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A Christmas in Vietnam

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

A Christmas in Vietnam

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1986, The Syracuse Newspapers

This is a Christmas story. It happened exactly 20 years ago.

I was in Vietnam, a correspondent tossed into that unhappy land as if thrust into someone else's dream. Reality was upside-down. The most trivial events became important, and the most important events became forgotten the next day.

What I remember now is oddly fragmented. I recall the reddish-brown dust of the Mekong Delta in summer and the tiny ants that blew down into my shirt when helicopters landed. And I remember a boy named Rose.

Whether that was his first name or his last name, or just a nickname, I'll never know. The only other fact I knew about him was that he came from Indiana. He talked about being a kid in Hammond, with nothing to do and no place to go, and so that was why he joined the Army, and why he was sitting with me, bumming cigarettes, on Christmas Day.

I could have spent the holiday back in Saigon, but it was a lonely time for anybody away from home, and I had asked a helicopter pilot to drop me off at one of the American artillery outposts north of the capital.

I got there in the morning, just before the clear winter sun began to pull the temperature back up into the 70s. The artillerymen had strung up paper lanterns between their tents, but that was the only sign of Christmas. To most of the soldiers in C Company, it was just another day.

I had walked down the hillside, looking for the perimeter patrol, when I spotted a boy cleaning his rifle. It wasn't the standard-issue firearm, the plastic-looking M16, but a small carbine dating from the Korean War. It was just like the rifle I had learned to fire in basic training, and so we had something to talk about.

I showed him how I used to push one of the springs inside the mechanism out of the way to make it easier to pull the cleaning pad through, and he showed me how he had added a small lead weight to the stock to change the way the carbine was balanced.

He pointed it down the slope, over the tops of the trees. The plain swept out toward the horizon, featureless and peaceful.

"Tunnels down there,'' he said. "Viet Cong tunnels. All we ever find is empty tunnels. But we know they're there. If you listen hard enough, sometimes you can hear them digging during the night.''

I listened and heard nothing but my own breathing. I realized I was becoming scared. We both laughed, and he started singing a Christmas song. He said it was a carol he had heard on the radio when he was growing up.

It wasn't very religious.

I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus,

Underneath the mistletoe last night . . .

I tried to explain why the song wasn't a carol, and we spent the next hour arguing about philosophy. A corporal came around and told us to keep quiet. We waited until the corporal went back up the hill, and then we challenged each other to a contest, seeing who could come up with the most songs about Santa Claus.

I had the most, and between the two of us, we had a total of 17.

Around noon, he took a small can out of his knapsack.

"I've been saving this all week,'' he said. "I figured it might come in handy if I couldn't get off the hill on Christmas.''

He was fingering a C-ration can. The label said, "TURKEY, BONELESS, WATER ADDED.''

He slit the top open and fired up a Sterno canister. He didn't need to say anything more; I had an unspoken invitation to his Christmas dinner. At the bottom of my canvas camera bag, I found a foil pouch of grape jelly. It wasn't the same as cranberries, but that didn't matter.

We sat against an outcropping and savored our delicacies. The jelly added just the right touch. We could have used some gravy, and we would have enjoyed some mashed potatoes, or a few yams, and maybe a small tossed salad, too. But we weren't thinking of what we were missing; we were enjoying what we had.

Rose was packing away his Sterno when we heard the familiar clacking sound of Huey helicopters. The corporal ran down to find us. The Hueys were taking us to the base camp for Christmas dinner. The Red Cross was there, he said.

There was turkey and all the fixings.

I left with the corporal—it was my only way back to Saigon—but Rose waved the helicopters off. At headquarters, I stood in line with a paper tray and watched as a lady in a Red Cross hat heaped stuffing and sweet potatoes and gravy on my tray.

But I declined the cranberries and I turned down the turkey. The pilot who was going to take me back to Saigon looked at my tray and started asking questions, but I just shrugged and changed the subject.

I'm sure he never would have understood.

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