The Christmas Tree

December 10, 2015 | 1 Comment

Forty-six years go very quickly. It was over forty-six  years ago that the events of this story happened. I remember it as if it were last Christmas.

This story is for you; for all those of you who believe in the possibility of peace and harmony here on earth. And even for those who do not now. Who knows?

The word travels this way and comes back to where it started. All things go full circle.

Peaceful, warm, loving holidays to you. Peaceful, loving life each and every single day. It can happen. The distance between here and there is not so far as it may seem. Try the journey.

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THE CHRISTMAS TREE
A resonant, whining scream crashed through the thin walls of the barracks. It seemed to absorb every object in the room full of bunk beds, some made, some askew, as though their occupants had dashed from them on a sudden, critical mission. It rattled the doors of the metal clothes lockers and the padlocks, which held their small, shiny handles closed.
“F-4,” John Cumberland thought, as he lay on his lower bunk and shielded his eyes from the already hot and humid tropical morning sun, streaming through the window next to him.
“F-4 with afterburners lit.”
A camouflage blur, just above the adjacent building tops, streaked through the deep blue sky framed by the window. John raised up on one arm and turned to watch the blur depart. A clear, plexiglass canopy with the sun reflecting off of it in brilliant flashes, followed by a graceful, jungle-colored fuselage, followed by two cavernous jet thrust ports filled with the blue-yellow fire of the rocket-like afterburners, followed by two swirling coils of black smoke.
“Where to this time?” John wondered aloud. “The peaceful enclave of still another sleepy tropical paradise? Heaven, perhaps,” he rasped sarcastically.
He lay back down on his bed and shielded his eyes again. His mind travelled rapidly down some silently rolling corridor, and for a moment he found himself at age eight,staring at a Christmas tree that reached to the ceiling of the room. Multi-colored lights on it twinkled, and icicle shivered magically, and from behind him somewhere “Silent Night” played from an old AM tabletop radio. He was excited. Santa was coming, and that meant presents under the tree and the family being together and mouth-watering, home-baked coffee cakes and cookies and breads and a kind of deep, warm happiness he felt only at this time of the year.
Outside, already at four thousand feet, the F-4 sharply banked sixty-five degrees left, and the black coils of smoke turned to follow it. Abruptly, the afterburners shut off, and the sound of the jet engines began to fade, as the craft diminished to a point on the distant horizon, then disappeared.
John drifted back from his journey and glanced at the calendar on the wall next to the window. The month was December. Each day from December 1st to December 14th had been crossed off with a bold, determined “X”, the same way all the days had been for all of November and October and September. That made this day December 15th. December 15th, 1969.
“No short timer,” he thought. “Three months down, nine to go. Lots more “X” marks, lots more heat and humidity, lots more crouching under aircraft with raging jet engines, doing last minute repairs in the 120 degree heat before the pilot unlocks the brakes and the aircraft lurches forward into the jungle skies on another mission. Many more alerts.” (“We’ll issue you your weapons later this afternoon when you get back to your barracks,” the Captain at the shop had said one drenching, cloudy afternoon after a wave of torrential monsoon rain had passed over the base. “Security is sure that Charlie will penetrate the perimeter tonight.”)
“Three months down, nine to go,” he said aloud, almost pensively.
“Who you talk to, GI?” a girl’s voice questioned, and he jumped, startled that she was there.
“I say who you talk to, GI?”
It was Deing, a girlish-looking woman of twenty-eight. She and ten other Thai women took care of cleaning the barracks, doing the laundry and all the other tidying up after the three hundred and five GI’s in the two story building.
“I talk to me,” John said to her, crossing his eyes and dangling his tongue from the corner of his mouth in a gesture of madness.
“I talk to me,” he said again and jumped up from his bunk and danced crazily around the cubicle in his underwear. “I talk to me, I talk to me, I talk to me.”
“Ooooh, you crazy, GI, this place make you crazy, or maybe you crazy before here.”
“I talk to me, I talk to me,” John chanted again, and danced crazily toward Deing.
“I speak you later.” Deing giggled, grabbed the laundry she had dropped, and dashed out of the cubicle and down the hall to safety.
“I talk to me, I talk to me,” John yelled down the hall after her.
He walked back to his bunk, sat on the corner of it nearest the window by the storage chest, and lit a cigarette. He thought of home again. Mostly, he thought of home. He thought of it while working in the aircraft shop, when sweating on the flightline and looking at the fierce, heavily armed jet fighters lined up in their protective concrete revetments down the flight line, off to a point in the distance. He thought of the year he had taken off for himself before enlisting, which had happened, he was sure, just before he would have been drafted. It was true that the thought of home was the last one that he had before sleep came fitfully and the first one he had upon waking at any hour.
