It’s Christmas time again. It’s the time of year where we Americans lose our minds and go into a commercial feeding frenzy. We do this every year and by the time Christmas evening rolls around and the toys are put away and all the wrapping paper and empty boxes are ready to hauled out and the dinner table is cleared, we swear that THIS IS THE LAST YEAR WE’RE GOING TO DO THIS! Next year we’ll do it all over again.
In a few weeks the economic gurus will crunch numbers and announce if this holiday season was a good one or a bad one based on the amount of money each household in the country spends. As a country we’ll feel good or bad about ourselves based on the amount of money ‘Charitable’ organizations say they took in this year. Walmart, Target, Macy’s et alii will let their stock holders know if they can expect a healthy pay out on their stocks. If not, these corporations will look at America with a jaundiced eye and announce “Shame on you! You should have spent more!”
The rest of the world will go about their business. Babies will be born. Elderly people will pass away. People will continue to kill each other for whatever political or religious reason they kill each other during the rest of the year. Doctors and nurses will be on duty. Ambulance crews, firemen and policemen will be on duty.
Around the world, too, young Americans will be on ships, air bases, and Army posts. Someone will be manning the phones at CQ desks, battalion, brigade and division headquarters. GI’s posted close enough to home will get passes to make the drive home. All that can will have put in for leave and already left to go to the place that means the most to them: HOME.
As has been the case since the end of World War II, some won’t make it home because they’re stationed a continent away. Those that can’t get the leave time or can’t afford the plane ticket home for whatever reason’ or decide it’s not worth the aggravation will be around post. These days, a lot won’t make it because they’re hunkered down in a bunker somewhere out on the edge of nowhere wondering whether someone will decide to drop a mortar round or rocket their way. Or maybe fire a few rounds in their direction just for fun. Or maybe get a few hundred of their closest friends together to see if they can overrun a post or firebase. For a lot of our kids Christmas dinner will be whatever MRE they can get.
I was fortunate that I never had to spend Christmas worrying about getting shot at. My first Christmas dinner in the Army was in the chow hall in Fulda. It was no big deal. It was dinner. I hadn’t arrived in-country in time to sign up to spend Christmas with a German family. I did hear stories from the guys that did sign up and got to go with the German families that were kind enough to welcome foreign strangers into their homes for the holidays. For the most part, the American kids loved the experience. The barracks, while they may be home, are really no place to spend Christmas. It’s too easy to start feeling sorry for yourself.
My turn to spend time with a German family came around the following Christmas. I had started dating a German girl. She was the future first ex-Mrs. Traywick. The W family was
blue collar; Mutti, Papa, Opa and two daughters. I don’t have time or space to list all the kindnesses those good people showed over the years to a rough kid from Tennessee/Texas.
I honestly can’t remember what Christmas dinner consisted of in the W haus. If I remember correctly, Germans celebrate Christmas on December 24th. The live tree was only put up the night before. There were ornaments and real candles on it. No electric lights. There was no buying frenzy. There weren’t a lot of presents. There
was coffee and cake. The candles were lit for the evening. In spite of my nervousness and not being able to speak the language, it was one of the most relaxing Christmas evenings I had ever spent.
The candles wouldn’t be relit. The tree would remain in the house until around the middle of January. Then, on Witch’s Night, all the trees in the neighborhood would be hauled to a hilltop, piled up and set on fire; a Christmas tree bonfire. This would keep the witches away for the rest of the year. Scratch a German and there’s a Gothic warrior just beneath the surface.
The following Christmas was spent at OP Alpha. It was my platoon’s turn. The OP was manned 24/7 365 days a year. Guards were in place and the tower and ops center was manned at all times. The stand-by squad was armed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
At that time, we weren’t in a shooting war with anyone. The Army still had its own cooks. Cooks did their time at OP Alpha just like everyone else. Of course, they didn’t pull duty like the rest of us. They didn’t pull guard or tower duty and they didn’t go out on patrols. They were there for one reason and one reason only; to feed the troops. Feed us they did. For some reason, the food was always better at OP Alpha than at the chow hall in the rear. Maybe it was because they didn’t have as many mouths to cook for. Maybe it was because in spite of where we were and what we were doing there was a homier atmosphere at the OP. Maybe subconsciously Cookie knew that if the balloon went up we would take care of them so they took care of us back.
Rations were tight on Christmas Eve. Sandwiches, I think. No one complained. There are some support people in the Army that if Joe Snuffy has even minimal intelligence he doesn’t go out of his way to piss off; Medics, Personnel and Payroll types, mechanics, and for sure not the cooks. Besides, the cooks were too busy to listen to complaints. They were cooking Christmas dinner.
I’ve been out of the Army for a long time now. I know it’s changed. I think back in the day, somewhere in the Pentagon, there was a menu of what to cook for Christmas dinner. I also suspect that the saying about dinner being “from soup to nuts” had to have come from the Army. The cooks outdid themselves that Christmas. Dinner literally consisted of soup, nuts and everything in between. Turkey and dressing, ham, veggies, rolls; all homemade. As an added bonus, wives, kids and girlfriends were bussed up so that there was the semblance of family home time. The guys on duty that had a spouse or girlfriend coming were relieved by someone that didn’t. Also, anyone on duty was relieved to go eat dinner.
It was as pleasant a Christmas as I can ever remember. Had we been back in the rear, most of the NCO’s would have had as many enlisted men to their apartments or quarters as they could fit. Dinner would be cooked and eaten. A lot of beer would be drunk. Football games would be watched late into the night.
As pleasant as the entire experience was, our CO, Captain E escorted the ladies and kids up to the OP on the bus. Usually, officers would make an appearance in the chow hall on holidays. OP Alpha was the chow hall for Captain E. that year. And he didn’t just make an appearance; he wore his dress blues including spurs. Being a Calvary troop commander, he made the rounds of the OP both to speak to all the men, wishing them a Merry Christmas, and to make sure that things were operating per SOP. Everything was.
One of his stops was the tower. I happened to be there with my girlfriend, having relieved someone else so they could go eat. Captain E came up the stairs. He took the binoculars from the table and stood outside by the rail and studied the BT’s in the tower across the way. He looked for all the world like Patton getting ready to cross the Rhine river. As the CO studied the East German kids they studied him back. It was obvious from the looks on their faces that they’d never seen an American officer in his dress blues. The looks on their faces were priceless. One was yelling into the phone while the other was staring at the captain through his own binoculars his mouth a black O. In about ten minutes, a travant pulled up to the tower and a couple more BT’s ran up to the tower. Shortly we saw a long lens poke out the window. The East Germans were photographing our CO. E, being something of a ham, struck his best martial pose and gave them a show. Never point a camera at a cavalryman!
[Editor’s Note: Steve Traywick was born in Union City, Tennessee on April 11, 1958 but grew up in Houston, Texas. Steve went into the Army in June 1979 as a 19E10 (M60A3) Tank Crewman. He arrived in Fulda FRG, Germany in November 1979. Strategically important during the Cold War because it was an area where tanks could invade, The Fulda Gap is situated between what used to be the East German border and Frankfurt. Steve was assigned to B Trp 1/11 ACR and served there until January 1984 when he was transferred to A Co 2/8 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood. Steve continued his service with the 1st Cavalry Division until he left the service in 1989.]
Christmas is the seventh in a series of Reflections of a Cold War Warrior written by Steve Traywick. This series provides a rare behind-the-scenes view of what a recruit in the military experiences in the transformation from boy to warrior; from a kid next door to a man who was willing to give his life to keep you free: