My Father’s Notebook: Christmas in Vietnam
The holiday season has always been my favorite time of year. Growing up in a Christian family, I have such fond memories of Sunday school programs, family gatherings with lots of food and treats, candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and a long vacation from school to play with all those new toys. Some of my best memories of the holidays are the ones that took place in our home: putting up the tree, helping my Mom, Sally, to bake cookies and other traditional Norwegian goodies like krumkakes and rosettes, wrapping presents, and watching Christmas specials together. My parents, Glen and Sally Johnson, worked so hard to make these holiday memories and traditions for us.
On some of those cherished days off from school, Dad would come home from work and with a twinkle in his eye call us “school skippers” and ask why we weren’t in school. Because it was winter, and Dad’s off-season, he wasn’t working nearly as much. So the holidays also meant more time with Dad. Mom, my sisters, and I would spend entire days baking up Christmas goodies. Mom had to remind us all from time to time to keep our “snitching” to a minimum, as we needed to save the cookies for later. Dad was wise and could get around this rule by milling around the kitchen, watching and waiting for one to turn out not-quite-right. “Let me get this one out of the way, for you,” he’d say.
But like all aspects of life, the burden of his service in Vietnam was ever-present. We loved the twinkling of the Christmas lights, and Mom would pack as many sets onto the tree as it would hold. Dad was a very easy-going person, and could tolerate more than any other person I know. But one thing he could not tolerate was blinking lights. In fact, he preferred they be off altogether, and if he was in the room alone, he’d unplug the tree.
I had always assumed he simply found the lights distracting or perhaps wanted to conserve energy. Mom knew the truth, though. Flashing lights triggered memories of the war. The vast majority of fighting at Tay Ninh Base Camp and at Buell Fire Support Base occurred under cover of darkness. Both sides of the fight utilized tracer rounds, colored rounds interspersed with the regular rounds to help determine if the rounds were hitting their intended targets and to adjust their aim if they were not. The night sky was streaked with red and green lights as the bombs fell around them. So the flashing lights of 4th of July fireworks and even simple Christmas lights can be unbearable.
Christmas in Vietnam, 1968
It was early December of 1968 that 19-year-old Glen Johnson arrived in Vietnam. Within a couple of weeks, Dad was settling in to Tay Ninh Base Camp in Southeast Vietnam. It was his first Christmas away from his family. The memories of that Christmas was so vivid that three decades later, as he recorded his memories of Vietnam in his simple notebook, his account of that Christmas. It reads as if he had written it while he was in Vietnam. This is what he wrote:
“Well, maybe cause of lack of snow and 1 day no different than the next, Christmas has gone by. Repairs during the day and watch for Charlie at night. They do have a chapel type building in camp here but we forget its even Sunday and a little busy to get there anyway. So every once in a while the Chaplin gets to this end of the base camp and we have church on whatever day it is when he gets here. Being that it’s still close to Christmas he wants to sing Christmas songs. I have seen before on TV, Bob Hope shows and the guys crying. Now I know why. I can’t sing anyway, but when they sang Silent Night, no words come out and I see the guys here in church have tears in their eyes “too.” It’s good to hear from home and the brownies and cookies from Sal.”
Right now, servicemen and women are stationed away from their families this holiday season. Please remember them and all veterans. For information on ways to let them know you care during the holidays, you can go to the Red Cross website to learn more about the Holiday Mail for Heroes program at http://www.redcross.org/ca/los-angeles/ways-to-donate/individual-gifts/holiday-mail-for-heroes.
And a great resource for finding ways to help military personnel and their families any time of year is the White House’s Joining Forces program: http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces/get-involved. It provides information on how to send messages to servicemen and women, a directory of organizations that help military personnel and their families on both national and local levels, and information and guidance to help citizens to start their own volunteer project.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, or any other holiday, I wish you all great joy, peace, and love this season.
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