They Don't Have Christmas in Viet Nam
Copyright 2021 by Fredrick Hudgin
Photo by Burak Kebapci courtesy of Pexels
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
means I'll be in Pleiku on Christmas, Sarge!"
don't have Christmas in Vietnam, soldier. Didn't you know that?"
and turned away, calling over his shoulder, "See you when you
was at least a twelve-hour drive. It was already past noon. This day
would be a long one.
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.
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
the time we got to Pleiku, it was after midnight. "Merry
Christmas!" I told the gate sentry. He just laughed and waved me
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.
waste your time," a driver said
in disgust, returning from the showers with his clean clothes still
over his arm. "There's no water."
mean no hot
water?" I said
mean no water. Hot, cold, warm, smelly, clean. Not in the showers,
sinks, or toilets. Nothing. The goddamned floor's even dry."
water. No shower. Crap.
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.
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.
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.
paused, leaning on the four-foot chain-link fence, trying to look
casual, while I checked in all directions—no one in sight.
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.
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!"
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Fredrick's story list and biography
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher