The Magic of Christmas
By Steve Banko
For me, the magic of Christmas starts with music. From those long-ago days of grammar school innocence when the nuns drilled the words of every carol in Christendom into my brain, until today, with innocence a faded memory but the joy of Christmas a constant prayer, I found great delight and consolation in the music of Christmas. Some of my most enduring memories involve those nuns, the songs they taught me, and the way we sang them. It hardly mattered that puberty rendered the male voices in our choir more akin to a pond of bullfrogs than the Vienna Boys Choir. The real magic wasn’t in our voices. It was in the words—in the hope and the promise and of Christmas.
Less than a decade later and a half-world away from grade school and light-years away from the simple joy of ice cream and Mothers’ Club cookies, I spent a different kind of Christmas under the spell of the carols.
On 3 December 1968, my rifle company was mauled by North Vietnamese soldiers in a nameless clearing in the jungle near the Cambodian border. We fought for more than five hours against repeated ground attacks against our perimeter but when the shooting stopped, our company endured more than eighty-five percent casualties. I was one of the “lucky” ones who survived that horrible day. I’d been shot twice but both bullets hit my right leg. The second shot destroyed my kneecap and forced me to use elephant grass to stanch the bleeding. My hands were burned and I had a dozen or so pieces of mortar shrapnel in various parts of my body. But unlike so many of the men I led into that battle, I was alive.
I spent three delirious weeks with an infection raging and a fever wracking my body. The doctors told me I’d be going to Japan to let another team try to stem the tide of the infection. The nurses I’d encountered in Vietnam became more than nurses and more like friends during those three weeks. Christmas would be spent far from home but not far from friendly faces.
But December twenty-fourth is just another day in the Army. That morning I was hustled out of the hospital and sent off to Japan.
I arrived at Yokota Air Force Base outside Tokyo late on Christmas Eve. The friendly faces of nurses I’d come to know were replaced with strange faces in a strange setting. My body hurt but my mind was worse off. I was frightened by what this pain might mean for my future. I was angry for what my country made me do and endure in its name. But more than anything, I was lonely. Christmas was always something to be shared and now, I was alone in the bleakest sense of the word. My only consolation came from the sound system piping music through our ward.
“The First Noel”…“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”…“Hark, The Herald Angels Sing”….By the time the carols recycled for another rotation, I could almost believe there was joy in the world, somewhere. No matter how close I came to believing though, the pain in my knee and the sadness in my mind mired me in despair.
I was interrupted in my self-pity by a low moan from the bed next to me. I had been so self-absorbed that I was oblivious to those around me. The sound awakened me to the sad fact I was not alone in my suffering.
In fact, the man in the next bed was much worse off. He was covered in plaster from the tops of his knees to his lower jaw. Gauze covered his face and head; cutouts for his eyes, nose, and mouth broke the field of white. His arms were plastered and held away from his body with metal rods. His hands were the only skin not covered.
The music of hope and love and triumph were frequently punctuated by the sounds of pain. Throughout, however, the man in the cast could issue only low moans. I couldn’t conceive of what unspeakable horror had left him like this; what terrible pain plagued his body; what hopes and dreams had been crushed by the brutality that rendered him so helpless.
My pain didn’t seem important and my loneliness became tolerable. When the nurse came with our pain meds and the lights dimmed, the strains of “Silent Night” were my last recollections of that sad, strange Christmas Eve. Before I nodded off, I asked the nurse to push my bed closer to the man in the cast. I reached out and touched my comrade’s hand. Finally, it did seem as though “all was calm, all was bright.”
No words were spoken. None were needed. I felt a gentle tightening on my hand and for the first time that December, I believed that I might survive, and first the first in weeks, I wanted to.
The magic of Christmas is in the music.
Steve Banko is a combat veteran of the United States Army. Steve was wounded six times, four by gunshot, and was decorated for heroism six times. His awards for combat gallantry include the Silver Star. In 2010, he earned the Cicero Foundation’s Grand Prize for a speech he delivered about PTSD.