Merry Christmas, Snake
A Vietnam Christmas
Robert A. Hall
Eddie wrapped a length of C-ration baling wire around the trunk of Aunt Thel’s tree, and wedged the end between the bunker’s crumbling sandbags. That corrected the starboard list caused by a bent stand. Considering that their mail had been air-dropped from a C-130 cargo plane, the two-foot artificial tree had come through remarkably well, with only the bent leg and one broken limb. At Snake’s suggestion, they had turned the “bare spot” to the wall and trimmed the tree with the surviving decorations and local crafts: a tin star cut from a C-ration can, a pair of lance corporal chevrons with the black coating worn off so they glittered, some brass M-16 shell casings.
Eddie would have preferred canned peaches from Aunt Thel, but he thought the tree looked right cheerful in their bunker. He twisted the tin star to catch light from the radios and began softly singing:
“Jingle bells, mortar shells, V. C. in the grass--
You can take your Merry Christmas and shove it up...”
He sensed “incoming” and ducked as Snake’s boot banged into the wall, safely away from the precious tree, sending a trickle of sand dribbling through the slats of the wooden pallets that served as the bunker’s floor. Eddie turned and saw Snake smiling at him over a can of C-ration ham and limas. You couldn’t get pissed at a guy who would trade you beanies and weenies for ham and “slimies,” which every reasonable person hated the way Santa’s point-deer Rudolph hated clear weather.
Eddie wiped his eyes to get rid of the stinging caused by grit from the sandbags. It didn’t help. “Since when did you get the Christmas spirit?” he asked, “I thought you were a Black Muslim?”
Snake had announced his new religion several weeks ago, the fourth in seven months. Though he maintained a devout facade, his “conversions” were a standing joke in the platoon. Eddie had reasonably pointed out that while he, himself, was black, Snake was a white dude—an awkward start for a Black Muslim.
Snake’s response was that Eddie was an Uncle Tom; and, that since there was no other black dude to be the radical on their radio relay team, he would have to do it himself, “Just like every goddamned thing else around here.”
“Can’t be a Muslim on Christmas Eve,” Snake smiled, and continued dropping pieces of John Wayne crackers through the floor planks for the rat. He’s been trying to kill the rat just last week, but, following the lead of the Viet Cong, had declared a Christmas truce with it yesterday.
Eddie picked up the jungle boot, and turned it over, observing that it was nearly new. He looked down to his left boot, where the electrical tape holding it together was coming loose. The sides had rotted and he hadn’t been able to scrounge replacements from supply’s limited stock.
“Hey, Snake, how about giving me your extra boots? We’re the same size, almost.”
“Certainly, my man,” Snake promised, “As soon as the Sear’s catalog comes and I can order something more stylish. We might, however, barter--I do admire that K-bar knife on your belt.” Snake rose and headed to the bunker door, which hung precariously from the hinges of shell boxes. “I’ll go switch generators.”
He went into the night, taking only a small flashlight, to carry out the regular task of alternating the 400-cycle generators that powered their AN/TRC-27 radio relay unit.
Eddie was re-taping his boot when the first mortar round exploded in the small perimeter. “Christmas truce!” he spat, lunging for the door, “Little rice-propelled bastards!”
By the time the corpsman had checked the flow of blood from Snake’s mangled leg, and closed the flap of open flesh on his right cheek, the painkiller had taken hold and he was babbling happily.
“Lucky break, Eddie,” he said, laughing, “I tripped over the goddamn antenna guy wire and couldn’t make the hole. Now I’m going home for Christmas, buddy. I’ll be dancing in Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve while you’re still stuck in this shit hole, man.”
Eddie glanced at Snake’s leg and winced as they loaded him onto the stretcher. “Nail one of them hippy broads for me,” he said.
Snake laughed again, almost a giggle. “Hey, Eddie,” he said, “You can have those boots.” He gave a weak, cheery wave. “Merry Christmas, man.”
“Merry Christmas, Snake,” Eddie said, then he impulsively pulled the K-Bar from his belt and laid it on the stretcher, knowing that some rear-echelon pogue would probably steal it from Snake. “Take that home as a souvenir of this slice of paradise.”
Snake waved again as the corpsmen hefted the stretcher and struggled carefully up the muddy slope toward the med-evac LZ. “Merry Fucking Christmas,” Eddie whispered to himself.
He turned to go check the radios. The grit was bothering him again. Now, he thought, who the hell can I trade ham and limas to?
Robert A. Hall is a Marine Vietnam veteran who later served five terms in the Massachusetts Senate. He retired in 2013 to have a lung transplant, but worked PT from July 2017 to June 2021 as a writer editor for the My Life, My Story Program at the Madison A hospital, writing life stories for over 400 veterans. He has had articles, stories and poetry in over 50 publications and has 12 books on Amazon.
Published in Calliope and my book Eddie Grabowski’s Gift.