Sunday, December 27, 2009

Operation Santa Surprise!

My friend, Pam, found out she was getting a couple of weeks leave at Christmas at the same time she found out she was being extended six months. "Yes, you get to go home to your family, but then you have to come back to Iraq until June." The army giveth. The army taketh away.

If you read my last post, then you know we pulled off the surprise, but it was a close thing. Her family knew she was coming home, but they didn't know when. Pam told them it would probably be between Christmas and New Year's when she arrived, but she didn't have an exact date. Her story was credible because as anyone who has ever served knows, the army works in mysterious ways. In fact, the army's "mysterious ways" almost derailed our whole plan.

So this is how it was supposed to go: Pam would get a departure date. Our friend and photographer, Amanda, would make an appointment with Stephanie, Pam's daughter, for family pictures. Pam had already told her husband, Mike, and all three of her girls the only thing she wanted was a professionally done family picture for her chu in Iraq. This insured her family would be on board for the picture. How do you say no to Mom's only Christmas request? The appointment with the photographer would also insure everyone was home when Pam walked through the door, and she would have great pictures to document the surprise.

A most excellent plan, right?

Right. The only thing our plan did not take into account was the army and its "mysterious ways."

Pam got her departure date on Sunday, the 20th. She would be leaving Iraq at 0 dark thirty Monday morning. The eight hour time difference would put her in Kentucky late Monday afternoon. Perfect! She would be back in time to get her feet under her, maybe even do some shopping before Christmas. Amanda called Stephanie and made an appointment. Pam's oldest daughter, Melinda, raced home from WKU without even selling her books back...a true sacrifice when you're in college and always looking for extra money.

Everything was set and ready to go. Pam would call me from Germany to give me the exact time of her arrival in Kentucky. I had a hard time falling asleep Sunday night. I expected that call to come in the middle of the night with the time difference, and I was as excited as a kid on Christmas eve. When I heard my phone beep at 6:30 the next morning, I sat straight up and knocked half the stuff on my bedside table to the floor getting to my phone.

Imagine my disappointment when I read Pam's text message saying she was delayed in Kuwait for at least 24 hours. Amanda got the same message, and we were on the phone shortly thereafter. We came up with an excuse for her to reschedule the pictures for Tuesday.

Tuesday morning brought another text message...another 24 hours at least, but probably not until Thursday. Amanda called Stephanie with an imaginary family crisis in Ohio. Could they do the pictures on Christmas eve instead...around 6pm? It bears mentioning that Mike is a stickler for punctuality. He hates being late, and he believes people should show up when they say they will. Pam was smart in having Amanda make the arrangements with Stephanie.

Another message from email this time. I could hear Pam's deteriorating state of mind in each successive message. As disappointing as the delays were on my end, they were absolutely crushing on hers. She briefly thought she was going to get home on Wednesday, sending me on a frantic search for U of L's basketball schedule because Stephanie had tickets for Wednesday's game right behind the players' bench. Before Amanda and I could take action...another message. "I lost all military bearing and had a meltdown on an E4 and two Kuwaiti nationals, but I will be on the next flight out of here and should be home Thursday morning. Change the pictures to 11 or 12." Turns out she had disappeared out of the system, and if she hadn't had the meltdown would probably still be sitting in Kuwait.

This was the point where it crossed my mind that we might have to bring Mike in on the plan, but we had come this far. We were too invested not to make it work. Poor Amanda had to call Stephanie again, and the situation was getting dicey. Mike had made plans to take the family to Louisville to spend Christmas eve with Pam's brother. They were having an early dinner and would be back for the 6pm appointment. Oy! Mike pushed to reschedule the appointment for 10am, but Amanda talked him into 11am. When Pam arrived in Atlanta, we discovered her flight to Lexington wouldn't arrive until 1:26pm. The earliest Bruce and I could get her home would be 2pm, and that was assuming everything went smoothly at the airport with baggage claim. Let me say again...Oy!

Amanda texted didn't have the nerve to actually talk to her. "Got held up in Lexington traffic. Won't arrive until 11:30." Pam called her brother and told him not to ask questions. Just tell Mike something had happened and dinner would be delayed a couple of hours. Her brother's call calmed Mike down because a short time later Stephanie texted Amanda back. "No hurry now." Amanda took her at her word and didn't arrive until almost noon.

Amanda brought every piece of photography equipment she owned. Lights, backdrops, lenses, etc. and took her sweet time in setting up all of this mostly unnecessary gear. She shot every possible combination: Mike and the three girls, Mike and each girl, each girl separately, each girl with each sister, and so on, and so on. Thank God, Pam's flight arrived on time and baggage claim went without a hitch. Traffic was even surprisingly light. It was the only part of the whole operation that ran smoothly.

When we were 10 minutes out, we got a call from Amanda. "I'm at my car getting my laptop to preview the pics. How much longer?" Her voice held a tinge of desperation, and with good reason. Pam had made it clear she was not to leave until we got there. Pam knew as soon as Amanda was gone, Mike would pack up and go to Louisville. I was happy to tell her we were almost there, and she didn't have to send Mike off the deep end yet one more time.

Mike's face was priceless when Bruce and I knocked on the door holding a Christmas present in our hands. For just a second, I could actually see, "Now what?" on his face. He recovered quickly and graciously invited us in. Pam was pressed against the side of the house like special forces getting ready to kick in the Pam waited a minute to give Bruce time to get on the other side of the room with the video camera and to give Amanda time to get her camera out and ready. I babbled something about wanting to stop by before Christmas and bring a present. Allie, the youngest daughter, later told me I was "cheesing" the whole time I was talking. When I saw Pam's shadow outside the door, I said, "Oh yeah, and I brought something else too." Then I got out of the way.

The screaming and hugging and crying lasted a long time. Joy was tangible. The air was laced with it, and no drug could ever replace that high. Bruce called it a once in a lifetime experience, and he's right. Christmas morning was brighter in my own house because I knew Pam was waking up in hers. The warm glow carried all the way through the weekend.

Amanda documented the whole thing on film, and her reputation was restored. Yes, she can keep an appointment, but the army operates on its own schedule. She was a hero in all of this. Being the wheel man was a lot easier than annoying Mike with constant schedule changes. So thank you, Amanda.

I'm going to go annoy Mike now by camping out in his house to catch up with Pam. Although, maybe I've accumulated enough goodwill that he won't mind so much.


  1. Again, no hero...just glad to be there. :) The pics were priceless...I can't imagine not capturing the moment. The ruse was the fun part, but thanks again for restoring my reputation. :)

  2. What a perfect Christmas story! It strikes me that this is the true spirit of Christmas--the sacrifice of time from Kathy and Amanda's own families on Christmas Eve to give such a gift. I know Pam and her family know more than ever what it means to have such great friends. We are all so happy to have Pam home.