combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

The Gift
A Cautionary Christmas Tale

It was the traditional yuletide gathering of the extended family, based on the Calling of the Highland Clan, where the Ghost of Christmas Past is as welcome a visitor as any distant relative. This conjoining ritual entailed the recounting of familial lore, and the retelling of tribal legends.

Our togetherness blended ancient with modern, cast old folkways with new events, and admixed messages to express the diverse plentitude of shared love. Statues of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snow Man flanked the crèche on the mantel, where special cards and childhood stockings hung. A tree, trimmed that day, was sagging with its hodgepodge of ornaments over an abundance of clustered packages. Every window was decorated, every door festooned, every baluster garlanded, and every table laden. A large old house was made warm and vital by crowded attentions.

Because coming together at the darkest night to renew the light of life is more important than other holidays or recreations, the spirit of the season is always represented in some personal account that reinforces our cultural values. So, on this thirtieth anniversary Christmas after the raid[1] on the Son Tay prison camp, I addressed the assemblage about the greatest of all gifts.

Although the Son Tay raid failed to rescue any prisoners, the incursion persuaded the North Viêtnamese to consolidate their internees at other installations, especially Hoa Lo[2], the so-called "Hanoi Hilton". With consolidation into communal billets came, for many, the first social interaction with other captives. Some prisoners had been isolated so long that they not only had no conception of current events, but couldn't imagine how their patriotism had made them pariahs in their own homeland. This malnourished conglomeration of tatterdemalion individualists would shortly spend their first Christmas together.

With the chandelier reflecting dancing fire light, I gestured toward the largess encompassing us. Our bountiful surroundings were a reminder of our practice of exchanging names for gift-giving. In honoring this practice, no casual guest or remote neighbor would be allowed to depart empty-handed. So as all the women sparkled and all the men glowed, I further reminded them that the first POW Christmas celebration after the Son Tay prison camp raid was also predicated upon drawing stranger's names for common benefaction.

The most important thing about gift-giving is caring enough to know what the recipient would appreciate. As every spouse knows, giving someone what they want or need is never as meaningful as an insightful or delightful surprise. The process of knowing some other person is more than just an accumulation of personal facts and preferential details. It's a transcendent exchange; a correspondent meld. Because these prisoners had nothing to spare, they bestowed imaginary gifts. By giving wishes, they gave hope. By making dreams, they restored faith.

For men who'd survived on stone soup, it was an exquisite irony to whet their appetite with illusory gourmet courses; which had to be satisfied with more watery gruel. For men who'd been methodically tortured, the desire for relaxed leisure was strong; and some were given a perfect vacation to enjoy. For men forever broken, a recollection or fantasy of unimpaired performance was a rehabilitation beyond nightmare. For some, it was a project, for others a trip, and some wanted to acquire a talent or change jobs. Everyone had to get to know the recipient so the gift would be just right. For starving men, who're hungry in body, mind, and heart; the only dish worth serving was soul food. The only thing missing from this communion was the litter discarded from the exchange of gifts. All the gifts were opened with glee, given and received with gratitude. The prison barracks was re-populated by absent families and re-decorated with distant places. There was a promise of finer times to come in another era.

Few among the comfortable people in this storied room of glitter and gaiety knew of my similar experience while recovering from a minor wound. I'd been assigned light-duty at an off-shore training island, where the cadre drew gift names. Although we were not deprived, we were relatively isolated, and all of us were detached from different parent units. The getting to know process was not only an exercise in peeling the onion to some deeper layer, but was also an education in applied military science. It was one thing to work beside a fellow professional, trusting his skills and relying on his judgements, but it was a finer realization to learn how he could improvise what was not in the manual, how he could innovate what was not taught in school.

In this random collection of latter-day Spartans, the diversity was astonishing and the nuances were breathtaking. That ham-fisted brute was an adept musician. That low-browed savage was an erudite philosopher. That arrogant and callow beast has the poetic sensibilities of an ascetic martyr. Having learned that my teammate's child cherished a worn-out teddybear nicknamed after daddy, I could never again feel comfortable with him in a crisis. I didn't want to be callous, but caring about the interchangeable parts of the Big Green Machine was too painful. Having discovered his private vulnerabilities, he could not revert to expendable anonymity. I'd been introduced to more than a countryman, to more than a soldier, more than a man. I was privileged to glimpse a spirit in its genealogical context, and would now be unable to forget his essential worth.

The lore of ancient or modern legends only becomes valuable when dutiful learning becomes heartfelt understanding. Wisdom is not a gift. Amidst the plethora of incumbent sighs and extravagant exclamations connected with bestowing presents, the fourth husband in a monogamous series for one related vamp approached me with a brightly swathed parcel thrust forward. This dubious gift came with the caveat that he didn't know me, so he'd bought something that he'd like to receive himself! With a modest smile and a beatific gesture, I told my latest kinsman that his surpassing spirit of brotherhood was overwhelming ... and that I didn't deserve such a compliment ... so would he honor me by simply keeping the gift himself? I then turned away from this beaming gift horse in search of something bonded, blended, or brewed.

[1]: under the auspices of Joint Contingency Task Group Ivory Coast, with TF-77 and Kingpin in support, raiders responded to surveillance of Son Tay ("Camp Faith") after political approval had been granted on 21 November 1970 ... a delay which compromised any opportunity for mission success. Not only did diplomats prohibit the use of tac-air support for fear of damaging the nearby 3,000 year old Den Va pagoda (the former Cung Dong or eastern palace), but the Rules of Engagement prohibited intelligence gathering. The raiders discovered that the POWs had been moved, and the camp was now a training facility under Soviet Russian supervision, but no other POW data could be collected.
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[2]: in the Asian tradition, named for the principal industry of that street: portable earthenware stoves (hibachi), called Hoa Lo, were manufactured there.
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by Paul Brubaker
... who is retired from the U.S. Army, has since been a counselor, artisan, and writer, with numerous essays in chapbooks and magazines.