All Is Calm ... All Is Bright
Christmas 1968
SGT Steve Banko, near the Song Be.
Co. D, 2nd Bn., 7th Cavalry, !st Cav Division

by: Steve Banko
Co. D, 2nd Bn., 7th Cavalry, !st Cav Division

© 2006
 



This is the story of my first Christmas in Vietnam/Japan.

For me, Christmas was always found in the music. From those early days of grade school innocence when the nuns began the crusade to drill the words of every carol in Christendom into my brain, until today, with innocence a faded memory but the unbridled joy of the Christmas message a constant prayer, I found great delight and confidence in the strains of Christmas. Some of my most enduring memories of the Christmas holidays involve those teachers, the songs they taught me, and the way we sang them. The holiday seemed so much simpler back in South Buffalo when the annual Christmas Pageant was followed by a return to classroom for a cup of ice cream, some Christmas cookies, and an hour long carol sing. It mattered not a whit that puberty rendered the male voices in our impromptu choir more akin to a pond full of bullfrogs than to the Vienna Boys Choir. The real essence wasn’t in the voices anyway. It was in the words – in the hope and promise and triumph of the miracle of Christmas.

Less than a decade later, but half a world away from the well-scrubbed faces of grade school and light years away from mother’s club cookies, I spent a far different Christmas under the spell of the carols.
The good news was that I was a patient at the Air Force transient hospital at Yokota, Japan. The bad news was that precious few of my fellow troopers in my under-strength company of the 7th Cavalry were that fortunate.

The bad news had been delivered three works earlier on December 3, 1968 by the 368th North Vietnamese Army battalion. They ambushed us after a heliborne assault into a small clearing near the Song Be. Five hours of furious combat, two bullet wounds in my right knee, and several dozen fragment wounds later, I had lost virtually every friend I had in Vietnam and was on the verge of losing both my leg and my sanity. For three weeks and through four operations, doctors in Vietnam struggled to save my leg and give me some reason to salvage my sanity.

I was in Japan to give a new team of orthopedic surgeons a chance. My universe had been turned upside down by the annihilation of my unit but the caring, the friendship, and the dedication of the nurses at the 34th Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam had me back on the path toward physical and emotional health. Then, the world spun crazily again, and I was removed from their protection by a military that knew December 24th as merely another day on the calendar.

I arrived at that strange hospital to be cared for by strange nurses in a strange country. I was in a lot of pain. I was frightened by what that pain meant to my future. I was angry for what my country had made me do and endure in its name. But most of all, I was lonely. Christmas had always been a day to be shared and now I was alone in the starkest, bleakest sense of the word. The only consolation came from the music piped over the PA system.

“The First Noel,” … “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” … “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” … the carols restored at least a tiny measure of familiarity to this very different Christmas and by the time the second rotation of the carols had begun, I could almost believe in “Joy to the World” and sincerely thought I could smell the fresh cut fir trees of my youth. No matter how hard I tried though, I could escape neither the throbbing pain in my knee nor the nagging uncertainty in my brain.

I was interrupted in the midst of my self-pity by a barely audible moan coming from the bed next to me. So self-absorbed had I been that I was oblivious to the fact that others were enduring the same, if not worse, plight. The man in that bed was covered in plaster from the top of his head to the tops of his knees. Cutouts for his eyes, nose and mouth were the only interruptions in his cast. His arms were almost plastered all the way to his wrists while metal rods held his arms away from his body.

While the sounds of hope and love and triumph echoed through the ward, they were frequently punctuated by the sounds of pain and suffering. While others were crying out their anguish though, the man in the body cast was audible only in his quiet moans. I could only imagine was kind of horrible trauma had left him this way; what terrible pain must have swept his body; what hopes and dreams and aspirations had been crushed by the brutality that rendered him so helpless. And suddenly, my pain didn’t seen nearly as important and my loneliness became a lot more tolerable.

When the nurses came through the ward with sleep and pain medications and the lights were dimmed, the beautiful strains of “Silent Night” closed out Christmas Eve, 1968. I asked the nurse who tended to me if she could move my bed a little closer to the man in the cast. Her look was quizzical but she complied. Then I reached out and took my new friend’s hand as the carol told us “all is calm; all is bright.” No words were spoken. None were necessary. I felt a gentle tightening of the hand in mine and for the first time that Christmas season, I believed I might truly survive and for the first time in a very long time, I really wanted to.
For me, Christmas will always be in the music.

“I believe there is magic in Christmas and the music that celebrates it, because it brings us closer together and closer to our own hearts.”

[Steve Banko is Field Office Director for US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a veteran’s advocate since his return from Vietnam. His career in government spans almost three decades.]

 


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