The [Sad] Carolers

It was 1961, my first –and only – Christmas away from my family and, surprise, surprise, I was doing just fine. In fact, in some ways it was turning into the best Christmas ever, completely free of stress.

USS Los Angeles (CA-135)
USS Los Angeles (CA-135)

I was in the Navy and my ship, U.S.S. Los Angeles [CA-135], was anchored in Victoria Bay, Hong Kong. I was 8,331 miles from my home in Charlotte, N.C.

Weeks earlier I had mailed Christmas presents to my girlfriend, now my wife, Donna Joy Hyland, including a Percy Faith album titled “Music of Christmas,” music she said she played over and over — still does.

Christmas in Hong Kong was going OK. For one thing, there’s not nearly as much work to be done in port and the crew was getting lots of liberty. I was going ashore almost every day. For another, my shipmates and I were all in the same boat, literally and figuratively – everyone was a long way from home, so why whine about it.

I was still OK on Christmas Eve until word was passed that Christmas carolers were approaching our ship.

Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.
Hong Kong, from the harbor . This photo was made by Tony Fleming in 1960.

I climbed a ladder to the main deck and saw a gaily lighted tug boat coming toward the L.A. There were a couple of dozen men and women on deck wearing sweaters and scarfs to ward off the chill. Hong Kong was a Crown colony then and these English men and women had come to serenade our ship, to cheer up the American sailors so far from home on Christmas Eve. The tug stopped 20 or 30 yards off our port side, cut its engine, and the carolers began to sing, acapella.

Those old, familiar songs drifting across the water did not cheer me up, quite the opposite. They made me profoundly homesick.

NOTE: Coming one week from today: Lucky’s Best Story.  You can read it, or watch and listen to a video.

Coming Friday: You Think You Can Whip Me?

Everything Is Relative

When my ship, USS Los Angeles (CA-135), dropped anchor in Victoria Bay, Hong Kong, in late 1961 our captain allowed several Chinese men to come on board at meal time to glean food from our trays.

When we finished eating we would hand our food trays to one of the foreigners and they would rake our scraps into one of several garbage cans. Uneaten mashed potatoes, for example, were saved in one garbage can, uneaten beans in another, bread went into a third can, and so forth.

They were not saving our scraps to feed hogs. If that were the case, all the leftovers would have been raked into the same garbage can.

No, they were going to serve our scraps to people.

And now? Thousands of poor people in Hong Kong love in wire cage homes.
And now? Thousands of poor people in Hong Kong live in wire cage homes.

The federal “poverty level” for a family of three in the United States in 2017 is $20,420.  And, yes, don’t tell me, I know: renting a decent place to live, keeping the lights and heat on, buying clothes, paying the bills for a family of three on that kind of money, or less, is tough duty.

But when I see a U.S. “poverty level” number like that I can’t help but think about a family I saw in Hong Kong, near the dock where I boarded a tender to return to my ship, anchored in the bay.

It was nighttime and I walked past a woman with two small children.  I saw her lie down on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, a child on each side, and pull a second piece of cardboard on top of them, for a blanket.

That’s poverty.

NOTE: A regret I still have: I went on liberty several times in Hong Kong and I saw a lot of poverty, all of which I just walked past.

Coming Friday: The Wasp Nest