by J. Vincent Martin
There's an old Arabic saying that too much sunshine makes a dessert. Perhaps they are right, and maybe there is a purpose for winter after all. I am afraid I never liked winters though.
For me, winters are just a little bit too depressing. For there's a sadness about, when the trees stand bare, like the ruins of a once flourishing civilization. Then there's the cold grayness of the clouds and that chill in the air that numbs both body and soul. Perhaps this is merely a time of penance, when we should search our hearts for the comforting memories of sunny springs past.
Then again, maybe it's just to remind us that there is a warmth within us all, that can bring us through the coldest and darkest of times.
Yes, we all have memories of that certain warmth within. This is one of mine.
It was a cold smoke breath night, when I got off the bus in Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was October of 1963, and winter was about to run it's icy fingers across the land. I had just turned seventeen and had joined the army. I was quickly ushered about by shouting sergeants ordering me to join the mass of assembled young foreigners. Kids from far off lands like Queens, The Bronx, Long Island and even New Jersey.
The kids all had foreign names, too. Names like, Kelly, Goldberg, Jackson, Russo, Hernandez and Kassavinsky. But there were also fellow countrymen from Brooklyn huddle among the mass. Of course, they had more normal sounding names like, Weissman, Sanchez, O'Mally, Robinson and Chung. But regardless of our origins, we all quickly realized we were in the same boat.
Strangely, within in a week, we all looked the same. It seemed everybody had decided on short haircuts and green suits for our daily attire. More important, we had stowed away our differences and became plain old G I's.
We were still Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Moslem, Buddhists and atheists, of course. Then again, we still had our surnames, too. But we were a family now, suffering our hardships together. Our differences, be it religious or ethnic, quickly became personal property, and we all learned to respect each other's property. Yes, we were all brothers sharing the same first name rather then last name. That first name of course was Private.
It wasn't long before the snows arrived, and snips of icy winds reddened our noses and cheeks.
Naturally, we spent a lot of time outdoors training in that misery. It wasn't like being a kid anymore, where you could turn to friends and say, "I'm freezing guys, I think I'll go home and warm up." Nope, you had to learn to stick it out and tolerate the inconvenient pain of the cold.
So week after week, we endured the chill, as we drilled and marched to the rifle range. Then, there were all those shivering times spent outdoors learning our new trade while sitting in the wind on snow covered benches in the woods.
There were many cold and miserable days back then, but the worst day came about a week before Christmas.
We were in the last days of our training and were looking forward to going home to our families and friends on Christmas leave. It would be the first time in two months, for many of us. There was only one more major training course to complete before heading home. It was called Night Combat Training.
That morning , we awoke at three a.m. to the pleasant morning greetings of our platoon sergeant.
As usual he accompanied his cheery greetings with the loud kicking of footlockers and the shaking of bunks. Within a half hour we were all dressed and shivering in formation in the black cold night air.
After roll call, we were informed that we were to form up outside of the barracks after chow, in full winter combat gear. Then we were all going to take a little walk in the woods. A short time later, it was, right face, column of twos, forward, march!.
The trek started out beneath a midnight blue sky, speckled with stars. After an hour of marching, the horizon finally started to glow with rising of a new day sun. But it didn't last very long, as a tide of ominous gray clouds flowed in and quickly swallowed our warm little buddy in the sky. It was dreary and cold again, but soon we were perspiring beneath our warm winter threads.
So for the next fifteen miles as we sloshed through the snow we actually had smiles on our faces. We chatted about home with our buddies next to us, as we marched along. Of course, that would be constantly interrupted by the bellowing shouts of, "No talking in ranks!" from our platoon sergeant. Then he'd start calling cadence, and we'd join in to take our minds off our plight. Finally, after four hours we arrived at our desolate destination in the woods.
There were five giant carport like structures, with tin roofs and no walls, standing before us. The army called them field shelters. Of course, there were also the usual several sections of snow cover benches, out in the open, right next to them. Not only wasn't it a nice place to live, but with the cold and wind, it wasn't a very nice place to visit either.
We quickly formed up by platoons, and were addressed by the cadre as to what we were about to learn. It was a half hour briefing, and we stood at attention in the cutting chill of the wind. That was just enough time to allow the perspiration under our uniforms to begin its metamorphous into ice.
