By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
It was Christmas night in 1982, and I was at Mastry’s Bar in St. Petersburg with several writers and editors close to last call. For the first time in my life, I worked on Christmas Day to help publish the December 26th edition of The St. Petersburg Times. I was by far the youngest person in the group and had by far the least amount of work experience, but for some reason, I uttered this remark to a group of journalists that had been away from their homes on many Christmas evenings.
“This is the first Christmas I have spent away from home.”
This comment, coming from a 19-year old stringer who had worked on the news desk less than one year, was like kindling in a smoldering fireplace to the seasoned veterans present. What could be better than a teenager complaining about working on Christmas?
When the laughter died down, their recollections began…
“Are you serious kid?” said a 50-something reporter who was chain-smoking and drinking gin and tonics like he was going to the electric chair the next morning. “This is probably the 20th Christmas I’ve worked.”
I tried to qualify my statement… it was matter-of-factly, not a complaint, I would say… but was interrupted by the next ghost of Christmas past.
“My God I covered war zones on Christmas,” said the next grizzled-editor to take a shot at me. “If you can’t handle working holidays son, you may as well quit now.”
The next guy up I think claimed he covered the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. “You should’ve seen those Roman Centurions push us around… you wouldn’t have lasted five minutes kid.”
Finally, the attacks ended when another group of Times staffers showed up, and the conversation shifted mercifully away from me. That was also when Shelby Strother sat down beside me to check on my well-being.
“Don’t let the bastards get you down,” he said, knowing the cliche’ would make me laugh.
Shelby was a staff writer and columnist for the sports department, and the greatest writer I have ever known in-person. I worked with him for a couple of years at The Times before I went off to college, and he went on to be one of the best sports writers of the 80’s and 90’s.
Shelby died after a brief bout with cancer in 1991. If he were alive today, I believe he would have been one of the great novelists in American history.
He had a rare collection of personality traits. He was shy and kept to himself, seeking out remote areas of the news floor to write his articles. Despite his desire for solitude, his attire was that of an extrovert – Hawaiian shirts, leather jackets, and dark sunglasses being his staples. He didn’t share a lot of himself with people, or a lot of his experiences, but when he did it was substantive.
But when it came to writing, no one was more passionate.
Shelby would fight with editors about every single comma, period, word, sentence, and paragraph of his articles.
He talked a lot about sentence rhythm.
Words were like lyrics to him. Columns were like songs. And if an editor didn’t understand that, he went from shy to full-throated debater in the blink of an eye.
Shelby was on a constant search for great stories, and the perfect words to tell those stories. He was a sort of mentor to me. Perhaps the only person I have ever described that way. I hung on his every word as it related to sports, journalism, reporting, and writing.
But there was a side of him I never knew.
I asked him when his first Christmas was away from his family, and he told me it was 1969. I thought about that for a moment, and then asked him where he was in 1969.
“Vietnam,” he said.
It wasn’t something he talked a lot about. At least not to me. But on that Christmas night in 1982, he shared a story about that historic event that I will always remember.
* * * * *
“On the day after Christmas, in 1969, I had powdered eggs and Jello for breakfast,” he said. “I drank the Jello. They mixed it up and served it before it began to set and it almost tasted like Kool-Aid depending on how thirsty you were. It was bad, but the eggs were worse. Powdered eggs were one of those things that never got mentioned when someone would ask what it was like in Vietnam.”
On this particular day, Shelby had a bad case of the Christmas blues.
He knew when Christmas came because the bulletin board told him. A typed message declared:
Christmas will be celebrated on 25 December by order of…
“Oh, there were efforts and allusions,” he said. “Like Christmas Eve, when the uneasy truce made things seem almost like a Silent Night. If I tried hard enough, I could hear the unlucky guy who drew guard duty whispering Christmas carols to himself while smoking a joint. And Christmas morning the cooks wore chef hats, instead of fatigue caps. And the line for confession was conspicuously long. And the Armed Forces Radio Network played Handel’s Messiah instead of the usual fare of feel-good rock n’ roll. And maybe for a few minutes, I got that toasty warm feeling Christmas Day always provided.”
Then he saw a pal, a Marine whose nerves had gotten so bad that lately, he had taken to drinking himself to sleep. The Marine was feeling sorry for himself and tears tracked down his hard face. Beside him was a tape recorder, playing his children’s wonderfully butchered version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. He hadn’t written home in months.
“I thought about saying something,” he said. “Then I changed my mind.”
The Marine rewound the tape and started it again and his sobbing grew louder.
“The ornaments and decorations that had been hung in the bunkers had been gnawed and chewed up by rats during the night. There was a small Christmas tree, but it was an aluminum one and someone had thrown up underneath it.”
