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A Christmas long remembered

The year was 1962. My husband had just completed training at Naval Officers Candidate School and was a newly commissioned ensign assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga which was in dry dock for repairs in Portsmouth, Virginia at the time.

Shortly after, the ship was quickly taken out of dry dock and sent to its home base in Mayport, Florida as the Russians made their way toward Cuba with nuclear missiles. I followed in our 1955 Ford with our son who was nine months old.

We quickly found a small apartment, and I settled in while the ship left port and became part of the blockade to prevent Russian missiles from being placed in Cuba. My husband was in charge of a Marine landing party, ready to invade.

As a young wife and mother, I was terrified. The 13-day political and military standoff ended when President John Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba in return for Russia taking its missiles home. The President also removed American missiles from Turkey and Italy although this part of the agreement was not publicized at the time.

Greatly relieved, we began plans for a small Christmas.

We knew that my husband’s cruise would begin in January, and we would be parted for seven months so we were determined to make the most of our remaining time together.

Neither of us had been away from home and our families for Christmas before, but we intended to celebrate the holiday and looked forward to Christmas Eve. We bought a small tree that we set on a buffet in our small furnished apartment and decorated with lights and a few ornaments.

Our son couldn’t walk yet, but he could pull himself up by the knobs on the buffet and point to the tree, babbling. We didn’t have much money, but we bought him a few presents and bought gifts for each other.

Just before Christmas Eve, as luck would have it, my husband drew the duty for that night on the ship. He would not be coming home. I put our baby to bed and settled in for a long evening alone, turning on the small television set to watch Christmas shows.

At about 7:30, I heard a knock on the door and gingerly went to see who might be knocking at that time of the night. There stood my husband with a huge grin.

A Jewish shipmate had taken his duty, telling him to go home to his family.

We would be together for Christmas after all. The tolerance and good will of a person of one faith for a person of another served as a lesson for all mankind that night.

Many years have passed since that Christmas, but I have never forgotten the kindness and good will of a Jewish officer who allowed my husband to come home to his family for Christmas.

SAWDUST STORIES: Making time in 2022

As 2021 comes to a close, everywhere I look at home and at work I see projects waiting to be started or finished. Often, it seems, there’s never time enough. I’m not alone. Americans are experiencing “time scarcity,” a malady so common that social scientists even gave it a name. This pressure to fit everything in impacts both individual and public health by causing an elevated pulse, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of anxiety and depression. Not to mention, for me anyway, impatience towards anyone within a six-foot radius, usually my poor husband.

I often remind myself that time is not just about the here and now but also a long view. It seems that only in memory time stops, or we want it to. So many moments come to mind. Writer Brian Doyle called them an “eternal parade of small surprises.” The feelings are indescribable, but I can recall the scenes. Here are two I cherish.

I’m not yet 17. My best friend and I walk two blocks home one late December night after a classmate’s party. As Karen and I stroll to my house arm and arm, snowflakes flutter down in papery tufts. We could be inside a snow globe. Ours are the only footprints through the snow. At just this moment, everything in my small world is perfect.

And another.

I’m not yet 30. My 6-year-old looks out the window at the sudden rain. Alex is a skinny kid, all knees and elbows. This day I return to is one of those blue, blue days that in winter you don’t think will ever arrive and then it’s 80 degrees in May. Sun dissolves into a warm downpour. Alex and I run barefoot in the driveway and slop through the puddles. Pictures are taken, the kind that must be developed: film sent off and returned within five days to forever represent your past. I don’t need photos to remember our dance in the rain. It was the only one. That boy is now 30.

In the time machine of our hearts most of us want only to go back, which is a paradoxical lesson in savoring the present. That seems harder and harder to do. Researchers Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer write, “Time pressure is at least partly a result of ... the perception of time’s value.”

People who are financially secure are even more harried. If you make a higher wage per hour, you tend to view your time as more important. You’re compelled not to waste it by doing nothing or even by performing jobs that some deem below them, like cleaning their own toilets or mowing lawns. Ironically creativity stems from idling away an hour or two and having the space to make mistakes. I get my best ideas while dusting or weeding.

