In the early 1970s I was copilot on a 4th Military Airlift Squadron Air Force C-141 jet transport at Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo. One winter we spent two weeks shuttling people and cargo all over Japan, South Korea, and southeast Asia, and when the work was done, we really wanted to get home for Christmas. But unless we could be assigned to an aircraft heading east to Seattle, that was not going to happen.
Then, good news: The day before Christmas, a mission was going east, to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California. It was leaving at 10 p.m., so we’d miss Christmas Eve, but by crossing the international dateline, we would be home on Christmas Day to deliver the goodies we had bought in Japan—if we could hitch a ride from Norton to Seattle.
As we headed for the airplane, we passed through an empty terminal, where we spotted a seven-foot, fully decorated, live Christmas tree. “Wouldn’t that look great in the cargo bay,” I thought. “We could linger at the tree with our coffee and look forward to playing Santa Claus.” While the loadmaster made final checks of cargo placement, I found a spot for the tree, with its garlands of fake holly and strands of gold and silver balls.
While refueling at Elmendorf Air Force Base at Anchorage, Alaska, we went through U.S. Customs and Immigration, where officials checked our passports and sent us on our way. The cargo got a permit to proceed—it could legally be flown to another point, where it would be inspected by a Customs agent.
We passed over a snoozing Seattle around 6 a.m. Somewhere over northern California came the first hint of a problem. “Uh, Pilot, this is Load. Do you have the cargo manifest and the Customs papers?”
“Load, Pilot. No, why would I have them?”
“Copilot, Load. Do you have them?”
“Load, Copilot. You have them somewhere back there.”
“I’ve looked everywhere.”
Landing without the paperwork could be a serious matter. We could be accused of smuggling—bringing in cargo with no proof of having passed it through Customs.
Finally, we figured that we must have left the paperwork somewhere at Elmendorf. We made a call, and sure enough, the papers were on a clipboard on a counter.
We compromised with the agencies involved. We could continue to San Bernardino, where we would be met by all concerned and allowed to leave because we had cleared Customs in Alaska. The aircraft would be impounded with cargo on board awaiting the paperwork, and Agriculture would make a new inspection. And we learned there was a flight north that would wait for us for an hour.
The mountains northeast of Los Angeles hove into view. The air was bumpy, as it often was coming across the foothills. And it was not unusual for one of the two passenger doors to get bumped out of its fully locked position. So when the “Door Open” light went on, we weren’t too surprised. “Load, Pilot. Can you check doors please?”
“I’m on it.” And after a minute: “How’s that?”
“Light’s off, thanks.”
Gear down, cleared to land, back on the ground.
Taxiing in, however, brought an unpleasant realization. We had to undergo another Agriculture inspection, and they were serious about not bringing foreign plants into California. And here we were with a live Christmas tree. By the time we explained and had the airplane fumigated and who knows what else, our ride north would be long gone.
As we discussed the situation, the loadmaster chimed in. “Pilot, Load. I wouldn’t worry too much about the Christmas tree. Remember that ‘Door Open’ light 10 minutes ago?”
Somewhere on the West Coast, a woman in her mid-30s is telling her daughter, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus. I remember the Christmas Day when I was a little girl in California and we didn’t have a tree. And then, out of the sky, a fully decorated Christmas tree landed in the yard. It could only have come from Santa.”