New Year's memories

What was your most memorable New Year's eve?

That was the question we posed to Joyce Harding and Ron Costa, residents of Fred Lind Manor at 17th and Howell on Capitol Hill, and they came up with three, very different kinds of memorable observances of the incoming new year.

"It was not hard to come up with that," Harding said confidently. It was New Year's Eve of 1942. World War II was a year old and she had been married for four days to Gerald Harding, a radio man first class on a submarine tender, and he was due to go back to sea.

Gerald was one of the lucky ones. He was a crewman on the battleship USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. The Nevada was the only battleship of the nine on "Battleship Row" to get up steam and move. The captain ran her aground to keep her from sinking and to avoid blocking the harbor channel.

He was assigned to the USS Indianapolis, a cruiser that later delivered the atomic bomb to the Pacific theater and was torpedoed on the way back to base. It was on a secret mission, though, and survivors were not picked up until after several days of battling sharks. He transferred to the USS Otis well before that happened.

Oddly, Joyce's brother was flying into Pearl Harbor with a squadron of B-17s the morning of the attack. The Japanese air squadron was mistaken for the B-17s when they appeared on radar.

On New Year's Eve 1942 Joyce and Gerald Harding were at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, maybe. That was where they were staying, anyway, the grand old hotel on Union Square, but they had been out to so many nightclubs and dance halls that evening she couldn't remember where they were when the clocks struck midnight.

"I remember it being very crowded and everybody was hugging and kissing," Joyce said. "We were walking about very happy, and my husband woke up with a nice hangover the next morning." She nursed him with black coffee and they managed to get to Kezar Stadium for the New Year's Day East-West football game.

Less than a week later Gerald shipped out and she didn't see him again for 20 months. During that time she moved back to be with her family in Idaho, where their first daughter was born.

"She was 11 months old before her father saw her," Joyce recalled.

Gerald died of a heart attack while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway in 1969.

Ron Costa, who used to travel extensively for British Petroleum, offered two New Year's memories. One involved a celebration with other people overseas and one was spent memorably alone.

In the 1990s Costa was in Russia, setting up deals for his company and also setting up a travel business. He found himself in a city called Kirov, a city closely allied to the Russian space program. Because of the space program the city had been closed to foreigners for decades. There were English speakers there, but Costa thinks it is likely that he was the first native English speaker they had ever met.

He was warmly welcomed to the town, never had to stay in a hotel or pay for lodging, going from family to family. He became quite a celebrity.

"I met the most caring, caring people you would ever meet," he said. Gifts were exchanged with everyone. "I don't think I brought back anything I took with me."

He became something of a symbol of hope for Kirov, the living embodiment of their desire to build better lives. That led to a meeting with the Archbishop, one of only four in Russia.

"There were three men with machine guns at the door," Costa recalled. "It's not your normal church." The Archbishop was an important man, and it was unusual to be invited to meet him. He was awed by the age of the building - several hundred years old - and by the furnishings.

"We were sitting at a table that is older than this country.

"It was an honor," Costa said. "It was me being accepted into the town. It changed my status in the town. After he met me every business in town was open to me."

At the end of a trip, it is a Russian custom to stop everything mid-flight, so to speak, put down the bags, stop doing errands and simply be together in silence for five minutes, thinking about the visit and how it affected you.

"It's one of the greatest customs I have ever come across," he said.

Costa arranged to send much needed modern equipment to the Kirov hospital and musical instruments for the local college.

"I'm nothing, I'm really just a guy," Costa said, but when he left Kirov there was a large crowd at the train station to wish him farewell.

"I got quite a lump in my throat leaving on that train," he said.

Costa also spent New Year's Eve north of the Arctic Circle working on Alaska's North Slope Oil development for British Petroleum.

He said it is exceptionally dark that time of year - the way the northern lights reflected off the ice and snow pack was quite beautiful and moving.

"It's a real personal thing," Costa said. "The other stuff is all fluff.

"To try to express what it was like sitting alone on the ice cap - and I mean alone - you really feel close to God."

Korte Brueckmann is a freelance writer living on Capitol Hill.

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