Editor's note: This is one of seven winners this year in the Deseret News' annual "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest.
The Christmas that will remain forever etched in my memory was devoid of snow and sleigh bells. There were no chestnuts roasting on an open fire and no aroma of spicy apple cider. There was no turkey, no mistletoe and no Santa in the department store. There were no Christmas trees. There were no presents to unwrap. I witnessed the powerful impact of the spirit of Christmas many years ago — several hundred feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Our submarine had just completed a seven-month tour of duty in the Mediterranean at the height of the Cold War. We were scheduled to return to our home port of Charleston, South Carolina, two days before Christmas. The thought of seeing family and friends after such a long absence made our excitement almost impossible to contain, and returning just in time for that wondrous holiday created unbearable feelings of anticipation. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm was short-lived. While passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, we received emergency orders to locate and track a Soviet submarine that had been detected near a strategic port in Spain.
The feeling of discouragement formed a huge black cloud that enveloped each man aboard. We knew full well that our window of opportunity for a return by Christmas was already extremely small and this detour would mean no hugs from loved ones on Christmas morning. Even though we performed our assigned task in a professional manner, it added five days to our schedule and the successful completion of the mission did little to relieve the pain of homesickness that seemed to consume everyone.
Shortly after completing that final mission, at a time when things felt especially gloomy, I picked up a colored grease pencil used for keeping the Maneuvering Room status board current, and in the lower right-hand corner I drew a small red and white candy cane. When I had finished, the twinkle in the rest of the eyes of the men in the room was unmistakable and there was just a hint of a smile in their countenances.
Over the next few days, I began to add bits and pieces of the season to the board. One morning I drew a tiny snowman, the next a Christmas tree with ornaments. The following day found Santa and his sleigh flying above rooftops. During each four-hour shift, I added a little something more until finally a shining star looked down on a small Nativity scene, and the work was complete.
And that’s when it happened. Men who had worked so hard for so long to maintain their rough exterior could be heard singing Christmas carols throughout the submarine. Men who had always taken a special pride in how callous they were began to ask, “Who remembers the second verse to ‘Silent Night’?” Men who had refused to acknowledge their spiritual side assisted one another in recalling the words to "Away in a Manger." The atmosphere aboard the submarine had changed completely. The feeling of depression and sadness had been transformed into one of peace on earth — good will to men.
Then, on Christmas Day, the unthinkable happened. The captain, who always stayed at the forward section of the boat to monitor sonar readings and maintain visual sightings from the periscope, walked aft to the rear of the submarine and entered the Maneuvering Room.
Even though we were surrounded by large pumps, motors, hydraulic systems, turbine generators and the main propulsion shaft, a deafening silence fell over us. I tried to envision life in the brig — the Navy’s term for jail. I thought of how simple grease pencils and a piece of Plexiglas may have just cost me a successful term of naval service because I knew that using the status board as a makeshift Christmas card was clearly a violation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission procedures.
For several more minutes not a word was spoken. Then the captain of the nuclear submarine, the commander of one of the world’s most powerful strategic military weapons, said in a soft and almost reverent voice, “Merry Christmas, men.” He turned and left the room, walked slowly back to the forward part of the boat, and quietly closed the door to his private stateroom.
I learned that day that the Spirit of Christmas could be felt by all men, even the most hardened sailors. I learned that the warm light of the season can be felt anywhere, even onboard a submarine far beneath a cold and dark sea. I learned that there is a sweet spirit that can be awakened within each of us through the simplest of means — even a small red and white candy cane.