Author's Name: Michael Phelan
Title: "Santa Claus"
It was Christmas in a Country not familiar with the magical time. My unit supported an orphanage with more than 500 kids, and some sick adults in residence. The Australian nuns running the facility were more than willing to take care of both the kids and the sick.
We wanted to do something for the kids to help them and, truthfully to remind us of home. My boss, a young 2nd Lieutenant, a woman, something unusual for the Vietnam war zone (I mention that because since she was a woman we all wanted to please her a little more than a regular lieutenant) asked if I would play Santa Claus for the kids. You see I had half the prerequisite equipment needed for the job. I was somewhat overweight for a GI. The suit would fit without a pillow. At any rate, I was drafted.
In keeping with the tradition, we gathered up donations from home of small toys we thought the kids might like. Each and every one of the little big-eyed Muppets got a small toy, nothing expensive, and a piece of hard candy.
The nuns made each child come up to Father Christmas, as the Aussies, referred to Santa Claus, bow and say thank you. I then handed out the gifts to the kids.
Believe me weighing over 200 pounds and dressed in a red velvet suit, lined with synthetic fur in 100 degree heat was, well, I lost a few pounds.
After we had given each Muppet their treasure, and to these kids they were treasures, we found we had some candy left. We felt that the adult residents, who were all sick with some weird, weird to us, disease would appreciate the leftovers. As I walked around the compound handing out the treats I noticed one who didn’t come forward with the rest of the crowd, but stayed off in the corner of a building. I knew that that was the one who needed the candy the most.
As I walked over to the person, I couldn’t determine what sex the person was since he/she was wrapped completely about the head with bandages, I found that our escorting nun was acting somewhat reserved, but I went forward anyway. I never was one to listen to a person in authority, directly stated or implied.
As I reached out to give the candy away the bandaged hand turned over and I recoiled, though only slightly, as I saw a hole going through the center of the hand. Not wanting to hurt the person I gently laid the candy in the wounded hand. Then retreated to a presumed safe distance. My escort then came over to me and said, “You are a brave young man, but don’t worry its’ not communicable. The leprosy he has is the non-communicable kind.”
The ride back to the base was a silent one as the whole unit contemplated our blessings.
Back at the base it was determined that we should all get some form of drunk. However, unbeknownst to me I was further assigned to ride around the base on the back of a flatbed truck handing out Red Cross packages to every GI I saw. They weren’t much, just a toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and bar of soap in a red felt bag. Yet, as I gave them away the receiving GIs in a grateful gesture usually returned the favor with a hit of the bottle of booze they nursed trying to get to the point where they could forget where they were.
By the end of the trip I could barely stand. As I got off the truck I thought I had hit almost everyone until an unusually sober looking sergeant came up to me and said, “You missed some guys.” I slurred an answer out, “Man, I got everybody.”
He replied, “There’s a bunch of guys in the Morgue that could use a lift.”
“I am not wishing Merry Christmas to a bunch of poor guys who fought the War the hard way no matter how much they need it,” I answered.
His comeback got my attention, “No, I’m talking about the guys that work there. It’s a bad night to have to work. They got hit just north of here and they have a big job to do.”
Hearing that, I couldn’t say no. Entering the building I immediately felt the cold of the room. Then I saw the heroes. Each had his own steel bed that slanted to one end. For an eighteen year old who had never been more than fifty miles away from home nor seen anything like this I went into shock.
Not wanting to intentionally look, but not being able to look away I saw burns, holes, amputations and every form of hurt one human being can do to another. I wanted out of there, and now. Not wanting to neglect my responsibilities I still managed to get a “Merry Christmas” out to each and every man.
Walking back to the hooch I started to cry and didn’t stop until I was in my bunk. In that moment of silence, I found that I was not the only one in the room crying. All the rough tough teenagers in the hut had joined me. Christmas in Vietnam was no joyous time.