Editor’s Note: Former Carson Valley resident Ted Pannell, a Vietnam Veteran with family still in the area, wished to share a Christmas story with the community. It appears below, first published in December 2015.
by Ted Pannell, Special to the Carson Valley Times · 5 min read
Our dayroom had a bar, pool table, tables, chairs, a radio and cassette player.
The old six-story hotel in Saigon was the home of my MP Company back in 1967. When not patrolling the streets searching for VC, some of our off-duty time was spent there drinking beer, listening to music from cassettes family sent and waiting for the next patrol. We also received mail call there.
One day, PFC William “Willie” Harris got a letter from his mother.
“Hey, my mom is sending us a Christmas tree to put in here, one of those aluminum things with all the decorations. It’ll be here before Christmas. We just have to put it together.”
No one, including me, was excited at the news except Willie. He kept looking at the letter as if for the first time, with a smile on his face. Willie was short and thin, mild mannered, and wore glasses.
When there was no response, I told him it would be nice having a tree. I had a feeling Christmas could be a real downer here. Our company had already lost three men during an attack on another military hotel. We could use some Christmas spirit.
Two weeks later, Willie’s package arrived. The box looked like it had had a rough trip.
“It’s here, the Christmas tree!” he shouted.
A package, regardless of who received one, was always a point of interest. Sometimes, it meant homemade cookies or candy to be shared, music cassettes, or maybe a photo of a girl.
A few of us gathered around as Willie tore into the box. When it was open, we stared at the contents: The disassembled tree, and all the decorations were in a million pieces. We looked at each other, then at Willie who stared in silence.
It went quiet. No one knew what to say.
Gradually, everyone moved away, some said “nice tree,” or “very cool.”
But Willie stood looking at the mess.
My heart went out to him. I knew how much he was looking forward to having the tree for the dayroom. He was 18 and an only child.
But he came from a large family with many cousins, aunts, and uncles. Willie often talked of family holidays, especially Christmas and how they all gathered around a tree at his grandmother’s.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It was very thoughtful of your mother. Thank her anyway … for all of us.”
As I started to turn away, tears had swelled in Willie’s eyes, his lower lip quivered. He lowered his head and quietly wept.
Allen, the bartender, gave him a beer, saying it was on the house. Willie sat at a table alone.
I went back to the box. Even the chocolate chip cookies were in crumbs.
It troubled me a great deal, and I knew it had affected the other men as well. Hopelessness and sorrow hung in the room for what was supposed to be an uplifting event.
It was three days before Christmas.
We couldn’t let this get us down. I began pulling out the pieces, straightening the stems and placing them into the holes in the metal, round trunk. One of the young boys came over, and began doing the same thing … then another, and another.
The activity caught Willie’s attention, and he came to see what was going on.
When the tree was complete, it was six feet tall. Most of the branches were bent and naked of the aluminum pine bush. It looked pretty sad, like the tree out of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
One of the guys took off his brass belt buckle and fixed it onto a branch. Bartender Allen brought out a box of red and white straws, twisted them together, and they looked like candy canes. He placed the straws on the branches, along with some little cocktail umbrellas.
That did it. Everyone began finding little things for the tree, a bent spoon and fork, a key chain, a P-38 can opener, sunglasses, and any objects we could find for decorations.
Allen became even more creative, stringing together green and red Pimento olives that resembled Christmas lights. Even the broken decorations were used. The hooks had bright pieces of colored glass left hanging, adding lots of shiny colors.
Someone got the bell used for happy hour call, began ringing it, and started singing “Jingle Bells.”
Others joined in another song, “Deck the Halls with Poison Ivy.” It became a festive occasion.
A couple of soldiers had received candy and cookies for Christmas. They placed them around the tree.
Finished, we stood back and admired our work. It was a great-looking tree.
Maybe the best I’d ever seen.
You should have seen Willie’s face: a big grin, eyes wide with excitement. He moved to the tree and studied it carefully.
Then something unexpected happened.
His eyes began to tear.
He tried to speak, but only low sounds came out … then finally, the words to “Silent Night.”
It grew quiet like a church. One by one, others joined in until the whole room was softly singing the beautiful, touching Christmas carol.
Visions of home and family must have floated in their heads, for tears were now being shed by almost everyone. I felt something wet roll down my cheek.
To this day, it’s the best Christmas I can remember, and the memory still brings a lump to my throat.
“Let us all support our troops this Christmas.”
— Ted Pannell