Incirlik Airbase, Turkey / Travis AFB, California, 1986
I wonder what they’d think, if somebody told them I was practically dancing around the room one year, getting news we were going home for Christmas?
You ever tell my team how Jack and I both let out a whoop loud enough to wake half the city, or how him and me and the rest of the team were all hugging each other and pounding on each other’s backs — they’d tell you you were on crack. Nobody’d ever believe I know what it feels like, that sudden overwhelming relief and joy, like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. None of the guys would’ve recognized their hardass CO standing in line at the phone, fairly giddy with anticipation and grinning like an idiot. No way in hell. But that was a long time ago.
It was gonna be Charlie’s first Christmas. Jack and I had been called away to Incirlik in Turkey three days after he was born, six months ago, and we’d thought we weren’t gonna make it home until April. Then Colonel Evers woke us up at one in the morning on the 23rd, and told us we had thirty minutes to get our bags packed and on the plane back to the States.
It had taken us less than five minutes to pack, and now we were all waiting in line to call our families and tell them we were comin’ home.
There was a sort of magic in that word, then. Lisa and I had bought our first house only a year ago now, and I hadn’t spent much time there since we first moved in. Since I’d been away Lisa had probably completely redecorated the place, so I could hardly picture what the inside looked like. But all I thought of with the word home was her. The way her eyes lit up when I walked in the door, the way the sunlight fell across her face in the morning, when she opened her eyes and snuggled up close to me.
She’d written me a few days ago to say she’d be spending the holidays at Sara’s house, but I knew how much it hurt her, thinking I’d be gone. Again. I imagined her right now, answering the phone, her surprise and joy when I told her the news.
I wished I could see it, the look on her face when she found out. I wanted to wrap my arms around her right now and squeeze her breathless, lift her off her feet and spin her around and around. The thought of waiting another twelve hours was almost intolerable. She’d be so surprised… I knew she’d given up hope, just like I had.
This line’s movin’ too damn slow, I thought, glancing back to where my duffel sat packed and waiting. Jack had his arm around my shoulders, and Matthiasson was pounding on my back, he was so excited. The words to that sappy old song seemed like a sign, then, pointing the way home.
It was a twelve-hour flight from Incirlik to Travis Air Force Base in California. There, we’d change planes and be at Peterson by evening tomorrow. We’d stay up late that night, Sara and Lisa would make hot chocolate, and me and Jack would sit on the couch and hold Charlie and fuss over him. Then we’d sit around the tree talking until the dark hours of the morning.
Then, on Christmas Eve, Lisa and I would sleep in, or she’d sleep, and I’d lie awake for hours watching her. And I don’t care if it sounds way too romantic for a big tough Special Ops guy, but I loved watching her sleep…
“Hey, you awake there?”
I was suddenly aware that Jack was talking to me. “What’d you say?”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I said, this line’s movin’ too damn slow,” he echoed my earlier thought. “What do you say we forget this, an’ just surprise ’em?”
I looked at him. He was radiating enthusiasm, his whole face lit up with that conspiratorial grin — the one that usually meant he was gonna get us both in trouble. His excitement was contagious. We both ducked out of the line and grabbed our bags. A minute later we were jogging across the tarmac toward the C-130 transport plane waiting like an angel, wings outstretched to carry us home.
The flight to Travis seemed to last forever. Partly because I was excited to see Lisa, and partly because Jack was sitting right next to me singing Christmas carols. Jack’s a wonderful guy and a damn good friend and the best soldier I’ve ever had the honor to serve beside, but he can’t sing for shit. Sara agreed with me. But I was so happy then that I joined in sometimes, despite the fact that I couldn’t sing either. And I even laughed at his bad jokes, and didn’t roll my eyes every time he pretended he was wearing ruby slippers and chanted “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”
None of us slept on the plane. We were too excited, talking or singing or laughing or just thinking about our families. Even Evers, usually very serious, joined in when Jack and Fielding started singing “Ninety-nine bottles of eggnog on the wall.” I just shook my head, pulling Lisa’s picture out of my jacket pocket.
I’d taken this one at the hospital six months ago, and she was holding Charlie and beaming at me with that look that had helped through so many long weeks out here. There was so much hope and so much happiness there, for Jack and Sara and their son, but also for me and her. For that day, and the days after until we got sent out here, it was like we’d forgotten any problems that lay between us, or put them aside for a little while ’cause we knew, no matter what, we could solve them if we were together. And sometimes, far away from her, that picture and the memory of those days was all that kept me going.
I carried that picture, and her latest letter, in my pocket wherever I went. Along with one other letter that Jack insisted I carry, for his son, just in case. But I didn’t want to think about that one, not right now.
“Eighty-eight bottles of eggnog on the wall, Eighty-eight bottles of eggnog… ”
I rolled my eyes at Jack, tucking the picture back in my pocket.
“You take one down, an’ pass it around,
Eighty-seven bottles of eggnog on the wall… ”
Jack opened his duffel, looking at the presents we’d bought for Charlie and remarking it was a shame we hadn’t bought wrapping paper, we could’ve wrapped the presents on the plane. Matthiasson was leaning over the back of the seat in front of us, as Jack held up a stuffed bear in a green dress uniform for his inspection. “What do you think? For my son? He’s six months old… ”
He had that proud daddy look on his face again, not even trying to hide it. I couldn’t help grinning, as Matthiasson said, “That’s an Army bear, O’Neill.”
“There weren’t any Air Force bears left,” Jack complained, giving the bear an appraising look. “Sara can sew him a blue uniform.”
“And have you talked to her about this yet?” I asked, earning myself a dirty look and an elbow in the ribs. “It’s just a question… ”
Jack scrutinized the brown, fuzzy face. “I think he’s hurt,” he told us. “You’re criticizing his uniform.”
Matthiasson laughed. “You’re insane, O’Neill, you know that?” I was struggling to keep a straight face as Jack made the bear dance to that tune the rest of them were still singing…
“Seventy-seven bottles of eggnog on the wall,
Seventy-seven bottles of eggnog…
“Hey, he dances better than you,” I said, and this time I ducked before he could whack the side of my head. “Can he salute?”
“You take one down, an’ pass it around,
Seventy-six bottles of eggnog on the wall… ”
The bear’s arm proved too short to salute properly, and Matthiasson and I agreed that the Colonel would have him on the ground doing fifty pushups for such a pathetic attempt. I shook my head as the conversation quickly devolved into speculation on a stuffed bear’s ability to do pushups, and the likely consequences if it failed to do so.
You could call Jack O’Neill a lot of things, I thought, trying to hide a smile. But boring was never one of them.