by William R. Ablan, pen name of Richard L. Muniz
People talk about Christmases they’ll never forget. Well, the one I won’t forget is a Christmas stripped of Christmas trees, fancy meals, a glass of wine by the fireplace, or presents.
We (meaning the boys of 6th Platoon, 501st MPs, 1st Armored Division) were in a large tent, huddling around a gasoline-powered stove, trying to stay warm. We were someplace in Saudi Arabia, a stone’s throw from a small town called Al Qaisumah. None of us wanted to be there. But we were courtesy of a gentleman named Saddam Hussein, who thought it would be a great idea to go south and invade his neighbor. We all knew we had to chase him out of Kuwait, but right then, right there, we were shivering in the cold and feeling sorry for ourselves.
You haven’t seen cold till you’ve seen it in the desert. I’m a native of Colorado, and I’ve been in the great Rockies in the middle of snowstorms. As a boy, I shivered in the cold, chopping a hole in the ice of the river so the cows could drink. As a soldier, I’d been on the great plains of Kansas as savage blizzards beat down, or crossed the Bavarian mountains with a foot of snow and bitter cold frosting the trees.
But the desert is a whole different kind of cold. It’s miserable, a pierce you through and freeze your soul kind of cold. Our tiny stove was doing nothing to keep us warm even though we were wearing field jackets and gloves. Most everyone wore a stocking cap. I was reminded of one of the episodes of M*A*S*H. Only we weren’t jolly about it.
We’d shipped out and down to where we were a mere ten days earlier. It already felt like an eternity. The married men were wondering what their families were doing. Some spoke of traditions like attending Midnight Mass or opening presents on Christmas Eve. I lay back on my cot and wondered if my children had received the presents I’d sent from Germany before I shipped out. They’d probably arrived broken if they had at all, denying them the pleasure of breaking them themselves.
And I remembered the Christmas before. I took the train in Nuremberg and walked through the Kringle Market, smelling the spices hanging like a fog over the booths and old town. I purchased a glass of warm Gluhwein and walked around. It had started to snow, the flakes falling into the drink like tiny meteors streaking to their death. I walked past one of the old churches and paused, listening to a choir singing “Silent Night” in German.
I thought I’d never been more alone on the planet than that Christmas. I was wrong. It’s worse when you’re sharing the day with twenty-four other guys who would rather be anywhere else.
To lighten the mood, several of the guys got some empty MRE (Meals Ready to Eat, or Meals Rejected by Ethiopia – take your pick) boxes and cut them up. They began forming a Christmas tree out of it. The colored it up using some Magic Markers, then using small bits of trash, they fashioned ornaments for it. They failed miserably to raise any spirits. A sandstorm came up, damping the spirit the “made in Saudi Arabia” tree had tried to kindle.
My Christmas dinner that day was MRE Number Eleven, Chicken and Rice. I gave myself a treat and put it on the stove to warm it up. While I ate, someone found the Armed Forces Radio station, and Bing Crosby tried to cheer us up. It wasn’t working. So we switched to Baghdad Betty, who at least brought a smile to our faces, urging us all to go home because our wives and sweethearts were all messing around with Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, and Bart Simpson.
Someplace in all this, our LT and Platoon Daddy disappeared. I think we were too miserable to care. They came back just shortly before sunset, told us to get our gear, and that we were all going down to the checkpoint.
Checkpoint Bravo was nothing more than a hole in the ground scooped out for us by the division engineers. The idea was we could park the Humvees in it. The purpose of the checkpoint was to direct military convoys off the highway and towards where they needed to go. Right now, there were no convoys, and we had no clue why we were going down there.
Once there the LT told us all to gather around. SSG Tim Honor was a PK (Preacher’s Kid), and that made him the closest thing we had to a Chaplin. He took out an old Bible, opened it, and told us to take off our helmets. He read Luke, Chapter 2, to us. I don’t think there was ever a congregation more moved by those words. He spoke of how a man and woman who was about to give birth went to Bethlehem. Of how the woman gave birth in a stable, and the child was placed in a feed trough since he had no crib. And of how Shepherds came and worshipped the child because He was God in the flesh. And then he finished with John 3:16, telling us that the reason for this birth was because the only one who could save us from our sins was God himself. And so he gave his Son to make sure that happened.
Then we sang “Silent Night.” I’ve had the pleasure of hearing some of the greatest singers and choirs in the world. None of them were ever as earnest as us. Very few of us could sing well, but as our voices rose of the desert in a distant land, something amazing happened. With the surge of our voices, our depression lifted like fog before the morning sun. At that moment, the true meaning of Christmas dawned on us.
It wasn’t about the meal, or the tree, or the presents. It was about being with the ones around you and sharing in the joy the small child had forged. Christmas was about being united by that little child and saved by the man He became. It was about being forged into a group of men who realized we were family.
Tim then said there was something he wanted us to share and brought out a canteen cup filled with torn up pieces of MRE bread. He also had a box of juice with a straw in it. “I’d like us all to share communion,” he said. We were all different faiths. Some were Christians, some Catholics, we had a Mormon or two, and more than a few agnostics, but we put that all aside. For the believers, we remembered that the bread represented Christ’s body, and the juice his blood. For the others, it was a symbol of the small community we were.
We each got a piece of bread and a sip of juice. It was a communion that caught what Communion was all about.
After Tim dismissed the service, we found that our LT and Platoon Daddy had gone on a secret mission into the nearby town. They’d purchased a case of Pepsi and a couple of boxes of snack cakes. So under an ice-cold sky decorated with a galaxy of stars, we hugged, wept, and enjoyed the family we had with us.
To my Brothers and Sisters, I’ve served with, and to those who currently hold the line, on the land, on the sea, or in the air. To the police, firefighters, and EMTs. May you have a Christmas that is as meaningful as that one was to me. God keep you safe and come home to us soon.
Merry Christmas all.
Published in the Sunday December 20, 2020, issue of the Greeley Tribune.
Reprinted with permission.
Rich/William has a compelling website, and has recorded episodes for Our American Stories:
The Atomic Marine (8 minutes)
The Wreck (12 minutes)