They Don't Have Christmas in Viet Nam



Fredrick Hudgin


 
© Copyright 2021 by Fredrick Hudgin





Photo of a Christmas tree orniment.

 This story was written after I returned home from Vietnam in 1971. I still smile, remembering that wonderful night when the war took a peaceful breath and for a moment I was transported away from the combat zone to a place where dreams are made from.
 
I was a truck driver. I may have had worn jungle fatigues, carried an M-16, and put a steel helmet on my head, but when it was all said and done, I drove a truck. Since being assigned to the 359th Transportation Company in Qui Nhon, South Vietnam, the 5,000-gallon tanker full of fuel had been my companion for four months. We'd driven north, south, and west from Qui Nhon, delivering diesel, aviation gas, and motor fuel to whatever American base or LZ was in need.

My tour was almost over. Everyone knew the war was winding down. We weren't getting hit much. A lot of guys weren't wearing their flack vests and helmets while they drove those damned hot, noisy trucks. In December of 1970, I hoped the army would show a little olive-drab compassion and send me home a few days early. "Christmas at home" was apparently as great a fiction as a cool day in Vietnam.

I would pick up a load in Qui Nhon, near the coast in the center of South Vietnam. From the tank park, I would pull the fuel into the central highlands to An Khe or Pleiku or up or down the coast to off-load it at one landing zone or another. The next morning I'd drive back to Qui Nhon and do it all over again. There aren't any days off in a combat zone. We worked sixteen to twenty hours a day, slept when we could, and toughed it out. On a good day, I got to sleep in my bunk at the company barracks outside of Qui Nhon. The mess sergeant always had food ready for people who came in late. A hot shower, clean clothes, a belly full of food that didn't come from a C-ration box—these were the things that were the Holy Grail of my life.

I kept waiting for my orders to come down so I could begin to clear the base and go home. On December 20th, I realized I was not leaving before January.

December 23rd, I unloaded my jet fuel at an Air Force base north of Qui Nhon, then carried a load of diesel to the Special Forces at Tuy Hoa, farther to the south. Then I carried another load of jet fuel to the Fourth Infantry Division at An Khe. I spent the night listening to the helicopters flying in and out, then drove back to Qui Nhon the next morning hoping for a short run up or down the coast and a night in the lap of luxury of my bunk.

"You can make it tonight," my motor sergeant said, giving me my orders. "A convoy is leaving from Charang Valley in twenty minutes. This is a special delivery. They're almost out of jet fuel."

"That means I'll be in Pleiku on Christmas, Sarge!"

"They don't have Christmas in Vietnam, soldier. Didn't you know that?" He laughed and turned away, calling over his shoulder, "See you when you get back."

Pleiku was at least a twelve-hour drive. It was already past noon. This day would be a long one.

December in Vietnam has a special kind of hot and dry weather which creates a special kind of dust. The first truck in the convoy puts the dust up into the air. The rest of us get to enjoy the dust and make it better. The poor bastard at the end of the convoy doesn't have a chance. This is dust that's so fine and loose that even raindrops kick up clouds of it when a storm passes. Then the dust gets wet and turns into the slipperiest, slimiest, most evil grease you can ever imagine trying to drive over. You can't even look at a wet road in Vietnam without your gaze sliding off to the side.

The dust finds its way into everything. You'd think "I have pants on. It can't possibly get inside my pants." You'd be wrong. There is no part of your body that is sacred or immune to the dust of Vietnam. After four days on the road without a shower or clean clothes, you could peel the collected dust off your body like dried-on paint.

By the time we got to Pleiku, it was after midnight. "Merry Christmas!" I told the gate sentry. He just laughed and waved me through.

I off-loaded my fuel and parked my truck in the RON (Remain Over Night) area. I got my shaving kit, an almost clean towel, some nearly clean clothes, and walked to the shower area the drivers used.

"Don't waste your time," a driver said in disgust, returning from the showers with his clean clothes still over his arm. "There's no water."

"You mean no hot water?" I said hopefully.

"I mean no water. Hot, cold, warm, smelly, clean. Not in the showers, sinks, or toilets. Nothing. The goddamned floor's even dry."

No water. No shower. Crap.

I scratched the four-day stubble on my cheek. OK, it wasn't much stubble. I was only twenty-one and blonde, but it was there and I didn't want it to be. And I had the problem of my sleeping bag—crawling into my sleeping bag without at least a washcloth bath wasn’t going to happen. I was a walking, talking dirtball.

Screw this,” I muttered, tucking my shaving kit, clothes, and towel under my arm and set out with a new resolve to take a shower. Somewhere on this base, some water was hiding and I was going to find it. I walked and walked. I passed barracks with guys smoking on the steps, but no water. I found a garden hose next to the NCO club, but all I got was a hiss when I turned the nozzle.

By two a.m. I was beat. I had one canteen of water in my truck. It would have to do. I began the long walk back to the RON area and passed the Officers Club. There behind the Officers Club was an oasis, an apparition, the answer to my wildest dreams, beckoning to me like a smiling young woman, full of seduction and delight—the Officers Club had a swimming pool.

I paused, leaning on the four-foot chain-link fence, trying to look casual, while I checked in all directions—no one in sight.

In a flash, I was over the fence and pulling off my clothes. I eased into the water, making as little noise as possible. As strange as it sounds, I felt like I was sliding into a twenty thousand gallon bathtub. The water was at least 90 degrees. I got my soap and washed from head to toe. I dug out all the dirt from under my fingernails. I scrubbed all those private places that were very happy to be clean again. I got my shampoo and scrubbed my hair, twice. Finally I fished my razor and shaving cream out of my kit and shaved. “Lots of water here,” I laughed, watching the little islands of shaving foam drift away to the deep end.

I'm sure the next morning some PFC was cussing me for the mess I made while he vacuumed the dirt off the bottom of the pool. But that night, as I floated on my back in that warm water, looking up at the stars on Christmas morning in Pleiku, all I could think of was the words to Louis Armstrong's song—"What a wonderful world!"

*****

I have been writing poetry and short stories since I took a Creative Writing class at Purdue University in 1967. Unfortunately, that was the only class I passed and spent the next three years in the army, including a tour in Vietnam. After leaving the army, I earned a BS in Computer Science from Rutgers and struck off on a career as a professional computer programmer and amateur poet.

I find that my years of writing poetry have affected how I write prose. My wife is always saying to put more narrative into the story. My poetry side keeps trying to pare it down to the emotional bare bones. What I create is always a compromise between the two.




Contact Fredrick

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by Fredrick

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher