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Christmas, 1963, Fort Sill, Oklahoma

by David Tanis

Southwestern Oklahoma is an arid land of rolling hills, scrub brush, and grasses, quite different from the topography of suburban Northern New Jersey that I had been used to. Instead of crowded homes, packed close together, with all sorts of lush vegetation, from the omnipresent Norway maples, to fancy lawn shrubs crowding each inch of property, the sparse grasses and bushes of the desert-like landscape provide grazing lands as well as cover for the antelope, bison, long horn cattle, and mule deer which proliferate. For me, Oklahoma was like a new world as I reported in to the replacement company that December in 1963, a couple of weeks early, before my Artillery Officer Candidate School Course at Fort Sill was scheduled to begin. Unassigned, after the mandatory roll call I wandered about like a lost child.

The morning of Christmas Eve, I reported in on time to await assignment as I had done every day for a week, with no expectation of any real task until the course started on January 2. The young sergeant announced the names of those of us scheduled for guard duty, but I was not selected. One of the other soldiers, though, was crestfallen. He objected to having to pull guard duty on Christmas Eve. “Sarge, I am married with two kids. My wife lives in a trailer off base. Can’t you get somebody else to do the guard duty? It’s Christmas, after all.” He looked awfully young to be married with two kids.

The sergeant was unsympathetic. “Not unless you can get somebody else to volunteer to take your place, Private Saunders.” The room remained silent as nobody stepped forward.

I was tempted. My uncle, a former Marine who saw more than his share of combat in the South Pacific in World War II, had cautioned me not to volunteer for anything when I told him I had enlisted. Still, I was alone. A private soldier, fresh out of basic training, I had no money to waste in the bars, tattoo parlors, or brothels of Lawton, Oklahoma, the seedy military town right outside the sprawling artillery base, whose entire economy depended on the largesse and predilection to profligate waste of the soldiers. The pay back then for a private under two years was a mere $78.50 a month. I felt sorry for the young soldier who had gotten a family way before his time.

“I’ll take his guard duty, Sarge,” I said, taking a step forward.

The Sergeant looked at me as if I was bereft of my senses. “OK, you got it. Private Saunders, you can have a Christmas pass but report back here at 0800 tomorrow morning. All of you, got that? And be on time and sober.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” we all yelled in unison.

“Those of you with guard duty report back here at 1600 hours. Guard duty starts at 1700 and ends at 0730. Class C uniforms. Dismissed.” He looked at me as if I was stupid, and I was beginning to think I was.

At 1600 a mass of scraggly looking private soldiers pushed their way into the crowded barracks. We formed up and the sergeant handed out the assignments. I was the last, because I was the only one of the group with a military driver’s license, the result of some more excellent advice given me by my battle-hardened uncle. I had spent a few days before my basic training class started passing a number of driving tests. The others tasked with guard duty filed out to be sure to be at their assigned posts at the prescribed time. The sergeant, a weathered young man about the same age as me but with four years in the Army under his belt, looked at me. “You were smart to get a military driver’s license, college boy. Let me see it.” I showed him, along with the attachments showing what vehicles I was authorized to drive: quarter ton truck (jeep), three quarter ton truck, two and a half ton truck (deuce and a half), five ton truck (semi). He seemed impressed as he handed me the keys to the jeep and walked me over to the large map tacked to the wall, showing each guard post. He obtained a much smaller laminated map about the size of two sheets of letter paper side by side and a grease pencil from a desk drawer and marked the route along the outskirts of the post. “This is it. You follow this road around the border of the post, cut back through the main post on this road, and do it again. Your guard duty is to patrol the post border – twice. If you see anything that shouldn’t be there, call me on the radio. You dressed warm enough? It’s gonna get mighty cold out there.”

I took the map, the flashlight he offered, and the holstered M1911 Colt .45 caliber pistol with one bullet in the magazine. After briefly showing me how to use it, just to make sure, Sarge also signed over to me an old PRC-25 radio, but told me not to call in unless I wrecked the jeep, or came upon some sort of Russian invasion. I went to the motor pool and signed out the jeep, made sure the gas tank was full, and was off to the starting point to await 1700 hours when my guard shift would officially begin. I looked at my cheap military issued Timex watch. It was plastic, olive drab in color with a nylon web band and a dial that glowed in the dark. It worked very well, though, and I waited at the post until exactly 1700 hours. Then I started off, driving west on a rutted dirt path which ran along a six foot cyclone fence. The map indicated I was heading in the direction of the tiny western Oklahoma towns of Cache and Indiahoma, towns I would not get to visit that night, towns that shut the lights off at 7:00 p.m.

