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San Diego Christmas

At other seasons, we may forget that San Diego is a military city. But not at Christmas. And certainly not in wartime, when military families across this region wait each day for word that Dad or Mom is still O.K.

My first Christmas in San Diego was in 1944. I was a bachelor ensign at a barren Camp Kearny Naval Auxiliary Air Station, now known as Miramar. The club posted an invitation to an afternoon tea dance at the San Diego Club. I took a bus into town. It seemed like a long way.

There were tinseled trees and a buffet and patient girls who wore their best dresses and smiled. They asked what it was like to be so far from home at Christmas. They were careful that their chaperones could see them at all times.

Like a million other kids, I stayed on in California. But at Christmas I seek ways to reach out to sailors and marines. One of my heroes was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot named Joe Rullo. At Christmas in 1949, he flew through thick fog to land Santa Claus at the foot of Broadway for cheering thousands.

Before the next Christmas, Joe was in Korea. He died there. In this season, no sentiment seems maudlin. I was proud to be a friend of Bob Johnston, who ran the burlesque house and the next-door bar on F Street. One Christmas Eve I played Christmas carols on his rinkydink piano, and Johnston waved the bar crowd over to sing. They were loud. And they knew the words.

On another night, the featured stripper and her fianc?, a San Diego police detective, sat at the bar addressing their Christmas cards. Two weeks later, I saw her daintily veiled face on the wedding page.

One Navy neighbor flew back from Japan one Christmas to surprise his family. Not even his wife knew. Not until their daughter came screaming through the house, crying, "Mommy, Mommy! Come see the bathroom. The seat's up! Daddy''s home!"

One Christmas, my father, then 95 years old, took his first jet flight from North Carolina to join my family in San Diego. He was intent on searching out reasons, he said, for his son's defection from the South.

He paced seacliffs to study the slant of the Pacific waves. He wondered why our beaches have fewer seashells than his Atlantic coast. When I couldn't tell him, he phoned a higher authority: the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

For me, as a kid, the joyous reality of Christmas came as we sang familiar carols around the tree. In that strong preacher voice, my father stood and read the story of the birth of Christ from the Book of Luke.

For each of us, memories enhance this holiday season. This weekend, my preacher father would want me to wish each of you great joy and peace.