On a crisp December day in the 1970s, I shivered on the bridge of a Navy frigate as she plunged and pounded her way through a sullen sea. Our mission was tense: to close with a Soviet invader in the waters off California, an intelligence ship monitoring missile tests.
At that time, the cold war still crackled with tension, and encounters between Soviet and American ships were rare. Both sides feared that any contact could lead to an incident. Certainly, no man aboard our ship doubted that the Soviet fleet was the enemy.
I went to the mess deck and saw the crew was as sullen as the sea. Christmas leave had been cancelled. No one had even had time for farewells; the Soviet intruder took precedence.
By the time we arrived, the seas had calmed. The Soviet intelligence ship, an AGI, sat at anchor. It bobbed and rolled on the gentle swells, like a plastic toy in a mammoth bathtub.
We tracked its radar and electronic emissions. We saw it bristle like an alley cat at the approach of a sniffing dog as we sailed a wide circle around and dropped anchor less than a nautical mile away.
While the men in the secret shacks went about their business, the crew simply waited, anchored in the middle of nowhere, watching the enemy.
Tempers flared. We sat there, fulfilling no purpose, while our families yearned for us. The sea turned glassy, and the wind died. We were trapped in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner":
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
We blamed the Soviets. We'd have no need to spy if there was no spy to spy on.
We watched them through our telescopes, saw women on board, identified a ship's dog. They sent us messages via flashing lights, and one crew member who spoke Russian responded.
"What are you doing here?" the Russian flashed.
"Watching," we replied.
Slowly, over time, we formed an odd bond with this ship sharing our painted sea. We exchanged messages about the weather. We thought about life aboard an AGI, a small ship, more poorly equipped than ours. Our nine-month tours in the west Pacific paled beside theirs. We made port calls; they were supplied by the Soviet fishing fleet out to sea.
Christmas approached. It seemed certain that we'd bob uselessly on that sterile sea forever. Two days before Christmas, just in time, we received orders to return. We'd depart at 1600 hours.
We whooped and hollered and thanked the Lord above. Yet, as the time to depart approached, the AGI looked ever more lonely and fragile. We were going home to family and friends, to celebrate Christmas. But what of our companions?
No one knows who came up with the idea; it was a spontaneous gesture of the entire crew. We tied the small Christmas tree from the mess deck to a cargo pallet stuffed with styrofoam. Each crew member contributed some small treasure to include in the gift: food, candy, tapes, and books. I gave my copy of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
We flashed a message: "Standby to receive a floating package."
We lowered the stuffed pallet into the water, then pulled away a half-mile, like a child trying to coax and feed a wild animal.
We held our breaths. Would the AGI take the offering? Would the Soviet captain suspect a trick or a bomb?
Slowly, the AGI got under way and edged toward the small Christmas tree floating incongruously in the open sea. We cheered as they hoisted the pallet aboard and pulled it inside.
An hour before our departure, the AGI signaled back to us. "Stand by for package." They, in turn, lowered a floating bundle, which we picked up. As we pulled it aboard, the crew crowded around to see what the enemy had sent. There was dried fish from the Soviet fishing fleet (no one dared to eat it) and several Russian magazines. We chatted happily as we passed each item from one to the other. Our happiness was all the greater for the loneliness we'd endured and shared.
Departure time arrived, and we pulled anchor to go home. As we gathered speed, I turned around briefly on the wing of the bridge to watch the enemy ship dwindle in size.
"Merry Christmas," I whispered. "May there be peace and goodwill for all."