Christmas at TC Hill

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December 24, 1968 --

The orderly room gang (me, W---, E---, the reenlistment, training, and security NCO, who's really only a SP4 draftee acting jack, and the First Shirt) all chipped in a little bit to buy a present for the new secretary Mach Kim Cuc, 51st TC Secretary and we sent W--- off to the PX gift shop (run by Hindu war profiteers). When he came back he had a pair of cheap looking sandals that were plastic coated and said "Sai” on the right foot and "gon" on the left, so that when they were worn they said "Saigon" together. I was embarrassed to give them to her, but she acted like she liked them, probably because she didn't want to hurt our feelings.

At five the party started, first with steaks broiled over charcoal in the party area, the open area in front of the orderly room, and with case after case of beer, whiskey for the NCOs who wanted it, and ginger ale for those who wanted neither. At first it was like an ordinary company party, the kind 151st TC 'Party Area' we'd had every month since I got here, but slowly as the night wore on things got more frenetic, more high-pitched and farther out.

By nine-thirty the place was unbelievable. Nearly everyone was completely smashed, several fights were in progress all over the company area, and I was dead tired. I tried to go to my room to lie down for a while, but no sooner did I get there but J--- and T--- (a clerk down in maintenance) came outside my window singing "Silent Night" and climbed in, only to drag me out to the second platoon hooch where most of the fights were taking place. We watched through the window while a little guy with a Mickey Mouse voice told everyone he'd take them all on and kick the shit out of them, but no one paid the least bit of attention to him. The main attraction was a fat AJ named B--- who called everyone "corn-eater from Alabama" and challenged anyone to a fight. One by one a group of challengers would come forward, B--- would grapple with them, leave them insensible and issue the challenge again.

J--- and T--- began singing "Silent Night" again outside the window; it was really weird. Abruptly, in mid-song, J--- turned to me and said "You oughta see W---'s girl." Oh, really? Yes, W---, as it turned out, had a girl in S---'s room, which was at the other end of the hooch we were by. So we went down to that end of hooch to scratch on the window and bug W---.

But when we got there, a guy from the 261, a troublemaker that we'd court-martialed at the 543 and who was now out of the stockade and in the process of being kicked out of the army by the 261, was trying to climb over the top of the door and get into S---'s room with rape and murder on his mind. We could hear W--- inside trying to reason with him, but all the guy could think of was getting over that door and into the girl. We stood around outside hemming and hawing and wondering how to get W--- out of there. We considered attack, but the guy had a gang waiting outside the door with him, gathered in a crowd and getting uglier and uglier all the time.

Suddenly J--- had an idea and vanished into the dark toward the front of the hooch, the other end from where we were. I thought he was going to supply to get a screwdriver so we could take the screen off the window and smuggle them out that way, but the next thing I knew there was a commotion inside the hooch and then in the light from the building across the sidewalk, down at the front of the hooch I can see the silhouettes of J--- leading a slender female form and W--- stumbling along behind him. Meanwhile T--- has vanished around the other end of the hooch and is standing at the back door talking with the guy that was trying to climb over. The guy is punching T--- (who's about 5'10" and weighs no more than 130) in the chest with one No pictures taken on Xmas night -- sorry 'bout that. finger to illustrate his point, or at least to accent it. The guy is starting to get pissed because he thinks T--- has had something to do with the girl vanishing (although he can't figure out how it happened) and is just about to punch him out when I snake my hand around the corner, grab T---, jerk him behind the wall of sandbags and we run down the hooch to my room. All along the way I hear mutterings about "getting W--- and his girl." When we got to the room, there were J---, dressed in the same white towel and mamasan shoes he'd been wearing all evening; W---, so drunk he couldn't see straight; his girl, an incredibly cute little thing of about 17, scared stiff; and L---, who is in his bed and just wants to go to sleep. W--- mumbles that he paid fifty bucks for the girl and nobody but him gets her. Somehow the word got out that they were in my room and every so often someone knocks on the door and says "I just wanna look, that's all. Then I'll leave, I promise." But we all played dumb and they went away.

Since L--- was already in bed and turning W--- and his girl out into the cold would probably have resulted in W--- getting beaten to a pulp and his girl getting gangbanged, I told them they could stay in my bed and I'd sleep in W---'s bed (which was in a room at the other end of the hooch but to get to it you had to go outside and around because there was a partition between the two sections; J---'s room is in the same section, right through the wall from my bed, in fact, but gotten to by a door in the other end). W--- passed out from too much to drink, L--- turned over mumbling to the wall, J--- drew my blanket/poncho liner up around W--- and the girl, kissed her on the cheek and we left.

