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A Vietnam Christmas
by Elizabeth Arant West



As I tread gingerly around the edge of mid-life and geezer, my Christmases all seem to blur together. After a while it all evens out and Christmas really does become a state of mind.

My pinnacle Christmas was December 25, 1968. It was the best and the worst—the most intense, the simplest, the most indicative of the “spirit” of Christmas, and the only one I have deliberately recalled on each Christmas since. It was my first Christmas away from home and family. On that day, my dust-caked feet were burning from standing too long. My head hurt from the heat and my blue seersucker uniform stuck to me like a damp bathing suit.

It was 3 p.m. at Landing Sandtrap about 50 miles north of Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, and I was working my third and final Christmas chow line of the day before hopping an Army helicopter back to Bien Hoa. I was a 21 year old recreation program director for the American Red Cross, my first job out of college. I went to Vietnam for a one-year adventure and to try to make some sense out of a schizophrenic war that had estranged a generation of peers from one another and divided a nation of eagles into doves and hawks.

But none of that mattered now—not today on this hot, dusty LZ with a long line of sweaty, bare-chested, paper doll GI’s lined up for Christmas dinner served by 2 young American women. Some of them called us “Donut Dollies,” a holdover from World War II when Red Cross volunteers served donuts to American soldiers serving in Europe. Others called us “Kool-Aid cuties” for the endless supply of the cold, syrupy, sweet liquid we served on our program stops at hundreds of military units up and down South Vietnam.

We traveled in pairs by jeep, plane, or helicopter to eight or ten military units a day, presenting small scale recreation programs, serving chow and passing out “short-timers” calendars. We covered rear area base camps as well as forward area landing zones (LZ’s) where the infantry came in to “stand down” or take a break before going back out to the field again. Sometimes they were there for a few days, others, a few hours, depending upon what was happening with information from military intelligence.

Though we were civilians, we traveled with military orders and were always transported and escorted by armed military personnel.

As I ladled another spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy onto an outstretched Army issue tray, I smiled, and for perhaps the 700th time that day said, “Merry Christmas” to the tray holder, an Army private first class who looked to be about 18. The big aluminum containers of turkey, dressing, yams and other traditional fare were set up on sheets of plywood atop wooden sawhorses right next to the sandbagged bunkers.

Standing there, smiling, sweating, serving and saying something to everyone, I thought about past Christmases at home. They hadn’t always been Norman Rockwell, but it was still difficult not to feel homesick. That feeling was in the air even though this was just another work day in Vietnam and yet it was so much more. For most GI’s it was a hot, dirty joyless day. In some ways, the Christmas dinner only served to remind them where they longed to be—“back in the world”— that’s what they used to call home.

But they made the best of it, and I admired them more each day for it. They smiled, laughed, joked, whistled and always made us feel like movie stars, even if most of us were just average looking American girls who wanted to do something extraordinary.

As the last line of this last dinner dwindled to just a few men, I saw a familiar face—and yet my mind could not comprehend a familiar place here. As the figure drew closer and recognition was certain, he dropped his tray, jumped over the food tables and picked me up and swung me around, yelling, “Liz, Liz, I can’t believe it—what are you doing here?”

His name was George, and we had gone to college together in Memphis, our hometown. After nearly 8 continuous months in the field, he was leaving Vietnam to finish out his Army hitch in the states. His brother had just arrived in Vietnam as an infantryman in the Army, and their parents had appealed to their legislators to prevent both of them from being in Vietnam at the same time.

After all the dust settled, my co-worker relieved me, and George and I were able to sit down and share Christmas dinner together. Morale around us seemed to be buoyed by the circumstances -- two of us who knew each other from home had found one another.

Looking back on that day almost 40 years ago, I realize I was so aware of every second while it was happening. It was a typical 12 hour day for me in Vietnam — flying in a helicopter, going to an LZ, speaking to at least 1000 men. I knew only one. I never saw any of them again. And yet, I felt as close to them as I’d ever felt to anyone in my life. And I understood that I would probably never spend another December 25 in my life in which I experienced the Christmas spirit in such a profound way.

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Elizabeth Arant West was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, during the era of Elvis, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. She graduated from Memphis State University in 1967 with a degree in journalism and no prospects of a job in her chosen profession. A year later she was in Vietnam working for the American Red Cross as a recreation aide and later program director, providing recreational activities to enlisted personnel in country (Donut Dollies).

After a year in Vietnam, she left her precious Mid-South and moved to California where she still resides. The proud mother of a 26 year old daughter, she has continued to work in public service and spent the last ten years of her career as a senior policy consultant for a state senator in the California Legislature. She is semi-retired and lives in Sacramento, California.

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Here's another Donut Dollie story: Vietnam Tapes Bring War Memories

And read another of Liz's stories here: The Care and Feeding of Southern Children

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