Well, we can pretend they're Christmas lights," I remarked as I circled the tree and headed for our house on the outskirts of town.
When I opened the front door and walked in the living room, I spotted the other surprise. Our living room had a big brick fireplace, and someone before us who rented the house had painted it dark green. It looked hideous. However, during the two weeks I was in the desert, Vertis had hand-chipped every speck of green paint off the fireplace. It looked great!
Later in the week, Vertis brought up Christmas plans. Vertis said to me, "Richard, Norma, the district geologist's wife, told me yesterday that we didn't get invited to any of the ex-pats' Christmas parties because we were new and people didn't know us. She said next year would be different. So it's going to be just the two of us here at Christmas."
The next day was Christmas Eve. That night I managed to scrounge up enough firewood for a fire in the fireplace. We took our short-wave radio into the living room, sat down on a couple of pillows in front of the fireplace, and tuned in the BBC. As a static-filled "Silent Night" played on the radio, we opened our presents to each other. I had purchased a bangle bracelet for Vertis during one of my times in town, and Vertis had bought me a new billfold.
Even when we were in college and later living in Texas, we had always made it home for Christmas to be with family, friends, and be in our home church. This was the first Christmas for us to be without anyone, and not even have a Christmas card or a telephone call. We realized at that moment how much Christmas is about friends, family, and church.
I put my arm around Vertis, and as we listened to the last strains of "Silent Night," tears ran down our cheeks.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 12/24/2017
Print Headline: A Christmas in Libya