There will likely never be a standard which universally determines what “time” is worth. No matter what’s in our bank accounts, we all have just 24 hours a day. Time is the great equalizer. Still, time feels different when you’re waiting in traffic or waiting for medical test results. Or even as another new year approaches and we face past regrets and the promise of doing better.

Perhaps time’s value has more to do with the control we think we have over it. This reminds me of that Yiddish proverb, “We plan, and God laughs.” Or a John Lennon lyric: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Or what my husband wrote as a much younger man: “Nothing is sadder than the memory of happiness.” Time surprises us over and over by running out. The present rarely seems enough until later.

A few weeks ago, I asked Karen if she remembers our walk home that December night in 1985. Of course she does. We disagree over whose party we were leaving — Sean Sinette’s, I’m sure of it — and Karen reminds me how we stopped to admire the orange glow of the streetlights in the falling snow. We had no idea at 16 that this moment is one we’d still be talking about all of these years later.

One time researcher warned, “In a society like ours, the go-to answer is make more money, buy more stuff. What people actually need is more time.” This is the plot of a sci-fi film “In Time,” set in a future where money has been replaced by time as the most sought-after commodity, a premise not so far removed from reality. Economists tell us that when anything is in demand its value goes up. With something as precious as time, we perceive it to be scarcer than it is. Just one of the reasons I often awaken at 3 a.m. and lie there dwelling on my to-do list.

Most women I know are so over-booked that we no longer say, “too busy.” We learn to fit in what me must. I manage my life with a wall calendar on the side of my fridge, a to-do list in my pocket, and a digital work schedule on my computer. Some weeks I simply can’t keep up. Writing these words seems like admitting defeat.

In 2022, I will turn 54 years old. I realize the privilege it is to simply opt to do less. It’s no surprise that a recent survey showed that people who could choose between work or play were older, wealthier and tended to be married with children. Researchers determined that those of us who feel the most overworked often do it to ourselves. Bottom line: Do less and you won’t be overwhelmed. That’s easier said than done.

When you’re 6 years old the days are so long you can barely fill them. At 16 you can’t wait to be old enough to do what you want. At 26 to around 56 time is a yoke around your neck, tightened by each added responsibility. At 66 to 76 you relax a bit, except to fit in all the appointments it takes to keep you alive. At 86 the days are so long you can barely fill them, but you’ve learned not to try.

Surprise ice causes crashes

EAU CLAIRE — A light glaze of ice was enough to turn the morning commute into a nightmare for drivers in the Chippewa Valley area.

Temperatures hovered just below freezing overnight at ground level, but slightly warmer air above meant the night’s precipitation fell as rain. It froze on contact with streets, vehicles, and everything else.

Drivers on I-94 were particularly hampered. Multiple crashes led authorities to close both eastbound and westbound lanes between Osseo and Black River Falls.

Officials with the Wisconsin State Patrol were not able to immediately estimate the number of vehicles involved. Independent reports suggested a total of as many as 100 vehicles may have been involved in the crashes.

A statement from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation released just after 10 a.m. described one crash that, remarkably, didn’t lead to serious injuries:

“This morning a weather event came through the area dropping freezing rain, which caused icy roadway conditions along the I-94 corridor from Menomonie to Black River Falls. As a result, emergency services responded to multiple crashes, run-offs and jack-knifed semi units. Around 5:45am on I-94 at mile marker 96 the State Patrol and several emergency agencies responded to a multiple vehicle crash. Upon arrival a semi unit was in the median on fire with two passenger vehicles underneath. Several secondary crashes and run-offs occurred in the general vicinity. Passengers of these vehicles are being transported by bus to an alternate safe location. At this time, both eastbound and westbound lanes of I-94 are closed and a re-route has been established.”

A photo from the crash showed the burned remains of the truck and two cars. Others from elsewhere in the mess showed crumpled trailers and long lines of traffic backed up.

Eau Claire saw an overnight low of 15 degrees shortly before 1 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. But temperatures warmed as the night went on. The update just before 6 a.m. reported “light freezing rain,” but no precipitation total was officially recorded.

This isn’t the last chance of wintry weather in the coming days. Forecasters anticipate a slight chance of snow on Christmas Day, then chances of a wintry mix Sunday through Monday. Temperatures on the latter days are not expected to move much, hovering near freezing.

Another chance of snow could arrive Tuesday night, before the area finally gets a break Wednesday.