T--- vanished somewhere and J--- and I went on a tour of the company area. We went through each platoon hooch, each with a different attraction, and finally ended up at the back end of my hooch, sitting on the steps and watching the action. Occasionally a fight would spill over out of a hooch onto the sidewalk and the people'd go rolling around on the concrete and in the grass before going back inside. B---, L---'s supply clerk and probably the new supply sergeant when he leaves, wandered by all beat to hell, flopped down on the bunk in the room he shares with W--- for a while, then got up and went out into the dark again. We found him about three down at the end of the sidewalk in front of the dayroom flat on his back and unconscious.

About one I started feeling tired again so I lay down on W---'s bunk to try to get some sleep, but who should come by but The Lieutenant, over to check out his company after hearing all those rumors about it. I heard him ask J--- where I was and decided to play dead when he came in, but when he came in and sat down on B---'s bed and said resignedly, "Mansker, when I see you sleeping in W---'s bed that tells me something," I had to laugh, picturing him sitting there with one hand holding up his head and the other pushing his hat back. But I managed to keep the laugh down to a smile and played the dum-dum I-don't-know-nothin'-about-nothin' bit. "I thought L--- was too short," he said, and when I had no comment on that, he added, "you're trying to tell me L--- isn't too short. Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

But finally he had enough seeds to figure out that since I was sleeping in W---'s bed, then W--- had to be somewhere else, and that somewhere, worked out to its logical conclusion, had to be my bed. And, since my room had a door that locked on it, the only reason W--- and I would trade beds was if W--- had a girl with him. Since he had it figured out that far, I told him the whole story, played on his sympathies a little bit, and then he went away, over the protests of a LT that was with him who wanted to go over to my room and harrass W---.

J--- and I started on another tour when L--- suddenly appeared fully dressed with the claim that he "couldn't sleep with a strange girl in the room. I'm too short for that sort of thing." We found ourselves standing in he middle of the original party area in from of the company; it looked like the morning after Gettysburg, littered with garbage, food, beer cans and bodies. The party was atrocious, the super gross-out of the whole year. Finally about three in the morning everything calmed down, everyone else had passed out, and the three of us were sitting in front of the OR with SSG W---, a tall black NCO who was the last vestige of authority left in the company, watching the lights of Saigon glow in the sky over the rolling hills in front of us. The Christmas truce was on and there weren't any choppers flying around like there usually were, and even the sky was dark without the orange glow of flares. None of the usual night sounds of the war could be heard -- no distant artillery, no planes flying over, no convoys going by on the highway. The stars were bright and close and it was like a warm summer night back in the world. At the end, about four, we all talked ourselves to death and dragged ourselves off to bed.

December 25, 1968 --

I had planned on sleeping in but I woke up at eight o'clock and couldn't get back to sleep, so the only thing to do was go take a shower. I came back with fantasies The Steam and Cream at Bearcat of putting on my civilian clothes and laying around all day, but J--- came over and told me he and LT B--- were going to Bearcat to get a steambath. L--- and I decided to go take some pictures of the base -- it's the headquarters for the Thai troops in Vietnam, for the Black Panther division, anyway, and it's the place that gets ground attacks nearly every night. So while J--- and B--- were in getting their "numbah-one steam job and blow bath" L--- and I That's me in the jeep at Bearcat drove around in the jeep taking pictures of the chopper pads and the perimeter where they have the ground attacks, and went back and picked up J--- and B--- and buzzed back the ten miles to Long Binh, went up on the hill to USARV headquarters and the snack bar up there where we had Christmas dinner consisting of a sandwich and a pseudo-milkshake.

Then we drove over to the new steam bath on Long Binh Post, one that they were just building and wasn't open yet, and had a good laugh about a den of iniquity like a steambath being built right in the middle of the biggest army establishment in southeast Asia. While we sitting there in the jeep a woman came out of the steambath and got in a The Dragon Lady's Steam Bath on Long Binh Post Chevrolet sedan with several other people and a guy we were talking to said she was the famous Dragon Lady of South Vietnam, who was worth fifty million dollars and owned a chain of steambaths around the country along with a corner on the black market and a large chunk of the drug traffic, so we chased her around Long Binh trying to take a movie of her through the window of her car. We finally got one, but only a short shot. J--- wanted to build a whole film around it called "Commoman meets the Dragon Lady".

We got back to the company about three in the afternoon, found out that during the night W---'s girl had absconded with his wallet and about seventy-five bucks, and W--- had stayed asleep all night. "Most expensive piece I never had," he said sadly.

"Vietnam, Christmas, 1968. Were you there? Skippy Peanut Butter was," I said and went off to my room to go to sleep. Just before I drifted off one of those small ironies hit me, one of those that you don’t even think of at the time, but comes back later to haunt you: the previous night, during the height of the fighting and drinking someone had a radio tuned in to the AFVN station and some Catholic chaplain was celebrating midnight mass and preaching love and peace and was followed by Christmas music and excerpts from the "Messiah"…


© 1968, 2002 Dennis Mansker