Posted December 1st, 1999
This essay was originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio.
I get overwhelmed by the holi-
days. I never start early enough
to find meaningful gifts for my family, putting up all the decorations becomes a chore, rather than a joy, and every year I seem to burn out on holiday concerts, church services, and social gatherings. But the memory of a Christmas nearly 30 years ago, helps me to keep today’s holiday overload in perspective.
I was a Mobile Advisory Team Leader in the heart of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Our mission was to “win the hearts and minds of the people,” but as the big American combat units pulled out, leaving our Vietnamese allies to be mauled by the North Vietnamese, we weren’t winning many hearts or minds. In the autumn of 1970, Phung Hiep District was dicey enough that our five-man advisory team was attached to a larger, District Advisory Team to improve our security.
In spite of the stifling heat, daily artillery barrages, and the constant threat of Viet Cong mortar attacks, by mid-December, I was actually looking forward to Christmas. One of our guys knew a mess sergeant at a big American base and was able to trade something for a turkey. Another advisor scrounged a case of Lancer’s rose. But the real bonus was an olive drab, number 10 can of dehydrated shrimp. Not only would we have turkey and wine for our Christmas feast, we’d actually start things off with honest-to-goodness shrimp cocktail!
On the morning of the Big Day, after reading letters from home and opening a couple of packages, everyone pitched in to prepare the meal. All was ready by noon, but as we were sitting down to eat, a Vietnamese soldier burst in with news of an accident in the center of Phung Hiep. Our team medic, Sergeant Boone and I grabbed our M-16’s, recruited an interpreter, and raced through the muddy back alleys of the village.
The accident scene was engulfed by a mob about to explode. Angry Vietnamese villagers threatened a terrified, American soldier, who couldn’t have been older than 18 years old. Long, angry skid marks on the pavement led to a massive, U.S. Army truck which idled in the middle of the road. At the other end of the burned rubber stripes was a mangled motorbike and its Vietnamese driver, his head in a pool of congealing blood.
“Sergeant Boone,” I pleaded, “is there anything you can do for this guy?”
Boone didn’t even need to check for a pulse. “‘Fraid not sir, he’s very dead.”
The crowd had been distracted by our arrival, but they soon began to close-in on the American kid. He was scared stiff, and probably stoned on pot, but when we tried to get his version of what had happened, he acted arrogant and unconcerned that a man had just died under the wheels of his truck. I made a show of taking notes, studied the soldier’s identification, and recorded the unit markings on the vehicle.
With the interpreter’s help, we interviewed Vietnamese witnesses for their version of the accident. They all agreed the truck was going too fast and struck the man as he was trying to get his motorbike out of the way.
It was obvious there would be more blood on the road if we didn’t do something quickly. I told the kid to get in his truck and return to his base. Then I asked the interpreter to assure the bystanders that the Military Police would conduct a thorough investigation of the accident. The huge truck drove away, leaving the body of the Vietnamese man, Boone, the interpreter, and me, surrounded by angry villagers.
For several tense moments, it was impossible to tell if their frustration would boil over, but eventually they allowed us to leave. Walking through the squalid back streets of Phung Hiep, I was overcome by the sickening feeling that, although my intentions were correct, I had just betrayed the villagers I was supposed to be advising.
By the time Boone and I returned to the team house, Christmas dinner was over. They had saved some turkey, but neither of us had much of an appetite.
I can’t remember the name of the Vietnamese man who died that Christmas Day in Phung Hiep, and I never learned what happened to the kid who was driving the truck. But since then, at Christmas, I consider myself very lucky that the only stress I now endure is an overload of social obligations, a few frantic holiday shoppers, and the occasional rock musician butchering a Christmas carol on the radio.
Don’t forget to count your blessings. Most of us have far too many we take for granted.
John Morton has been a member of six Olympic biathlon teams, as a racer and as a coach. He lives and trains in Thetford where he designs nordic ski trails and writes about sports. He is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio.