Oh Tannenbaum

Christmas Eve, 1968


Happy Holidays

(© 1998) by, Forrest Brandt


Happy Holidays! by Forrest Brandt. Tent photo.Forward Headquarters, First Infantry Division, Lai Khe, South Vietnam, 24 December 1968: Work was uneventful. There was nothing to tell you that made this day different from others except for the continuous outpouring of Christmas music from the office radio, one song out of each three played by the jocks at AFVN (Armed Forces Vietnam, Radio and TV). Elvis' Blue Christmas fought tooth and nail with Johnny Mathis' Ill be Home for Christmas for the right to be called the "Most Mournful" by the lonely, homesick soldiers.

The two enlisted men I worked with, Willy Johanson and Wayne Yeager, and I plotted out our next radio show in the morning. In the afternoon I "jocked" at the base camps pirate radio station, K-L-I-K, (KLIK had been started by some off duty signal corpspersonnel from the Division. Now more than two years old, it was officially sanctioned and (usually) tolerated by the Big Red One brass) playing MOR (middle of the road) and easy listening music. The show had been forced on me by higher ups. I didn't mind the music but I disliked the image it gave me with the rest of the staff of being "out of it." At least the show gave the division's senior officers and NCOs a breather from all of the rock'n roll preferred by the rest of the troops. I did my two hours and then turned the air waves back over to Roger Ramjet (his real name) for another solid dose of rock.

In between these events I found time to continue my thirty day old feud with Sgt Jay Smith over the swivel chair. It was childish, I knew, but I just couldn't let go of it. It upset me that I was the only lieutenant in the office with a desk but no swivel chair. It wasn't a reaction based on mere whim. The swivel chair helped me move around my desk so that I could spread out several projects at the same time and see them in context of one another. A plain chair or one of the seldom used stools would get the job done, but there was a special feel to the swivel chair and I coveted it from the second I first spied it, sitting unused at Smith's desk. Two days later, back from a field assignment, Smith located his missing chair behind my desk. I was down in Saigon working at AFVN, so Jay promptly snagged the chair and placed it back at his desk. The gauntlet had been thrown down and I accepted.

In truth Smith and I should have been able to work something out. Our days in base camp only overlapped once or twice a week at most. There was no reason that we couldn't share the chair except that neither of us started out with compromise as a goal. Off to a bad start, the thing kept escalating into a test of will and rank. Now, just before dinner, I reclaimed the chair and upped the ante. I wrapped a chain around the chair and a desk leg and then padlocked the chain. Smith would have to drag my desk over to his if he wanted to use the chair.

I came back to the office after dinner and decided that it was time to open the box I had received from Uncle Cliff and Aunt Rose. It was at least a yard tall and more than a foot square. It was fairly hefty and clearly marked, "Open on Christmas Eve." I had spent a good deal of time over the past three weeks trying to guess what it could possibly be but I couldn't reach any conclusions. I pried the top of the box open and stared in. It was stuffed with newspaper. I pulled that out until my hand rested on something prickly. I reached in and grasped a miniature Christmas tree. A string of tiny lights had been carefully strung around the branches and an abundance of green, red, orange, and yellow sour balls were attached in lieu of glass ornaments.

It was wonderful. I sat it down on top of my desk to the cheers of everyone else in the office. We fluffed out the branches and then located an extension cord. Willy plugged it in and the tree blazed away in the gloom of the tent.

There was a letter from Uncle Cliff inside the box. He told me that Aunt Rose had sent him a similar tree in December of 1944. It caught up with him in a barren, snow-covered field in Belgium, just before he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and followed him to the hospital. His tree had helped him through the darkest moments of his life, constantly reminding him that he was loved and missed by his wife and family back home. Now they wanted me to feel that same love in Vietnam.

An achy lump came to my throat along with a sudden knowledge that I was being missed as my family gathered back in Dayton.

Major Chick got wind of the tree and came over to admire it. He asked me if I would mind putting it in a place of honor in the off duty room of the main tent. I knew Uncle Cliff would want it there where it could add to the memories of everyone else in the office.

I carted it over to the main tent. Someone found a box to sit it on and the whole PIO staff huddled around the tree for a moment. During that time I thought of all the family Christmases past, remembered prized gifts, remembered the wonderful days afterwards when my friends and I would run from house to house comparing bounties and playing games. Christmas had been a wonderful part of my childhood and I was never more aware of that fact than at this moment.

