Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.
These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.
As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.
Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.
Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.
In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.
As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.
I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.
I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.
Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.
In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.
Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.