NEW YORK — Retired 2nd Mate Jim Lorier knows something about lonely Christmases at sea. He spent many during his 44-year career as a merchant seaman.
But no matter how bad things got while Lorier stood watch in some unfamiliar place thinking about home and family and Christmas lights, there was something to look forward to.
It's not easy to explain to a landlubber how a small package with a hand-knitted vest, or watch cap and scarf, or socks, some stationery, a pen, a comb, a magnifying glass, a pocket atlas and a traveler's sewing kit can mean so much.
But it does, Lorier insists.
And that seems thanks enough for the 3,000 volunteers who every year wrap 9,000 packages for the Seamen's Church Institute gift program.
Bottle of Wine
"I had a friend, a Danish captain, and in his country, Christmas is a really big thing," Lorier recalled while doing volunteer work for the gift program. "He told me he had bought some good wine for the guys in the ship. 'I thought they'd appreciate a decent bottle of wine,' he told me.
"Then the steward gave everybody a Christmas package. 'It just made the Christmas,' my friend told me."
Patricia Jones, who heads the gift program for the seamen's institute, said the program began in 1917, during World War I, when the wives of merchant seamen wanted to do something special for their spouses for the holidays, even though were were away at sea.
"The gift program has continued, even though shipping jobs are down all over the world. And at least half of the gifts go to foreign merchant ships, where they are accepted in the spirit the gifts are given," Jones said.
"In fact, those little pocket atlases are very popular. When the seamen can't speak each other's language, they can point to a spot on the map as their home, and they are understood."
"It really makes your day," Lorier said. "On Christmas, it always echoes through your head, 'This is my last Christmas at sea.' "
Good, Bad Times
Lorier is now part of a nationwide group of volunteers who help keep the gift program alive in good times and bad.
"Seafarers have great feeling for one another," Jones says of Lorier's work with the program.
But Lorier doesn't think about being helpful. "I just think it's a nice program," he said.
So do hundreds of other volunteers in the New York area, who devote hours each year knitting the vests and scarfs and socks that make up the big gift in the package.
Some of the knitters also come into the institute's headquarters in lower Manhattan to help pack the boxes and finish the knitting.
Edna Groht, 81, has been showing up every Tuesday for the past 10 years.
"I'm here every Tuesday," she said. "We do a little bit of everything. Boxes upon boxes we fill, counting envelopes, tying them together, counting sheets of stationery, tying them together, dropping them in the bag."
Jones said it's the "letters that motivate our knitters," pointing to a note from a grateful seaman of the merchant ship Finnwhale:
"It was like a breath of fine weather in a rather stormy Atlantic where we celebrated this important day and the New Year as well. Words will never be enough to let you know how much happiness your endeavor has brought to our lonely hearts during this time."
"It's funny," Lorier said. "Some of the seamen think those sweaters they get in the packages are good luck charms. I knew one who'd refuse to take it off while he was at sea. I think if he'd thrown it in a corner, it would have gone 'clunk.' "
Jones said the program could cost more than $1 million a year if not for the volunteers. The seamen's institute budgets $166,000 for the space used to assemble the boxes of gifts and materials.
But what is truly beyond price is the time and experience of veterans such as Lorier and Groht. Each finds a unique reward.
For Groht, it's the companionship of the friends she's made at the institute each Tuesday, and the fun she says they have knitting and swapping stories.
For Lorier, it's the drive to continue working that hasn't slowed down even if he has--and, of course, the chance to tell a few stories of life at sea, good and bad.
"This may come as a surprise," he said, looking at the stacks of boxes filled with Christmas gifts headed for ports around the world, "but sometimes these grown men--young and old--will act like little kids when they get their gifts at Christmas. They forget all about their sorry plight."
Those interested in volunteering their knitting skills to the program can get information from the Seamen's Church Institute, 50 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10004.