Thoughts From Dr. Joe

A Cristmas Story

A writer writes to express an awareness that is personal, pertinent and cataclysmic to their experience of life. In the process, a writer hopes that their reality will induce an awakening within the reader and that the written word will live beyond what was read.

The Valley Sun ran my story last year. It happened just like I wrote it. It's about a child; but more so, it tells of the metamorphic change among a platoon of Marines and their realization that Christmas magic can exist in a wasteland. As a writer, I assert that my story's Christmas message encompasses all Christmas metaphors. Thus, I feel compelled to tell it once again.

I recorded my memories in a journal that I kept during my service in Vietnam. Titled "1970," its pages held stories of life during an intense time.

The entry in my journal reads, "23 December 1970, A Christmas Story." I've always been a seeker, searching for the inner meaning of things; and I've tried to intellectualize the essence of Christmas. The events of that day ended my search and clarified forever that the miracle of Christmas is the joining of this world with the next.

"23 December, 1970...the day began after midnight. We were inserted north of Quang Tri, close to the Laotian boarder. Our mission: to rescue a small Montagnard village that stood between the enemy and us. Shortly before dawn we reached the perimeter of the village. We were expected ... a battle ensued ... we prevailed. We entered the village and found it abandoned except for one. She couldn't be more than three. I'd say she was closer to two. She was hungry, unclothed, and gave us a big smile when we came into view."

After 35 years, I still see her smile.

"Corporal Stoa swaddled her while the men gave her the last of their rations. Oh! Even the hardest of hearts of the hardest of men were softened by caring for this child."

They all came to hold the little Montagnard girl; the Wiseman, the Shepherds, and the Drummer Boy. Only circumstance made them different. The same star they originally followed centuries before still led the way. Chocolate, canned peaches and pound cake replaced the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. "As we tended to her needs, we treasured the gifts she gave us."

In my journal, I tried to describe the metamorphosis that enveloped my band of brothers. "We were given a new birth, a chance to find meaning in the maddening inertia of things; a hope that finding and saving her would save us and somehow make the insanity and inhumanity worth it. We had found a reason to exist, and rationalize the havoc we brought." We frantically searched for her family or any signs of life. There were none.

"24 December, 1970"...Carrying the little girl, we moved quickly to our extraction point. For her sake, not ours, I hoped that I had read the map correctly. Navigating in dense jungle is no better than a guess.

"Miracle of miracles, the choppers came at dawn and returned us and the Montagnard girl to Quang Tri."

The whole platoon was present when we delivered her to the Orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy. "As we said our good-byes, the Marines showered her with keepsakes, and good luck charms. Somehow, we didn't need these anymore. We had found something better! We promised to return, but knew we wouldn't. In Vietnam, the dream is always better than the reality."

Christmas Eve brought a 24-hour truce. It was a silent night and in most areas, all was calm and all was bright. For one brief day, the hate and anguish that filled our hearts were replaced by joy and peace ... the gift from the little Montagnard girl.

That evening, the men moved in slow motion and hardly made a dent in the beer that the chopper brought. "Sergeant Lehue and I shared a can of ham and lima beans. We sat in silence unable to find the words to describe what we felt. Finally, reaching deep and with a sense of comfort for what he discovered, Sarge said, 'Lieutenant ... if there is a God ... He's alive and well ... and with us tonight ... Merry Christmas Sir.'"

And indeed it was a Merry Christmas -- a very Merry Christmas.

I took a picture of the girl but subsequently I misplaced it. For years, I searched compulsively for it. I found it 35 years later tucked in an old journal. She was all that was left of her village; this haunts me today. In the background my scout searches for any sign of life.

A Christmas Story

We never knew her name and silently we still wonder if she ever made it out; she was our gift, and we hers, and that's my Christmas Story.

Joe Puglia is a resident of La Cañada and a professor at Glendale Community College. He holds a doctorate in education with special emphasis in the psycho-social educational development of young adults. He can be reached at captinjoey@yahoo.com.

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