The holiday season always creates mixed feelings for me. I enjoy the festivities, hearing from old friends, gathering with others to celebrate. I am not a Christian so Christ’s birth is only one of a number of traditions that I recognize in my celebrations along with Hannukah and the Winter Solstice. The idea of rebirth at the darkest time of year offers a sense of hope and comfort.
But the season is forever associated in my mind with Vietnam. I flew to Vietnam in mid-December 1970, a newly minted Light Weapons Infantryman headed into combat. I was able to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends but that was hardly a celebration, more like going through the motions. I had orders for Vietnam. The only certainty in my future was that I would be spending the next year, if I was lucky enough to live that long, in southeast Asia.
The journey to Vietnam was surreal. A redeye flight to San Francisco. The cavernous loneliness of the Oakland Army Terminal barracks. Envy at the sight of newly returned Vietnam Veterans. Stomach churning fear. Whatever cheer Christmas 1970 might bring to others, it would not be part of my life that year, assuming I even lived that long. Each step along the way seemed to take me farther and farther into a black hole of despair.
The flight from Oakland to Vietnam was mostly in the dark. We left California late on the afternoon of December 14, 1970. By the time we reached Anchorage, Alaska to refuel, the sun was setting, not to be seen again until it rose again in Vietnam on the morning of December 16. In between was the Long Night, alone in a plane full of people.
Actual combat would not come for a few weeks after my arrival. I and other infantrymen were temporarily assigned to guard duty at the replacement center. It was nice in that my days in Vietnam were counting down without being in combat but I could not receive mail and felt lonelier than I had ever felt before. Christmas Day was bleak, shared with fellow GI’s eating a standard mess hall Christmas dinner. New Year’s Eve was punctuated with flares, tracer rounds and other ordnance fired to welcome 1971. I hoped and prayed that I would live to see 1972.
I did live to see 1972. And I saw it at the exact same place,a veteran, waiting to return home. What a difference! Somehow, I lucked my way through a year’s tour of duty, survived five months in combat and spent the rest of the year in a relatively safe job as company clerk in the rear. I was SO fucking happy, as happy as I had been depressed one year earlier. I WAS GOING HOME! The shit was over. I was alive and whole, able to begin life again.
So every year about this time, I remember my fear and loneliness those many years ago. The memory connects me to all who have gone to war, before and since. So many had it so much worse than me: those who did not return and those who returned different in body and spirit. I was lucky, so very, very lucky. I pray that the many who have followed me into war were equally fortunate and that the family and friends of the not so lucky find solace in memories of their loved ones.
Maybe that’s why John McCutcheon’s 1984 song, “Christmas In the Trenches” speaks to me so viscerally. The song describes the spontaneous truce between front line British and German soldiers during Christmas 1914. It captures the sadness of the soldiers’ lot and their attempts to maintain at least some remnant of their humanity in awful circumstances. My Christmas passage into war was only one of many, neither the first nor the last. Just mine.
The final verse of says it all:
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.
Alfred Anderson, the last known survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce died on November 21, 2005 at age 109. More on the truce can be found here.
I wrote this back in the day when I did not know how to post videos. Go here to see McCutcheon sing the song. If you came her from that post, you already heard.