Fred LaSor: Christmas without the commercialization
December 21, 2017
Christmas wasn't as much fun for the kids when I was assigned to Africa in the early 1970s, and we sometimes regretted they were growing up without experiencing the wonder of that holiday: the houses festooned with colored lights, the crowded malls, and the extended family gathered around the tree Christmas morning opening gifts. As much as we complain about commercialization, doing without it can make that special day fairly unspecial.
So as December approached in 1971 my wife and I made plans to fly the family home from Tanzania for Christmas with our parents, returning to our diplomatic post on the Indian Ocean soon after the New Year. Pan American Airlines had different plans for us.
Pan Am (as we called it, not entirely affectionately) had a flight that started in Tanzania, crossed the African continent to Dahomey, then made additional stops in Liberia and Senegal before crossing the Atlantic to New York. Tanzania to California took a full day and night but we were young and strong and we thought we could arrive at our parents' with enough energy to open presents and eat Christmas dinner before falling into bed.
What we had NOT allowed for was mechanical difficulty. One of the tires blew out when the Boeing 707 landed in Liberia, and we knew our Christmas plans had been changed.
Liberia is home to the Goodyear Tire company, so for just a moment I hoped we might find a spare tire there and continue our flight after a short delay. But Goodyear was in Liberia because a lot of rubber trees grow there, not to manufacture tires, and there were no spares in the country. We would have to wait for one to be shipped in, probably from somewhere in Europe.
As the hours passed we learned the replacement tire would have to come from New York and could not arrive before the next day. Since there were no other flights in or out of this airport, we were stuck.
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Pan Am sent us to the best hotel in town, but "best" was a relative term in Liberia. Our Christmas Eve accommodations wouldn't compare favorably with a cheap motel in Austin or Tonopah. And not having anticipated an additional 30 guests for the night, the hotel was hard-pressed to supply enough clean sheets and soup, much less a turkey with trimmings. Nor was there another restaurant: it was thin soup or nothing.
We settled in for the night. There were no Christmas decorations, and nighttime temperatures only a few degrees from the equator were in the mid eighties with equally high humidity. This was not a Norman Rockwell Christmas.
But as transplanted Californians we were accustomed to shirt-sleeve winter weather, and fortunately our daughters were 3 and 1 so they had no great expectations for Christmas eve or even the next day, when we hoped to be once again headed west.
Sure enough, a replacement tire arrived at midday on Christmas and was installed in a few hours. We were on our way to New York shortly after noon on Christmas Day.
Despite our 24-hour delay, we had a nice holiday meal with our families and opened presents after enjoying pumpkin pie — something we wouldn't have found in Tanzania, nor in Liberia.
Now, nearly half a century later, with snow on the Carson Range and FaceTime scheduled to see the distant grandkids, we can remember fondly the memories of that West African Christmas and enjoy more pleasant times with family. When we hear friends complain about the commercialization of Christmas, we smile knowingly. We know the alternative can be pretty dismal.
As an American diplomat stationed for 20 years in Africa, Fred LaSor has had plenty of experience with non-comercialized Christmases.