Bill Lynch: Why I cry while Christmas shopping

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For most people, the Christmas carols playing over loudspeakers in endless loops in retail stores can be way too much of a good thing, especially if the playlist includes singing chipmunks. For me, there are two exceptions, both of which can bring me to tears, even while I’m squeezing navel oranges at Sonoma Market.

Those two exceptions are the classic carol “Oh Holy Night,” and Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The former is an English translation of “Cantique de Noel,” written by French Composer Adolphe Adam in 1847.

Why it means so much to me dates back to the early 1950s. In those years, our family celebrated Christmas Eve dinner at the home of my grand aunt and uncle Celeste and Walter Murphy.

Their home was the historic Barracks on the Plaza, which they had purchased and restored in the 1930s and, in so doing, turned the entire second floor into their home, which they decorated with a museum-quality collection of elegant antiques and early-California art.

It was always a grand affair filled with good cheer and music, my Aunt Celeste playing the piano and her sister (my Aunt Julie) singing. Grand Aunt Julie, a soprano, had been a star of the San Francisco Light Opera in her 20s. She still had a beautiful voice.

Every time I hear “Oh Holy Night,” I’m reminded of Aunt Julie’s rendition during those evenings in the historic old Sonoma barracks, gathered around the piano with my family.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” written by Walter Kent and James Kimball Gannon, and recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943 became an instant favorite during World War II, but it touches me because of a war experience 25 years later, when I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

Our small amphibious ship, the U.S.S. Jerome County (LST 848), had been operating out of Danang, Vietnam in December 1967. Our captain had heard scuttlebutt that the Bob Hope Christmas show was coming to our area, and would appear at the U.S. Air Force base in Cam Ranh Bay on Christmas Eve.

He somehow got our ship assigned to deliver some supplies to the Naval base there so that we would arrive Christmas Eve day, just in time to make the show. Or so we thought.

The exact timing and location of Hope’s appearances were kept highly classified for obvious reasons, but our captain thought he had the inside scoop in this case.

The entrance to Cam Ranh Bay is narrow and guarded by jungle-covered mountains sharply rising on both sides. The bay, lined with beaches and surrounded by mountains is absolutely beautiful and could have been the set for movies like South Pacific. Unfortunately, it was also vulnerable to surprise attacks by the Viet Cong.

We sailed in shortly after midday and moored alongside the pier. We were the only Navy ship in port.

The base where the performance was supposed to be was a short jeep ride away. The captain and I rode up to the base to see if there was any news on Hope’s ETA.

Nobody seemed to know any more than we did. They’d heard the same rumor, but nothing definite.

As it turned out, Hope took his show somewhere else.

So, we settled for a fairly decent ship’s dinner. I think it was roast chicken. Then we sat on the pier and drank beer.

One of crew had his radio tuned to Armed Forces Radio.

So there, in a lovely place in a deadly war zone where a mortar and rocket attack could come at any moment and disappointed that we missed the Bob Hope show, we sipped our beers and shared stories about our favorite Christmases with family and friends

And then, out of that little radio, came Bing Crosby’s unmistakable voice singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

To this day, I can’t listen to that song without remembering that poignant moment in 1967, and how that song magically transported a crew of lonely sailors to a special place in our hearts where, for a few precious moments, we were safe in the company of those we hold most dear.

So, if you see me in Sonoma Market or another local store, and my eyes are red and my cheeks glistening with tears, I’m not sad. It’s probably because Bing Crosby just reminded me of how happy I am to be home for Christmas.

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