Sometimes, the Christmases you remember best are the ones away from home. So this is an away-from-home-and-garden story.
Those were the days when the Cold War was freezing us all, and I was working out of Italy, covering spot news around the Mediterranean. This often meant a week or more away from the wife and 8-month-old son in Naples, to which a Navy air station offered hops for accredited journalists.
On Christmas Eve that December, I was in Lebanon, where I had covered the precursor of the random bombings so much with us today. A family of seven had been killed in such a bomb the day before, and I had been in Lebanon for a United Nations peace effort. I had filed my stories about the bombing and the U.N. meeting, and I was waiting for an Air Force embassy flight, which served U.S. stations around the Mediterranean.
I had rented an old Mercedes 180D, a junker even then. To kill time, since the Phoenix Hotel was not exactly the kind of place I could afford to drink at (or ogle at the girls in their almost-nonexistent bikinis), I decided to drive north along the coast, away from the Israeli border and the constant gunbattles there.
I took a dirt road off the main route for the beach, parked, and started to walk along the strand. A chilly north breeze was blowing off the Mediterranean, and after a bit I paused beside some old, unnamed Roman ruins, out of the wind. I sat down for a while and wondered why I had ever gone into foreign reporting when there were so many nice desk jobs on papers stateside.
I was idly running sand through my fingers when I felt something cool and smooth. It turned out to be an old, worn Roman coin with an eagle on one side and a man's dim profile on the other. Nice trinket for the son, I thought, got up, and pocketed it. Such finds were common around old Roman sites around the Mediterranean.
I had covered perhaps a couple of miles of beach, meeting no one. I headed back to the car through a collection of huts that couldn't be called a town. At one of the battered huts, a man wearing an old GI jacket and a yarmulka sat in the doorway, a bunch of books in front of him, candles on the sides. He looked up at me, did the familiar finger-gun salute, and said, "You're American, right?"
I admitted it.
"I could tell because your trousers are too long. I used to be a tailor in the Bronx," he said in a New York-kind-of accent.
That identity clue was unusual in those days, when Americans were easily spotted because of their shoes and haircuts. It made me think of old T.S. Eliott, the poet who wrote, "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled."
I looked at the books scattered on a small rug in front of him. There was a Bible, a Koran, a book with Hindu gods on the cover, a book on Buddhism, another on Shinto, one with Hebrew characters on the cover. Others I couldn't identify.
I nodded at the books and asked what he was doing.
"It's almost Christmas in the Western world, right? Big to-do. Nobody's talking about all the other gods out there, so I thought maybe if I give them all a holiday salute, it would keep them from getting their noses out of joint. So if I mumble some stuff and let the candles burn and pretend to read the books, the world will be better. Maybe."
"Novel idea," I said doubtfully.
He shrugged. "They're all connected."
I'd heard that before, so I agreed and said something like, "It can't do any harm."
He nodded. I saluted and moved on, back to the old 180D. The wind was stronger now as I drove back to the main road. The car had a Becker radio, and I turned it on, twisted the knob until I got some music. Often you could pick up something from AFN, the U.S. military radio stations around the Med. "O, Come All Ye Faithful" blared out.
As an Ohio boy, I had sung in the choir, so I joined in, bellowing away. The line "O sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above" seemed, at the moment, to be just the right thing. I sang some more along with other holiday noels.
I caught the embassy flight to Naples, hitched a ride to Marechiaro and the wife and son. The old Roman coin was in my pocket, and I thought, maybe there's something to it all, from Rome through Lebanon to Naples and beyond.
I never did know what finally happened to that coin.
n Contact Sam Bauman at email@example.com or 881-1236.