The ride was very bumpy. The jeep, a World War II model, either did not have shock absorbers or which had long ago passed their usefulness. I didn’t think I could take hours of this kind of butt beating at more than 25 miles per hour. The Sergeant was right, it was cold and I knew it would get a lot colder as the night wore on. I had on long johns, my military issued olive drab sweater, OD fatigues, field jacket with liner, and a set of military issued leather gloves with olive drab wool liners. The engine on the jeep purred and emitted gusts of warm air right off the engine which I realized constituted the vehicle’s heater. But there were no doors and the cold air was brisk and bitter as it blew in my face.

It felt good at first, but after a while my face began to lose feeling as I headed off into the scrub country west of the main base. It got dark early, and the moon suddenly appeared about ten o’clock in the night sky as I traveled further west, away from the lambent glow of the main post. The lights of the post faded until there was no light at all except that which the jeep’s headlights provided and nature’s starlight in the night winter sky. I was serious as I did my job, looking for anything out of place. But there was nothing other than the ruts of the trail and the stars in the icy sky. Occasionally, I thought I could see herds of some animals in the distance – perhaps hordes of deer that proliferated on the western part of the post or maybe a long horn or buffalo, but at the distance they were, I couldn’t be sure. I stopped the jeep in the middle of the trail and looked through the eight-power military issue binoculars the Sarge had equipped me with. There did seem to be deer grazing quietly in the moonlight. I was filled with a strange sense as I watched the peaceful creatures, barely visible at perhaps five hundred meters away.

As I proceeded west, the animals in the distance paid no attention to the jeep and seemed not to be aware of it, even though it produced a noise they must have been able to hear in the silence of the winter night. I lost sight of any fauna as the jeep dipped into a sort of swale. The fence was intact and foreboding. The vehicle trail was barely visible, just a few ruts running along the fence, desert grasses growing up between them. After a couple of hours I had not reached the western edge of my patrol route when the path crested a small rise. I stopped the jeep because I was freezing, my hands like concrete, despite the gloves, and the ring around my wrist where the gloves ended felt like the first stages of frostbite. With the engine still running, I warmed my hands on the hood of the jeep and searched the horizons, clearly visible in the moonlight. There was no movement at all. I sat on the hood of the jeep, the warmth comforting on my ice cold rear, and looked into the brilliant, icy sky. The full moon was surrounded with an indistinct aura that seemed to have had a religious significance about it. Thousands of stars illuminated the winter night sky giving it a surreal depth as they barely twinkled. I looked for The Star, the ones the Magi saw in the east, guiding them to the manger of the Christ child. Of course this was six thousand miles to the west and a couple of millennia later. The stars would certainly be positioned differently, but still I looked. I couldn’t identify The Star but as I sat there, warming myself on the radiating heat of the Jeep’s hood, I was overcome with a profound sense of peace. I was convinced the sky was the same one the Magi had seen almost two thousand years before, the same sky that had energized the three wise men to travel afar to find the Christ child on nothing more than a whim, some undefined religious imperative. I wasn’t shaken, or frightened, just overwhelmed with that indefinable feeling of serenity. I sat there for what must have been at least half an hour, oblivious to my duty, oblivious to time, oblivious to everything but the magnificence of the pure serenity. Truly peace on earth, I thought.

I began to shiver, the heat having dissipated from the engine block, and the frigid early morning winter air having replaced it. I got back in the jeep, started it up, and made my rounds, still filled with the awesome sensation I had just experienced.

I did my two tours around the base without incident, and returned to the motor pool at 0730 hours and turned in my equipment, falling into formation at exactly 0800 along with the other private soldiers of the replacement company. All, that is, but Private Saunders, who it appeared, was AWOL. After calling the roll, the Sergeant was just about to dismiss us when a bleary eyed Private Saunders came double timing up to the formation, gasping for breath, anticipating his punishment.

The Sergeant looked at him, shook his head, and said, “I guess it is Christmas after all, Private, but you better never be late for formation again. Dismissed. Be back here at 1600 hours, all of you.”

Saunders came up to me. “I can’t thank you enough. Even though we haven’t got any money, that was the best Christmas ever.” He reached for my hand, for men never hugged each other back then.

“It was for me too.” I said, inwardly smiling.

After jump school, David Tanis served in the 7th, 11th, and 6th Special Forces Groups and amassed a total of 30 jumps. In Vietnam he was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, part of the Americal Division, where he served as S-2 and infantry company commander. While commanding a task force of two infantry companies in combat with a large unit of the 2nd NVA Division in I Corps in South Vietnam, he was severely wounded by a mortar round and lost both legs. He then went to graduate school and law school, and served as a prosecutor, trial attorney and District Court Judge in a career of over 30 years. President Reagan appointed him to serve as Chairman of the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, and North Carolina Governor James Martin appointed him Chairman of the Governor’s Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities. His publications include Just Add Water, a humorous novel involving a drug conspiracy, and a short story, “The Redemption of Hamish O’Halloran,” published in the NC State Bar Journal. He has been married for nearly half a century and has two children and two grandchildren.

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