Fiber Optics Bring Reservists Home For Christmas

December 26, 1990|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

Four-year-old Jackie Topa came to Baltimore to sing some well-rehearsed songs for her father, an Army reservist stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.

The songs, she said, were "about Christmas and all that kind of stuff."

Nikki Haagenson's children came with the chicken pox. But they also had something better to share with a father spending Christmas so many miles away: a list of what Santa brought.

At CSX Railroad's Baltimore headquarters yesterday, a bit of Christmas magic and some high-quality fiber optics helped reunite children with parents, husbands with wives, fathers with sons.

Watching on a giant teleconference screen, members of 10 families -- five from Anne Arundel County -- talked to their loved ones, all members of the 1176 Terminal Transportation Company. Although technical snafus delayed the hook-up briefly, the experience yesterday was almost like being in the same room, if only for a few moments.

Speaking through tears over the video screen, Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Stanley Topa Jr. wished a merry Christmas to 13 members of his extended family.

"I don't think Stanley recognizes me at all, does he?" the Linthicum resident asked. He watched over the screen as his 1-year-old son, cradled in the arms of his mother, Mary, pointed to the ceiling.

"He does, but he seems more interested in the lights," Mary said. She told her husband that Stanley III was sick yesterday, probably, they believe, because he ate some bird seed.

"If he starts chirping when you come home, you'll know why," she said.

Daughter Jackie was coaxed into singing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" from behind a doll she clutched to her blue velvet dress.

All in all, things worked out pretty much as organizers had hoped.

"The only thing they can't do is hug each other," Lou Holmes, chief clerk in computer operations for CSX, said Monday. He had arranged for families to hook up with the reserve unit via screens at CSX's Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters.

Holmes, a Ferndale resident and 35-year CSX employee, has a 28-year-old son in the Curtis Bay-based unit.

On Aug. 27, the 57-member unit was assigned to active duty as part of the Persian Gulf build-up. It was sent to Wilmington, N.C., then Charleston, S.C., Bayonne, N.J., and finally, just before Thanksgiving, to Jacksonville.

The reservists oversee civilian stevedores who load equipment, such as tanks and vehicles, headed for U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

It was just a coincidence, Holmes says, that his son's unit ended up in Jacksonville, the home of a CSX headquarters and teleconference center.

"It was a golden opportunity for CSX to do this," Holmes said.

After conferring with members of the unit and their families, Holmes arranged for five families to make Christmas connections beginning at 3:30 p.m., with five more starting at 8:30 p.m.

Other families turned down CSX's offer, fearing the emotional strain from such close-up video.

"They didn't know what effect it would have on their family," Holmes said. "One family said they're too close to be able to handle it. One family was worried about how their children would react to seeing their father without being able to touch him."

Nikki Haagenson, a Glen Burnie resident and wife of reservist Maj.

Robert Haagenson, jumped at the chance to give her children a video conference with their father.

But all three -- an 11-year-old daughter, an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter -- chose that week to come down with chicken pox.

At first, she doubted the children would recover enough to leave the house on Christmas. But Holmes managed to arrange a spot for the family at a time "when we wouldn't infect anybody," Mrs. Haagenson said.

Unlike some of the other reservists' wives, Mrs. Haagenson has had some experience coping with long separations from her husband. Major Haagenson spent 12 years in the military before joining the reserves.

"It's especially frustrating for some of these women who aren't militarily oriented," she said. "I tell them we have to be thankful for this, and to try not to concentrate on the negative."

Staff writer Samuel Goldreich contributed to this story.

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