It was during the transfer of the tree from our tent to the main office tent that Smith struck back. He had located a bolt cutter and "liberated" the chair, starting our game again. Peeved, I grabbed a folding chair and returned to my planning task. A few minutes later Smith was called into the main office and I grabbed the swivel chair back.

By now most of the others had knocked off for the day and were either watching Combat on the TV set in the off duty room or knocking down beers at the enlisted men's club. Smith came back from his meeting, spied the missing chair and finally determined to bring this thing to an end.

"Sir, that's my damn chair. I was here in the office long before you got here, its my chair!"

"Sergeant, I don't care how long you've been here. There are only three swivel chairs in the office and they belong to the officers."

We went on like that, back and forth, for several minutes before I finally played my trump card. "Sergeant, I don't care what you think or how long you've been here. It's my chair and if you want to take this up with Major Chick then let's go see him now and get it over with."

Smith turned on his heel, blasted out the door, giving it an extra slam as he exited, heading for his hooch. I returned to working on the script and writing letters to home.

Evening crept about the base camp bringing with it a rain shower that sputtered out two hours later leaving us shrouded in a spooky mist. Specialist Huckaby's family had sent us a string of outdoor lights back in late November which we had strung around the tent and others had contributed cardboard cut outs of Santa, reindeer and sleigh, candy canes and mounds of snow. Now the lights and decorations fought to brighten the close night and keep us reminded of the holiday and home, both of which seemed so far away.

Willy and Wayne and I joined the others watching TV and then at Willys urging we wandered over to the chapel in Third Brigade area for candlelight service. The chapel was nothing more than a GP (General Purpose) medium tent placed over a concrete pad. As I recall it was not protected by the usual sand-stuffed empty ammunition boxes. The side flaps were rolled up so that only the top and the poles were visible. We went in and sat down together, ready to receive the Christmas message. We sang a couple of carols, listened to a prayer, and then prepared to hear the story of God sending light into a darkened world.

No sooner had the Chaplain begun his sermon than the spell of worship was broken. We heard the chatter of small arms off to the east. Two loud pops followed, announcing the arrival of illumination rounds. Their globes flared and dazzled in the mist and pitch black sky, an angry, avenging light seeking out those who had broken the holiday truce. The small-arms fire intensified and then we heard the distinctive thud, thud, thud, thud, thud ... thud, thud, thud, thud, thud of the big fifty-cal machine gun kicking in.

Here we were celebrating the arrival of the Prince of Peace, and just outside the perimeter a small fire fight was beginning. Was war stronger than the Christmas holiday?

The conflicting messages stuck in my mind. I thought about my luck; that I was well within the perimeter and that others were risking their necks so that I could enjoy this ceremony. I thought about my family back home. I remembered that in the past on this night of nights our extended family managed to find peace with each other. Parents forgave kids and were forgiven in exchange. Sisters and brothers forgave each other, Republicans and Democrats agreed, Catholics and Protestants (there were "mixed marriages" in our family) prayed together, even my dad and I stopped our constant bickering over politics, religion, race, my grades, his middle class mentality. Now I wanted to recover that sense of peace. I resolved to stop arguing with my father, to stop competing with my sister, to accept my uncles and aunts for the good and decent people they were and let go of my pretensions of sophisticated superiority. I prayed that I would let go of these petty issues, realizing that for all our differences we were family and we cared about each other. I thought of my good fortune to have Willy and Wayne, such good friends, to share these days with and to help me through this experience. Finally, I thought about Sergeant Jay Smith.

We left the candlelit tent and shuffled along the dark paths back to the main office. I went over to the work tent to see if I had put everything away. There was Smith, all alone, writing a letter home. I went over to my desk and grabbed the swivel chair and began pushing it toward his desk, noticing along the way that he was determined not to acknowledge my presence.

"Jay, I'm sorry. Here's the desk chair. It's yours. I didn't mean to pull rank that way. I just got mad and let it take control. I don't want to spend this particular night feeling that way."

Jay was caught completely by surprise. His face contorted in confusion and then a smile crept across his lips. "Thanks Lieutenant."

Jay stuck out his hand and I accepted it. We shook and then I said, "Merry Christmas."

I turned and walked out of the tent heading for the Officers' Club and a final nightcap of scotch. I turned the amber filled tumbler in my warming hands and then murmured a toast to Uncle Cliff, his Tannenbaum, my family and the Christ child. The war would go on around me. I was certainly in no position to stop it, but I could let go of the wars inside, this Christmas Eve night, 1968.

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