I wasn’t going home for Christmas that year. My first class petty officer had assigned me to a four hour night duty watch. The weather was calm and Californian. I had resigned myself to my situation as you do in the service. There was no where I could go or would be going. I had landed an assignment on a dry-dock in San Diego Harbor. Before my first day I had never heard of a dry-dock. The naval station dock lifted frigates out of the water for maintenance. Our job was to provide the facility for maintenance to occur and to maintain the dock. There were down times when we didn’t have a ship. That’s when the Boatswains’ Mate team would build the wooden supports for the next ships arrival. On this particular night we had a ship in dock. Security watches were scheduled around the clock. I hooked the two way radio to my dungaree belt and left the parking lot gate for the dock. A dock is immense, painted the standard navy gray, a lumbering hollow tank which currently was full of air while it held the ship out of the water. That meant the stairs to get to the top were the height of a four story building. Being youthful the stairs felt good to my legs. Once topside I looked around the top of the dock at the ship and what I could see of the basin. There were nothing unusual found in my first check. My mind drifted to Christmas. This was not a normal Christmas night for me. I wouldn’t even get back to my apartment as we were restricted to the dock during duty days. From topside I descended the ladder through the open hatch. I was in the mess deck. There was no one around. I proceeded down the passage way checking hatches, vents, switches, anything that looked out of place. Every few feet you would have to step over the bulkhead under the passageway hatches.
Although no one in the service knew I had been involved in singing while growing up that included Handals’ Messiah. I started humming some of it and decided I was going to spend my watch telling myself the Christmas story using as much of the Bible and songs as I could remember. So I quietly started. Ships and dry-docks have excellent acoustics. I passed through the women’s bunk room. The floor shined and everyone was asleep. I continued humming and singing and talking to myself. I reached the ladder on the aft end of the dock and ship. From this vantage point I could see the harbor. There were no unauthorized vessels nearby and the harbor shimmered. City lights around the edges that faded into the black water of the harbor. Across from me was the Carrier base. A city within a city. I’d reached the part where Mary and Joseph report for a tax census when I turned back the way I had come and about halfway topside I reached the steep stainless ladder to the basin.
The basin was a unique experience. The basin was a football field of steel with a ship over your head. Depending on how long the ship had been at sea they could be covered in barnacles and sea plants. Within a day of being exposed to the air it could be rank and material sometimes dropped onto your uniform. The magnificence of the ship held up by a perfectly shaped wood frame to hug its underside. A civilian contractor had recently fallen off a ladder while in the basin and was severely injured. I looked for dangerous tools left out, people, the bilge lines, and the sonar in the propeller. All looked good while the wise men visited Jesus and shepherds heard an angel.
I left the basin on the starboard side ladder. I let the hair settle back down on my neck after being under the ship. I proceeded to the farthest end of the dock and descended to the bowels of the dock. I checked the list and trim gauges and recorded them on the log. Any tilt meant we were taking on water or the ship was slipping on its supports. All was well. Mary was keeping heavy thoughts inside her heart. I wondered about such an experience. The electrical panels were marked with tags for a repair so I checked the tag and continued on during the First Noel. I passed through the men’s bunk room which smelled of socks. Snoring made a poor harmony for Little Town of Bethlehem. I wondered if anyone noticed the carol. With the boys all sleeping soundly I continued again to top side and crossed the gangway thirty feet high over the basin and between each side of the dock. The gangway rattled under my boots when I came to the end of what I remembered of the Christmas story. I felt peaceful. I would make three more rounds that night and with a four am check out
returned to my bunk for work at seven. Merry Christmas everyone.