Christmas away from home.
We've all gone through it sometime in our lives. The song says, "I'll be home for Christmas," but once in awhile, we find ourselves far away from where we'd want to be on the most traditional family holiday.
Three times it's happened to me.
One was lovely. Two were tough.
The first time came in graduate school at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Because I was a Rotary Foundation Fellow, I was lucky to be with my foster family in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, a mining town 24 miles north of Cardiff. John and Mabel Edwards, son Martin and daughter Hilary took me into their home when I first arrived from America.
"Whenever you find yourself at a loose end" was their permanent invitation to visit. That's where I spent Christmas 1967. John, an accountant and high-ranking member of Rotary's British leadership, emerged as an influential figure in my life. Didn't drink, smoked cigars and taught me about history and human nature.
Mabel was a fabulous cook, and her dessert trifle was to die for. I'd gotten audio tapes from my folks and other family members and played them, alone in my room. But thanks to the Edwards' family, it was almost like being home.
In Britain, the day after Christmas is also a holiday, Boxing Day. So on Dec. 26, I bused to Swansea, west of Cardiff on the south Welsh coast. There I spent the day and night with Eiryl (which means "snowflake" in Welsh), a young woman who worked in the university's student advisory office. They catered mainly to foreign students. I was the only Yank at the university that year, so I guess I was easy to remember.
What I don't remember is what I gave Eiryl as a present. She got me a bright orange sweater from a posh London store. That day we watched the Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" -- and I became one of the few Americans to see it for years. The film was panned so badly in the British press that it wasn't released in the U.S. for a long time. Even so, I liked it because it showcased the Beatles, who had become the prophets of my generation.
The second Christmas away from home I was on guard duty in Vietnam. Three soldiers to a bunker, about a dozen bunkers our unit was assigned to protect. We got inspected in company formation after chow at 6 p.m., then picked up an M-60 machine gun and an M-79 grenade launcher from the armory, as well as the World War II radio you had to crank like a Model T to use on hourly "commo checks."
I forget which bunker we manned on Christmas. It was one of them on the front perimeter, facing Highway 1 which led to Saigon. A South Vietnamese village lay beyond the highway. Even with no wind, we could always smell the scents that forever remind of Vietnam -- charcoal smoke, human waste, gasoline fumes and nuoc mahm, a fermented fish sauce the Vietnamese applied to most of their food.
Three shifts: 9 to midnight; midnight to 3; 3 to 6 a.m. The middle one was hardest because you'd almost never sleep on the cot you carried to the bunker -- instead staying awake to BS with the other two soldiers. Then you fought to stay awake for three hours. Christmas night '69 I got the middle shift.
To stay alert I moved in front of the igloo-shaped concrete bunker and leaned back against the sand bags. Cradled my M-14 (we didn't get M-16s till late in my tour) and looked out beyond the wire. I recall a vague loneliness, imagining what the family was doing 16 hours earlier in Kansas. But like most soldiers, I'd long since built a bunker around my heart. "Don't mean nothin'" was the mantra for a lot of us by that stage of the war.