Now, it's bad enough being cold, but being cold and damp goes right to your bones. After the briefing we were given a fifteen minute break to smoke, and mull around under the non protection of the shelters. In fact, each of the five platoons had their very own shelter.
I guess never really did see eye to eye with the army. Situations like this always made me question their intelligence. You know, like wouldn't it have been better if those benches were situated under the shelter's roof?
Then of course, as usual, the Red Cross arrived with all the ice cream we could eat. That's right, ice cream, not hot coffee or soup. Why, you ask? I don't really know. But there was probably a good reason for it. After all, the army had over two hundreds years experience in keeping soldiers alive in the cold. However, for me, the ice cream just made me that much colder.
Naturally, as we were smoking our cigarettes, and eating ice cream, the snows began to fall. So after the break we took our seats outside on the benches for our first class.
Then we marched off to a rifle range and jumped into concrete foxholes for night fire instruction. After that, we learned how to do the night walk.
The night walk is a procedure in which a unit moves slowly in unison in order to cross open ground undetectlked at night.
It was a lot of walking here, walking there, standing in the wind, and brushing the snowflakes and ice from eyelashes.
In the afternoon, we did the combat in filtration course. That's crawling a couple hundred yards on your back and belly beneath barbed wire, as burst of live machine gun fire pass overhead. The army added to the fun by detonating explosive charges in sand bagged mounds all around us. The nicest part of the exercise was when the snow crawled down the back of your collar to send a burning chill down your spine, all the way to your toes. Finally, the sun started to set behind the clouds, as we broke for supper.
We were tired, cold, and beaten. Worst of all, our platoon sergeant had been dropping hints during the day that we'd be walking home that night. So we sat around and chatted as spooned down our snow soggy mashed potatoes.
We managed convinced each other that tough as that march back would be, we could make it. After all, it was too close to Christmas leave to sweat the small stuff. So we got hearts and heads ready to endure the long march home after chow.
We overlooked one thing though. This was night combat training and the army wanted to see how much we had actually learned. So after chow, we got the word, that we were going to spend the next couple hours doing it all over again in the dark.
We had nothing left to give, but a strange defiance came over us. Instead of giving up, we suddenly started inspiring each other. "I'm going to make it, man, and so are you. They can kill us, but they can't eat us. That's against the law!" So we gritted our teeth, dug in and did it. Dragging each other, taking our gloves off in burning freeze to free a buddy from the wire, looking out each other like brothers.
By ten p.m. the last guy completed the course and we marched back in the dark for another a break beneath those shelters.
Even the Red Cross had went home by now. So we stood there in the dark shivering in dead silence for about five minutes.
The night sky was clear now and it glistened with the sparkle of a thousand stars. We were totally spent, and most of us were convinced we were actually going to die on the long march home. No one had the energy left to even utter a single word.
Then suddenly, my buddy Dave Ruben, mumbled something, as he was standing next to me. I half turned and asked, "What did you say, Dave?" Staring at the stars, he answered, "I said silent night, holy night." Then Moranty whispered, "All is calm, all is bright." Instantly, three more guys joined in, and the carol began.
Within seconds, every guy in my platoon was singing, and we were quickly joined by the guys in the other four shelters across the way.
Two hundred and fifty guys, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Buddhist and yes, even atheists, all singing Silent Night beneath the stars, in the middle of the woods.
Then just as we were ending the carol, out the darkness trucks started to appear. Then my hardened platoon sergeant suddenly popped up in the headlights, and yelled, "Form up, people. You're riding home." There was actually a little tear in the corner of his eye, and a cracking in his voice, he smiled, "Merry Christmas, Guys."
Perhaps, or just the recognition that the birth of a child is a holy event, to all people, everywhere, even in the worst of times.
There was a war looming on the horizon back then, and after our Christmas leave, me and my buddies split up to go to different units.
Some of those kids never made it home to have a child of their own. So even on the coldest of nights, I always remember the warmth of that night.
The night when two hundred and fifty weary soldiers all became fathers, singing a lullaby, and sharing in the joy of the birth of a child.