He said that the mail had not come for a week and that even the guys who didn’t have hangovers felt lousy. The depression mounted for him, but then the word spread that mail arrived, and there was a package for him. Maybe he would get some cookies. For sure, a letter, something from his kid sister or folks or girlfriend, any words of support he could use to keep his contemporary world at arm’s length.
It turned out to be a football.
“Not just any football,” he said “But one caught in the stands by his father back in the days before those nets were hoisted in the end zone at college games. A genuine game ball from the University of Miami. It was my father’s prized possession.”
There was also a note from his father. His mother usually wrote. This time his father did. There was the usual small talk, but at the end of the letter, there was something about thanks for making the sacrifice.
“My father was a career military man, a retired officer, a patriot, the hawk who prayed nightly for the dove. Now, his country’s sentiments were divided. There were people sticking flowers into gun barrels. Conscientious objectors and people who were afraid of dying and people who simply did not support what was going on. Some chose to live in Canada. My father did not understand.”
His father thanked him for spending this Christmas away from home. ‘It means a lot’, he wrote.
“A football. A sacrifice for a sacrifice.”
“I began realizing some things that day after Christmas and years later, I still remember a lot of them. It was a bad war and our general fears and narrow ambitions were raised to high principle. Maybe we’d get to the light at the end of the tunnel before some incoming horror lit us all up and turned us into jellyfish. I thought a lot about whether the war was right or wrong. But suddenly I realized I was there in it regardless. And that counted for something.”
Now he had a football.
“I decided the thing to do with this football, this treasure of a grown man’s life, was to have a game with it. Kick it and throw it and fumble it and – what the hell – just let it get all scruffy and embedded with the funk that got under your skin and didn’t go away for six months until after you left the country.”
The call went out.
Anyone wanting to play a pickup game would meet beside the tin Quonset hut that always smelled because that was where body bags were filled. A nearby field was mowed. A bag of flour was used to line it. Sides were picked. Of course, there was an uneven number. Nothing ever goes completely by design in a police-action like Vietnam.
“The game started anyway and within minutes, everyone was back in his own backyard,” Shelby said. “There was no war going on. Just a bunch of kids playing football. To the best of everyone’s knowledge, the score was tied an hour later. Not that anyone really cared.”
Then Shelby described what would be the last play of this game.
“In the huddle, the old pump-fake play was called. Parker, a Marine who could run faster than anyone else despite the several pounds of love beads and necklaces he always wore, would take three steps, pivot, then take off. Brito, the quarterback who always bragged of the days he led his high school team to the state finals two years in a row, promised he could fake the short pass and hit Parker as he streaked down the flour line.”
Shelby said he was a blocking back on the play, and remembered it vividly.
“The defender bit on the fake and was a beaten man. Brito wound up with all his might and let loose with a mighty grunt. The ball fluttered off to the right, bounced off a cooler and rolled down a gully into some thick undergrowth.”
And because of the dangers of Vietnam, they did not attempt to retrieve the ball.
“No search party was formed. Nobody wanted to go stomping through some area where there may or may not be some forgotten land mine. Or maybe a viper, a 30-pacer, the deadliest of snakes not walking around on two feet.”
Game called on account of reality.
* * * * *
In later years, Shelby wrote about this football game and his recollections of his time in Vietnam. In the article, he called himself “the airman” and concluded the story with this account:
“The football stayed there at least for the next 218 days when the airman transferred out. For all he knows, it’s still there.
Some people later criticized him for not treating the football with the same reverence his father had. He didn’t care to listen. If anybody really wanted to know what he thought, he would have told them that the football and that football game on the day after Christmas were the best presents he ever received.
The present was himself. Faith and hope and self-dignity and perspective and yeah, feeling. All were restored as he remembered once more what the world celebrates each December 25th.
He might have been only a few clicks away from being the burn-out loser so many people became in that misbegotten country. But he found himself when he lost that football. For a day, he got to be a child again. He regressed and meandered through safer circumstances with less significant circumstances. The hope and fears of all the year were set aside. It was glorious.
So many of his memories of that country are horrible ones. So many memories still strafe an overworked conscience. So many are contained in Washington, D.C., where the chiseled names on a stark granite wall include a free spirit named Parker. But the one memory that overrules all the others has to do with a football.
There always will be a danger of confusing Christmas with that day when everyone gets a bunch of nice presents. Just as people often will mistake the gift with the package it came in.
But the meaning of giving and sacrifice and Christmas, not to mention the taste of powdered eggs, will never go away for the airman who became a little more of a man by becoming a little boy again.”
* * * * *
Editor’s Note: Not a Christmas has passed that I don’t think of Shelby, his experiences in Vietnam, and the influence and inspiration he had in my life and my writing. This article is in memory and honor of him. Much of his prose was woven into my recollection of the conversation I had with him that evening.