Log Cabin Chronicles

Young soldier

Remembering Christmas '53

JOHN MAHONEY

There came a year, when I was young, when I hated Christmas.

I had just turned 18 and was living by the shores of the Pacific ocean in sunny, golden California and you would think that alone would have made my heart sing.

But that is not the way things were.

I had been a private in the United States Army since September, 1953. I was a "regular" -- I had enlisted when I was still 17 and for the past three months had been living in a regimented all-male society at Fort Ord, learning how to kill people efficiently and swiftly using a number of tried-and-true techniques and various powerful technologies.

Our basic combat training ended during the second week of December, and the army allowed us ten days leave. Most of the troops in my training outfit -- Easy Company of the 20th Regiment -- were from back East. And most of them were mouthy, hard-edged urban guys from New York and New Jersey who were disgruntled at being shipped clear across the continent just to learn to kill and maim. They knew they could learn that just as well back home at Fort Dix, NJ.

Consequently, Easy of the 20th had quickly developed a reputation as a sad-ass unit and we were allowed off base just twice that autumn. What little I saw of fabled Monterey sucked, and I yearned for my Vermont hills and the friend I had left behind.

However, my short leave didn't fit in with final exams and end-of-term partying so I saw her but once for a few hours. And that short visit had meant convincing a buddy to drive the 200-mile round trip to the university.

I had to report to my new outfit -- Fox Company of the First Regiment -- a couple of days before Christmas. Fox had a Field First Sergeant with a base-wide reputation for devouring recruits. The first thing he told us was that he knew all about us and Easy Company and Yes, by Jesus H. Christ on the One True Cross, we would be shaping up. We would, he said, become "rock steady."

The next thing he said was that the Army -- his beloved Army -- had generously granted us a week's leave for Christmas, because the advanced combat training cycle wouldn't start until the New Year.

Me, I had no money left to fly once again across the United States of America to see the friend who was by now back home in Newport, Vermont, with plenty of free time. I had just spent it all not getting to see her. My first leave had been, in the natural speech we used in those days, a pretty piss-poor party.

The rest of the guys in Fox Company somehow found money and they split for parts unknown. Come Christmas Eve there were two of us in the barracks, one of hundreds of identical wooden caves two storeys high marching in charmless rows across the California sands.

I knew I wasn't alone that night because I could hear the trooper upstairs playing Christmas carols on his radio.

Back home in Vermont I knew my grandparents and aunt and uncle and cousin were gathered in the living room around the Christmas tree, and I knew that just outside an American air base in England my parents and my two brothers were getting ready to celebrate the holiday. And there was the matter of the distant lady.

It was dark in Fox Company's barracks but I could dimly see the rows of empty bunks and the rows of footlockers and the locked racks at the end of the building that contained our M-1 Garands.

The radio played "Adeste Fideles" for the twentieth time but it did not raise feelings of joy and gladness in my heart.

No, I lay in my narrow bed under the taut sheet and coarse woolen blanket feeling like the last man on earth, crouched by the shore of a brackish sea, squinting at the rays of a dying sun, yearning for something, anything, to ease the ache inside. It was a painful way to begin growing up.


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