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A Christmas Eve Story

Posted by djingodjango on Sunday, December 18, 2011

In 1961 I was stationed as a correspondent with the US Army 1st Cavalry Division in South Korea.  

At eighteen years old, I felt the world owed me a living and life was nothing but beer and skittles.

I drank. I smoked. I caroused.

In other words, I let the raging hormones in my teenage body loose from the corral.

To make a complex story short, it wasn't long before I found myself at odds with my editor and the folks in the division Adjutant General's office who politely told me I was to "chogie" an M1Garand (US Army Rifle Caliber .30) with a line company for the rest of my duty tour in the "Land of the Morning Calm".

However, through some fast dancing that Gene Kelly would have admired, and a certain amount of  chicanery on my part, I ended up a clerk for a motor pool.

And so it came to pass that on Christmas eve, I, along with many of my new jolly comrades in the 7th Regiment (Gary Owen) were drinking in the NCO club.

The empty bottles of grog surrounding us (Pabst Blue Ribbon, I believe) were building in significant number when we finally lurched feebly back to the barracks; many of us bubbling over with a faint yeasty Yuletide fizz.

It was about midnight. "Merry Christmas." I muttered and fell into my cot.

Later on, some 15 miles away at 3 o'clock that morning, the Chinese 3rd Army decided to push across the DMZ just to see if we were paying attention.

An empty 105mm shell hung by a chain in front of Regimental HQ and the regimental CQ was banging unceasingly upon it. My head hurt. I stood, swaying slightly, along with the rest of the barracks and we pushed out into the cold night.

We were issued our weapons, each one stamped with a serial number we had to memorize, the reason of which escaped me, several  en bloc clips filled with eight 30.06 bullets and piled into deuce-and-a-halves. The line companies had already bugged out.

And so we plunged north; face-first into the razor sharp icy winds that began in Siberia, charged across the Mongolian steppes of northern China to finally whistle like a demented banshee over the Korean peninsular. 

My God it was cold. I thought of my Marine brothers only a few years before at the Chosin Reservoir, many who suffered frost-bite and other severe cold injuries during the breakout. Many never survived.

I was dropped off at a critical cross-roads and told to guide other trucks of the other regimental convoys that would be along shortly. 

It was pitch black. There appeared to be farm houses near by, and I could see lights from a small village in the distance.

The convoys soon clattered and roared up the road, deuce and-a-halves, jeeps, armored personnel carriers all filled with dismounted cavalry and later a few batteries of light artillery.

Soon they were gone, and it became, more or less, a very silent night.

Off in the distance a dog closed and a door barked.

Time dragged like a heavy cloth made of velvet anchor chains. It was painfully cold. Even the mickey-mouse boots we wore to protect our feet seemed useless in the wind.

The hours swelled and stretched as I walked up and down this dirt road. They said someone would get me. Don't leave that spot. Wait.

I began to think about my parents, my brother and sister. The Christmas tree and the lights. The smell of ma's baked cookies. My friends and I sliding down hills on sheets of cardboard.

I had never been away from home before on Christmas.

And then I saw it.

Way up on a ridge near by. I thought at first it might be a house, but it seemed too large. I watched it and then, softly at first, then growing louder as the winds shifted I heard the clear ringing of a single iron bell.

I was suddenly reminded how far away from home I was and how ancient that building must have been; filled with smoldering joss sticks and prayer years, perhaps centuries before I was born.

I remembered the little Baptist church my family and I attended when we had lived in Vermont for a few years.  The deacon would pull the rope down from the ceiling and as we all went in, he would stand on the stairway and swing down, pulling hard. The bell way above us would toll with solemn precision.

And as I reflected I heard voices singing.

I walked across the road and with a lurch and muffled cry, I tumbled down onto a frozen rice paddie to end up on my back. I still had my rifle, though. The fear of god had been instilled into me that if I ever lost this thing of metal and wood that delivered death, I would be in deep doo-doo.

But I laughed. I was already in frozen deep doo-doo.

The singing continued. It was in Korean, I assumed, as I lay there, spread-eagled on the ice and looking up into a starless night sky, thousands of miles from home.

The voices sounded all male and they were chanting; calmly, in monotone, oblivious to a foreign teen-age soldier who listened enthralled.

I found out later it was a Buddhist temple, preparing night prayers or meditation. I'm not sure what.

I stood up and steadied myself. As I came from a small mill town in New England,  this music was like nothing I had ever heard. But, somehow, it seemed the right fit for the night.

I had been exhorted to follow Christ a few years before at a Baptist youth seminar, but, at that time, God never entered into my life-equations.

The music seeping across the frozen rice plants took on the aspects of  a carol and I recalled many folks, including my family and I in that little Vermont town, muffled and coated against the winters chill would gather at the town hall and sing Christmas carols; their honest Yankee faces, red from the cold, smiling and laughing.

Then my family and I would walk slowly back up the small hill to our house, the street lights dancing on newly fallen snow; frozen flakes of diamond and sapphire.

Puffs of white vapor would escape from our mouths when we would talk, and my sister and I would be so excited we could hardly keep our bodies still. It was, after all, Christmas eve.

Later, in our living room, with a cup of cocoa, I would sit curled up next to the tinsel tossed tree and gaze into a thin glass ball of blue. Dad had the big Philco radio console on and Bing was singing "Christmas in Killarney".  I was safe, warm and cozy. And Santa would be there soon.

I will never forget that first Christmas so far from home. 

Oh yes. Someone finally came and got me, just as the sun was coming up.

(C) 2011 George Locke


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