Christmas: a day to stand down

McHENRY – Joking around in the upstairs of the McHenry Masonic Lodge, a handful of young sailors counted down the days until they graduate from basic training.

The have 10 days – maybe nine, they decided.

For some, the day of freedom – having Christmas dinner at the Masonic lodge – is a tease. For others, it was a chance to break their strict diet, including drinking caffeinated coffee.

The best thing about the day was being “able to look at people when I talk to them and not stand at attention,” said one sailor, Donald Brown. “It’s really nice to not have to be at attention.”

He was sitting in a line of chairs waiting for his chance to call his wife, Emma Brown, in Texas, as volunteers prepared ham, turkey, yams, green beans, corn and mashed potatoes downstairs.

For the past two months, he and the 42 other members of his company have been in basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes. The 21-year-old has been allowed to call home twice in that time.

After graduation, he’s headed to Florida, and won’t know probably until the day before graduation whether he’ll get leave to go home, to “the sticks” outside San Antonio.

“[I’m] anxious, excited. I just want to get out of here. I’m from Texas, and the cold doesn’t really help,” he said.

Dequan Bartlett, 18, is also excited about his next step. The Bronx, N.Y., native is headed to Japan after graduation to be a pack airman, which is like a mechanic and electrician rolled into one.

That’s what he and his mother, Fran Cabell, talked about when he called home. Normally, they’d be together for Christmas.

The lodge made five phones available so the sailors could call anywhere in the world, Robert Baker said.

The 65-year-old McHenry resident heads up the chapter, with the title worship master and the rotating annual presidency.

The dinner is one of several programs the lodge runs.

It also arranged for the McHenry Downtown Theatre to stay open for the sailors, so they could watch movies. Their photos were taken next to a tree and sent to their parents.

“The letters that we get back from their parents are just wonderful,” Baker said. “It really is. Just to see their kids and be able to talk to them, it’s just wonderful.”

Baker, like a lot of other lodge members, was in the military. He was drafted into the Army in 1968. Things weren’t as strict then, he said, adding that the kids look healthier these days.

“You can’t help sometimes to see these kids come down and you just get emotional,” Baker said. “They’re so young and they’re doing so much. And they all volunteer, too.”

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