“December 15th,” he thought. “no I’ll be home for Christmas this year. First year I’m away. I don’t like it. I don’t. Maybe if I could find a way to have a Christmas tree….”
Tyford walked into the cubicle. Richard Tyford. Five feet five and stocky in a muscular sort of way. Already seventy-five percent bald at age twenty-two. Everyone called him “Ty.” The resident of Mt. Vernon, Washington, with a real live log home he built with his own hands in Alaska. The man with wife Ginny and daughter Katie waiting for him back in Mt. Vernon.
“BEER?” Ty boomed. “BEER?”
“BEER?” John boomed back.
The beer exchange continued. It was a tradition between Ty and himself and Butch Frost, another cubicle resident. In a blazing hot, muggy country, with jet engines and war booming, beer was a special treat. Cold beer, blessedly available from the Base Exchange.
“BEER?” Ty boomed again, as he set his bags on his bunk, unzipped one of them, and revealed two six packs of beer. “There you are, my little chickadees,” he quipped, kissing each six pack.
“Howyadoin, Ty,” John asked.
“I’m doin good, doin good. Actually, what I am is SHORT. I’m SHORT, SHORT, SHOORRTT,” he yelled, as he opened up his clothes locker and crossed out December 14th. “Almost forgot this baby,” he said, as he darkened the “X” with zeal.
When you were in Southeast Asia, you became “short” when you had less than three months left, “very short” when you had less than two, and “SHOORRTT” when you were fortunate enough to have less than one month left. Tyford was “SHOORRTT.” He had twenty-one days separating him from Ginny and Katie. On the back of his red Maintenance Squadron hat appeared an embroidered pair of combat boots with a hat on top of them—-the official unofficial symbol of shortness.
John dressed for his trip to the mail room.
“Save some of that beer for me, Ty, ” he said as he left the cubicle.
“BEER?” Tyford shot back. “BEER? Well, perhaps if you’re very brief with your sojourn, very brief, my good man.”
In the mail room, John opened his mail box and collected his mail and a call tag. At the window he traded the call tag for a rectangular box from home. One of the very best treats from the mail room was a box from home. Especially at Christmas time.
“Cookies, I bet,” he thought. “And coffee cakes and breads and jellies and….”
All the way back to the barracks in the scorching heat and humidity, John wondered what he would find in the box.
Once inside the cubicle, John set his mail aside and feverishly opened the box. He raised the cardboard flaps and sharply caught his breath when he saw what was in it. A Christmas tree. A two foot tall artificial Christmas tree from home. Complete with a string of tiny lights. boxes of miniature Christmas tree balls, and a box of icicle. All from home, where it was cold and snowy and kitchens were overflowing with the fragrance of baking and downtown was alive with Christmas lights strung across the streets and shoppers hurried between stores and when you walked indoors, your face and ears tingled with the sudden warmth and…. He found himself fighting back tears. Carefully, as if the box contained the most precious treasure on earth, John resealed it and put it in his clothes locker. He would decorate the tree later. When it was closer to Christmas. If he could stand it.
Through the next week, John received more boxes from home. In them were the baked goods that embellished the tables and counter tops at home at this time of the year. Carefully, he packed them into his clothes locker, and he remembered what it was like to be home for Christmas—-what it smelled like, sounded like, looked like, and felt like.
For the first time in his life, perhaps, a realization began to grow within him of what was truly important in the world and what was not.
Then, it was December 24th, and the day’s work was done. John walked into his cubicle at three-thirty in the afternoon. No one else was there. He stood in front of his clothes locker and wondered what it was going to be like to put up a Christmas tree in the bright, tropical afternoon, with the outdoor temperature hovering at 110 degrees.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” John sang softly, “with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”
“Ahhh well,” he sighed, “here goes.”
Slowly he took the tree from its box and put it on its square styrofoam base, then set it on the storage chest by the window. One by one, he unfolded its branches, then carefully strung the delicate lights evenly, hung the miniature balls, and suspended the icicle from each and every branch. Around its base, he placed a section of an old white sheet and fluffed it until it looked like snow.
“Look Mommy and Daddy,” he heard his voice saying from across thirteen years, as he stood looking at the small tree,” Look Mommy and Daddy, Santa left me a train and it’s running in circles around the tree and it has smoke coming out of its smoke stack and if I push this button it whistles and this one makes it change tracks and….”
John covered his eyes for a brief moment, then uncovered them and looked around. He was still in his cubicle, and his cubicle was still in a barracks, and his barracks was still in Southeast Asia.
“Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad,” he said, and, still dressed, he slid into his bunk and drifted off to sleep.
It was three AM Christmas morning when he awoke. A squadron of F-105′s were warming up on the ramp. They raced explosively skyward into the dark, spewing long, yellow tails of fire behind them.
