Copyright Sam Elmore

Those of you who have visited other countries, and have been exposed to other cultures, can attest to the fact that the manner in which "Christmas" is celebrated, in some places, can be downright weird, if judged by 'normal' standards. Several of our other 'National holidays' are not recognized, or celebrated at all, in other places and cultures.

But, did I have to travel to a 'foreign land' in order to experience the Christmas I'm about to relate to you? Nooooo. All I had to do was go to....wait! Mebbe it is a 'foreign land', after all. It has been referred to as "La-La Land", "The Land Of Make-Believe", and many other not-so-nice titles. (On the map, it's listed as "California.")

Returning from an eight-month deployment to the South China Sea, my Navy ship moored at Long Beach Naval Station in late December. There on the pier amidst hundreds of others, waving and laughing and happy to see me, were my wife and three children; one teen-age boy, and two 'wannabe teen-age' girls. We had a wonderful homecoming reunion, which didn't taper off for quite a long while.

One of the reasons why California has been addressed by the above-cited 'handles', can be readily understood by what I'm going to say next. Outside our house, well after sundown, the temperature was a balmy 84 degrees; just an all-around fine advertisement for California's Chamber of Commerce. Inside the house, it was a whole 'nother story.

The control thermostat for the air conditioner was cranked down as far as it would go....so that we could sit in front of the roaring fire I had going in the fireplace! Using orange-wood and mesquite limbs, along with one-a them 'sparkle pretty' starter logs, it was a downright beautiful fire, if I do say so my-own-se'f.

As my family sat there that night, staring into the pretty flames, one of the kids asked:

"Mom, are we going on the boat trip Christmas Eve night?"

Boat trip? There is, definitely and for certain, just one thing upper and foremost in the mind of every sailor who has just got back from an eight-month deployment to the South China Sea---an' that's goin' on a boat trip. (Riiiiight.)

I cut a glance around to see what in the cat-hair the kid was talking about. I caught my wife shaking her head at the kid; that head-shake meant the same thing, that night, as it did when I was the kid's age, and Papa done it to me. It means: 'hush ye' mouth.'

After the kids had gone to bed, my wife and I sat there waiting for the fire to burn down. After I'd stood it as long as I could, I asked:

"Boat trip?"

"You remember Bob (thus-and-such) down the street? The boat Captain?"

"Yep....retired Navy; Chief Boatswain's Mate; drives a tugboat. What about 'im?"

"They've invited us to go with them. They tour the harbors on his tugboat on Christmas Eve night."

"That's jest about the least excitin' thang I ever heard tell of in my whole life!"

"Well, we don't have to go, if you don't want to. It's just an invitation. Tomorrow I'll tell them we won't be going; but, the kids sort of had their heart set on it."

Now I was faced with bein' the 'bad guy in the black hat' to my own kids, in this un-called-for situation.

"Naw", I reluctantly told her; "Don't nobody tell nobody nothin' jest yet. Lemme think on it some."

At which point, my wife smiled mysteriously, gave me a peck on the jaw, said goodnight, and headed upstairs. As I sat there eye-balling the dwindling flickers from the last orange-wood splinter, I realized that I had jest been snookered....by my-own-se'f. (That wasn't the first, nor the last, time it'd happen, either.)

The next day, I sauntered down to ol' Cap'n Bob's house, where he invited me in for coffee. As we sat there swappin' sea stories (Author's note: a fairy tale starts: 'once upon a time....'; a sea story starts: 'hey, I ain't lyin' now....'), I asked him about the proposed boat trip.

Turns out that he was a 'dues-paid' member of a group of boat/yacht owners (they called themselves "The Flotilla") who had an annual permit from the city to putter their crafts around the inland waterways of Newport Beach, and Balboa Island, on Christmas Eve night. The bottom line was, they literally cruised the waters where the extremely rich and famous people lived, and looked in the back windows of the rich folk's mansions!

When I looked askance at him, Bob was quick to let me know that the rich folks enjoyed having the tour come by every year; he said that most of them come down to the landing to listen to "The Flotilla" sing Christmas carols.

Bob broke out the harbor charts and spread them on the kitchen table. We went over the details of the trip, with absolute safety being the first criteria. (As you can imagine, it don't take very much, or very long, to turn a 'pleasure trip' into a disaster; s'pecially when there's kids involved.)

After a couple of hours with Bob, during which we divided up certain responsibilities between us, I decided that the trip could be executed without too many problems. (The fact that this would be Bob's eleventh year of doin' it, safely, didn't have a thang to do with my decision, either.)

The 'sea-going wives', as they started callin' themselves, prepared all kinds of good eatin' stuff to take on the tugboat (my wife cooked up about four gallons of very tasty Irish stew). I was invited to bring along my guitar, so we'd have something to 'carol by.'

On the night of the adventure, everyone was cautioned to bring along some heavy coats, because 'it get's real chilly out there.' That sounded highly unlikely to me at the time, since it was 80-plus degrees on the pier---at sundown; but, that turned out to be an accurate prophesy after all.

Bob got the tugboat underway and we joined up with the rest of "The Flotilla." Moving along at just above a good walking pace, each boat Captain used his p. a. system to let his own 'crew' know who's mansion was coming up next. It wasn't long before I got caught up in the spirit of the thing, and began to enjoy the trip.

I won't try to list all the famous names whom we serenaded that night, except to say that they, as well as we, had a wonderful time. I will cite two particular incidences, so that you can, perhaps, capture the 'flavor' of the occasion:

"Hey, guys, up here on the left....", intoned Captain Bob over the speakers, "....is the home of the Duke---ol' John Wayne his-own-se'f. Mebbe he's at home, an' y'all can wave at 'im."

I throwed down the guitar, pushed four wives and seb'm kids out-a my way (I think two of 'em was my own), and staked me out a real good 'look-see-and-wave-at-big-John' position. As the tugboat moved slowly alongside the huge mansion, I was absolutely crestfallen. There wasn't a single, solitary, ko-loil lamp lit nowhere in 'ere. John Wayne wasn't at home. Drat it!

A little while later, Bob idled the tugboat parallel to another mansion; this one was ablaze with light. All the window drapes were flung wide, and every room was open to view from the harbor. It was impossible to count the people milling around inside the place, but I estimated hundreds, at least.

All the men were wearing long-tailed tuxedos, gold or black cumberbunds, white bow-ties, ruffled shirt-fronts, etc. The ladies all wore beautiful floor-length gowns, which seemed to glitter in the light from scores of chandeliers. The expensive-looking jewellry the women wore sparkled and gleamed even brighter than the chandeliers.

Bob gave a short blast on the tugboat's horn, and the guys and gals around the billiard table laid down their cues, rushed to the windows, and hoisted their long-stemmed champagne glasses in a toast, as they waved and laughed merrily.

We made it back to the tugboat's mooring site about three a. m. on Christmas day. After securing the mooring lines, us grown-ups commenced relaying the limp bodies of sleeping children across the gunwales to each other, and lugging them across the pier to the waiting vehicles.

Yep....they sure do have some strange ways of celebrating Christmas in some of them far-off, exotic, places....s'pecially out yonder in La-La Land, where it is plumb necessary to run the air conditioner at full-bore-freeze just so ye' can have a purty far in the far-place.

To all of you fine folks---Merry Christmas from my clan.