December 14, 2012

ON THE EDGE: Oh, for a silent night

By J.P. Devine
Correspondent

Is there any truth to the rumor that the CIA used "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" as a torture device when interrogating prisoners? An apocryphal tale perhaps, but I can see its value.

When you find yourself walking through your day, from doing the laundry to cooking or shopping at the market, while humming it's a "Holly Jolly Christmas," it's only a symptom of the season. When you stand at the checkout counter and start singing it out loud to a line of bemused faces, you're in Holly Jolly trouble.

It's only the 15th of December, and by now you've memorized "Deck The Halls." But it wasn't always fun.

There is a great story out of the European campaign in World War II that was printed and re-printed in the Stars and Stripes newspaper: A wounded soldier was brought into a hospital where the nurse kept playing Christmas records on the loudspeaker. After a bit, the GI took out his weapon and blasted the speaker off the wall. Everyone applauded.

During World War II, the boys serving in the Pacific Theater were entertained by the seductive voice of "Tokyo Rose." She was a radio propagandist, one of several, used by the Japanese to spread discontent and homesickness among the GIs aboard ships, in the jungles and on the beaches.

Rose's most torturous moments came at Christmas, when she played songs nonstop that went right to the heart: "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "White Christmas," sung, of course, by Bing Crosby. To this day, no veteran can stay in the same room with that song and no widow can hold back the tears when it plays.

Brother Jim, radioman on the battleship Massachusetts during the war, was forced to play "Ave Maria" and "Silent Night" on the ship's radio, because "White Christmas" was too painful. During the severe Korean winters, "White Christmas" drew scornful laughs.

My friend and bunk mate "Scoop" Larkin, who drew permanent duty at the front gate orderly room on our base in Japan, was in charge of changing the records that spewed endless music over the speakers that hung in every room and chow hall.

Scoop, son of a newspaper editor from Mattoon, Ill., was a dead-eyed poker player and drinker. Scoop hated Christmas and the music that went with it, so every night at sundown, he put on Leroy Anderson's "Blue Tango."

But the base commander insisted on carols. So Scoop drew on a list his girlfriend, Ruby Moore of Delhi, La., had sent him, a rosary of even more noxious yuletide tunes: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty The Snowman" and Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus." The latter was a favorite of the kitchen crew at the base, and for days on end they would sing it in unison as they plopped chipped beef onto our toast. Some memories never fade.

We were saved when Scoop fell in love with Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." He played that day and night, except when he drank more, and then he would put on RCA Victor band leader Hugo Winterhalter's worst-ever rendition of "Blue Christmas."

Years later in New York, I met Hugo at Toots Shor's bar in Manhattan. It turns out that he didn't like it either.

But Scoop loved it. He would lock the door to the orderly room to keep the night shift out and sit there sobbing over Ruby's framed snapshot. Scoop's boozing gave him severe ulcers and he was medically discharged early. He went back to Delhi and married Ruby. He wanted me to take the train down and be his best man, but I had left issues down there that I didn't want to confront. They sent me their wedding picture clipped from the local paper. Sweet.

I think I may use "Blue Christmas" as the ringtone on my cellphone this year, just for old times' sake. Maybe not.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 

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