“Graveyard shift,” he mumbled, then walked to the latrine, straightened his hair, and went outdoors to catch the base shuttle bus to the shop.
“Graveyard shift, and a Merry Christmas.”
It was one PM when John arrived back in the barracks. Ty was in the cubicle. So was Butch. They were both on their bunks, writing letters home.
“Merry Christmas Ty, Butch,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” they answered, pausing a moment from their letters.
The rest of the barracks was very quiet. It was Christmas day, and many of the men were still at their war work.
“Wars should be suspended for Christmas day,” he said.
“Here, here,” Ty answered.
“Yeah, right,” Butch said.
John walked over to the storage chest and paused, looking at the Christmas tree. He bent over and turned the lights on. Then he took the electric coffee pot from home from his clothes locker, prepared it, and turned it on. The warm smell of fresh coffee began to fill the cubicle and drift through the entire barracks. Next, he took the baked goods from the locker, opened their boxes, and set them on his bunk.
He paused a moment to look at the tree, the murmuring coffee pot, and the baked goods. Then he tuned in the Armed Forces Radio Network on his amplifier. They were playing Christmas music. Constant, uninterrupted Christmas music. He set the volume low, and he listened. And he looked.
In a moment, Butch and Ty put their letters down, climbed off their bunks, and pulled chairs up near the tree. Without words, John offered them food. Without words, they accepted.
The music of “Silent Night” filled the cubicle.
Slowly, men began to return to the barracks from their Christmas day’s work. On this day, the normally loud commotion of their return was, instead, soft and muffled. No voices could be heard. Just the gentle music of “Silent Night.”
John turned toward the entrance of the cubicle. Two men he did not know had paused there.
“Come in,” John said, and motioned them in with his hand. “Grab a chair.” The men hesitated, looking first at the Christmas tree, then at John. Then they came in, slid a chair up near John, Ty, and Butch, and sat down. The silence felt strange. One of them said: “I’m from Toledo.”
“Really?” the other one said, “I’m from Akron. I didn’t know you were from Toledo.”
“Yup, Toledo.”
Silence again. Then, voices from behind said: “Is it OK if we come in?” Then more. And more. One by one, men returning from their war work saw the gentle lights of the tree, smelled the warming fragrance of the coffee, and observed the growing congregation in the little cubicle in the large barracks in Southeast Asia on the other side of the world from their homes.
Soon, the cubicle was filled with men sitting on the floor and on bunks and chairs, and mostly, everyone was silent, looking at the Christmas tree, eating home-baked foods, drinking coffee, and listening to Christmas music.
Then, slowly, quiet conversations began.
“I remember,” one man started, “what it was like to be a kid at Christmas time.”
“Yeah,” from someone else.
“My brother and I used to sneak downstairs late at night to see what Santa had left us,” still another said.
And another, laughing: “My sister and I did the same thing!”
“So did we,” from another and another and another, and soft laughter.
A short, thin man, physically aged long past his true years, had been staring at the Christmas tree and for a very long time he had been silent. Then, slowly, almost timidly, speaking very softly, he said: “At this time of the year, my Mother and my Father and sisters and brothers and I would sit together in our living room after dinner, and we would talk about the small things we had done and the great things we had done, and about what we wanted to do and about what we dreamed of doing.”
The cubicle became hushed, so that all present could hear this man.
“And we talked about wars, too. And about how we believed that peace could be for all people everywhere, if only they would listen to each other and talk to and care for and love one another. We did not have much money, my family, but we did have much belief, and we truly believed that this was possible.”
The man fell silent for a moment.
The cubicle was absolutely quiet.
“I am here with all of you on this Christmas day in front of this beautiful, little Christmas tree, and I feel at this moment that these beliefs are present in this room. You see, I am
Jewish, and normally I do not celebrate Christmas, as you know.” He paused for a moment, and looked around the hushed cubicle at the faces of the men.
“This year, though,” he started, “this year with all of you here and this tree, I celebrate Christmas with you in the spirit that peace is possible.”
“Happy Hanukkah,” one of the men said to him. And another. And another.
“And merry Christmas in peace to all of you,” he answered.
Except for Christmas music, the room was silent for a very long time.
“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” began on the radio, and slowly and softly the voices of the many men in the cubicle joined in. The sound of this chorus drifted through the barracks and out into the endless night.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Gary Kvaltine on April 6, 2017 4:21 PM

    Tears after reading the Christmas story. I was in the navy 69-73 and had moments much like that. I often wonder what happened to my shipmates that shared those times away from family. We sure became close then lost touch after getting out.

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