A Christmas Surprise – an excerpt from Back in the Day by RG Bud Phelps

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A Christmas Surprise

I officially checked into the Naval Air Station Supply / Quonset Point, Rhode Island, just ahead of 6:00 P.M. on December 18, 1951.  My transfer orders for my first duty station after Boot Camp and Aviation Storekeeping School had a midnight December 18th deadline therefore my very difficult train trip across the country was completed just under the wire.  I left North Platte on the 13th of December and really had no problems on the 1st leg to Chicago where I changed trains for Boston.   My train was stalled between Chicago and Boston because of the snow, and then I didn’t arrive in Boston until the 17th with no trains running to Providence until the 19th.  I knew this would make me late so I fortunately was able to talk a cabby, who was an ex-Navy guy, into driving me here (it took all of my Christmas money plus a sweater I received for Christmas to talk him into it).  It was a tough trip with the road conditions like they were, but I arrived at Quonset Point just before 6:00 P.M. which was ahead of my midnight deadline.  I explained my harrowing experience encountered on my train ride from North Platte Nebraska to Boston to the Duty Officer, and he complimented me for my resourcefulness but added that because of the conditions they more than likely would have cut me some slack.  He sent me to chow and said to come back afterwards and he would have my information regarding barracks and duty ready for me.

After chow, I returned to headquarters, and received my barracks assignment. I picked up my sea bag along with my bedding and caught a ride to my barracks, made up my bed, stowed my gear, and immediately hit the sack.  I was dead tired from my interesting journey from home.    The next morning I heard the stirring of my bunk mates, and assumed it was time for me to get up and take stock of my new surroundings.  The Officer of the Day, last evening, had told me to report back to headquarters for further information about my assignment.  This was when I would officially check in.

After finding the chow hall again and eating breakfast, I headed back to the headquarters office.   I walked into the Duty Officer’s office, and standing in front of his desk, I gave him a smart salute and he returned it, and said, “Please have a seat.  I understand you had a struggle to get here on time with all the snow we’ve had.” “Yes Sir I told the Duty Officer about it last night.” “Yes he told me and that was quite a story son, we would have cut you some slack because of the road conditions, but I’m glad you made it work, it shows me a lot about you.”

He was reading through the order packet I had brought with me, and finally said, “Young man, it appears that you received good marks in Aviation Storekeepers School.  We are glad to welcome you aboard the U.S. Naval Air Station here at Quonset Point.”   “Thank you, sir.  I’m glad to be here.  I’m ready to apply the schooling I received in Jacksonville.”   “You have been assigned to our facility as an Aviation Storekeeper, and will work with the distribution of materials throughout our East Coast bases and aircraft carriers.  Chief Petty Officer James Swanson will be your direct boss.  This morning, he will escort you on a tour of our facilities, and show you where your first assigned duty station will be.”   The Duty Officer lifted his phone, evidently talking to my new Chief regarding the tour.  Within a short period of time, Chief Petty Officer James Swanson came in the duty office and saluting the Duty Officer, said, “Chief James Swanson reporting, sir.”   “Good morning, Chief, I would like you to take our new Aviation Storekeeper, Reginald Phelps, on a tour of the facilities.”

“It will be my pleasure, sir.”   Chief Swanson turned to me and said, “Phelps, welcome aboard.  Please follow me for a tour of Quonset, our final stop will be your assigned work station.”

The Chief introduced me as Bud to two of the guys I would be working with at the distribution center; John Joseph (Punky) Wallace from Charlestown, Massachusetts and then Jim Horn, from Minneapolis Minnesota.  Little did I know that meeting Jim and Punky on that first day would be the start of long friendships!

Punky and Jim bunked in the same barracks I had been assigned to; Building 45 in the Enlisted Barracks so they could show me the way back there at the end of the day.  That first day went fast, and at 5:00 P.M. we were heading for a stop at the barracks before going on to chow.  I really liked my two new buddies and felt very fortunate to have been placed with them at the distribution center.  Now, I was reflecting back on my Aviation Supply training in Jacksonville even though I knew that Punky and Jim would be there to help me out.  It was going to be a short week as we were only a week away from Christmas and would have liberty from the 22nd through the 26th, returning to duty on the 27th.

Punky felt it was unfair for me to be spending Christmas alone as Jim had other plans with a girlfriend so he called his Mom to see if it would be alright to bring me to their home in Charlestown for Christmas.  She approved and so it was all set for me to join the Wallace family for what proved to be a very different and special Christmas for me.

Punky’s family was great.  It seemed as if they just adopted me as part of the family.  Charlestown was near the docks and the Navy shipyard, and mostly all of the men in Punky’s family were longshoremen.  It was fun to visit Charlestown with Punky, because he was born there and was very much a part of the community.  I had no fear when we walked down to the local pub inhabited by longshoremen.  They all had cargo hooks sticking out of their back pockets, but they all knew Punky so I was accepted.   I felt not only had I been adopted by his family but by the entire longshoreman community.  I just knew that this was going to be a very special Christmas!  Punky took me to the square in his neighborhood, where the Bunker Hill Monument had been erected.  The Bunker Hill Monument was a 221 foot high granite obelisk that was the focal point of Punky’s neighborhood and just half a block away from his home.

This visit was a delightful “Christmas Surprise” that was completely unexpected, and even though I am a Protestant, I enjoyed going to Midnight Mass with Punky and his family.  Punky’s family was fantastic, from his oldest brother, Joe and his oldest sister Carol, down to the rest of the siblings and I was just accepted as Punky’s friend from Nebraska.  I couldn’t believe the mountain of food on their huge dining room table.  Five boys, three girls, his Mom, Dad, and I meant there was eleven seated around the table!  What a great memory I have of being included into such a wonderful family changing the possible lonely Christmas into one definitely not lonely.

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