It is conventional wisdom that Christmas too often has as much to do with commerce as with Christ.
Sure, it’s nice that at Christmas families can gather, overeat, enjoy a nap. But isn’t that just Thanksgiving, with a tree and presents?
Once in my life (and only once) I enjoyed a Christmas that was a small, quiet celebration of those things that really matter in life.
I was away from my family, but I never appreciated my family more. And I was surrounded by close friends—the kind of friends I was willing to die for, and I knew would die for me.
It was 1967, and I was in Vietnam.
My unit was a transportation company, stationed near the port city of Qui Nhon.
As a convoy commander, I was responsible for leading long convoys of trucks carrying the supplies an army needs to fight a war.
The work was challenging, exciting, unpredictable, meaningful … and the best job I’ve ever had.
Christmas that year was much like most other days I spent in Vietnam. I worked.
We ran a small convoy to an isolated fire base north of Qui Nhon called LZ English. The trip was mostly uneventful. But one thing I will never forget was stopping in a little Vietnamese village and seeing a GI riding in the back of a slow-moving jeep, his long legs dangling out the back as he was ho-ho-ho-ing while tossing candy to a throng of excited Vietnamese children.
The soldier was dressed in a complete Santa Claus outfit, including fake beard.
He could have stepped out of that jeep, walked into Macy’s, taken a seat, and begun asking children what they wanted Santa to bring them for Christmas. To this day I wonder where the soldier got the Santa suit, and what the Vietnamese youngsters thought of it all.
We got back to our base about dusk, with enough time to walk over to the mess hall for Christmas dinner. The army put on quite a spread—ham, turkey and dressing, hot rolls, sweet potato pies, all the fixins. We all ate together—officers and enlisted men. Glad to be alive, the one thing we all shared and knew we could count on was each other.
In all the years before or since, I have yet to appreciate a Christmas meal as much as that one.
After dinner I spent some quiet time with my driver, a wonderful soldier everyone just called “Gibble.” From Pottstown, Pennsylvania, John Gibble had played semi-pro football with the legendary Pottstown Firebirds, had gotten into some kind of trouble at home, and a judge offered him a choice between reform school and the army. He saved my bacon more times than I can count.
Later, I walked over to our company commander’s quarters and visited with him and the other platoon leaders. We listened to some Christmas music on a reel-to-reel tape player, drank a few beers, talked about home. Not a single present was exchanged.
About 10 pm I returned to my little room in the modest BOQ. For a while I listened to the Al “Jazzbo” Collins jazz show on Armed Forces Radio. Al was playing straight-ahead jazz renditions of Christmas songs.
Gibble would be getting me up the next morning about 4:30—another day, another convoy — and I began to drift off to sleep. Surrounded by friends and comrades, well-fed, alive and well, I immediately fell into a deep sleep.
Christmas had come and gone.
Joy to the world!
Jack Allday served in the U.S. Army from 1966-1969. He played on Highland Park High School’s 1957 championship team and is now athletic director for UNT-Dallas.