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CHRISTMAS WITH THE CAV

 

Hooker drew up a chair and grimly seated himself opposite his friend Private Lee. “Christmas brings out the best and worst in men, according to their circumstances,” Hooker said, leaning across the desk and pointing a stubby finger in Lee’s face. “And ours couldn’t be worse.”

Leaning back in his chair, Lee cradled his head on his palms and reflected. He didn’t think things were quite as bad as Hooker made out. This was in the time when the 1st Cavalry Division still flanked the DMZ in Korea, eyeball-to-eyeball with an arrogant enemy, and that was not a pleasant situation. Yet, Lee knew, soldiers will complain—wherever they’re stationed, whatever their duty. It was as natural as wearing a uniform, walking guard or awaiting the next pass. And the approach of the holidays was providing a few unexpected, welcome breaks from the normal routine. The General’s wife, who apparently considered herself their surrogate mother, had sent each man in the Division a Christmas or Chanukah card, a task requiring no small amount of time. Despite the derision it prompted from many, Lee was touched by the personal gesture.

 Christmas trees and decorations had sprouted in the offices and barracks and even the cannons of the tanks eternally pointed toward the enemy up on the line were festooned with garlands and wreaths. “Care” packages arrived daily from back home and the mess hall had promised a holiday dinner with all the trimmings. The Division wasn’t putting out a paper for Christmas or New Years so, except for the possibility of pulling guard or an enemy invasion, they had no duties to speak of for a week. Lee was basically a lazy young man and the mere idea of no work produced in him a state of euphoria.

Then there was the matter of Pappy’s party.

Still, Lee missed his girl and family. “It could be better,” he agreed.

“You got any money?” Hooker asked now, coming around to the real point of his visit.

“Pay day’s another week off. I spent everything for Christmas presents.”

Hanging his head, Hooker lit a cigarette and exhaled a miasma of blue smoke that drifted like fog across the desk. “Do you think Pappy has any money?”

Lee waived a hand irritably at the smoke. “Of course he does. Pappy always has money. But, remember, it’ll cost you double if he gives it to you.”

“That burns me. Somebody should report him.”

Lee laughed. “To who? The Lieutenant’s his partner and the Major’s counting short-time. Besides, who else has money to loan out?”

“I wish I was a sergeant.”

Lee laughed again. “You still wouldn’t have any money, Hook. You blow it all on booze and girls.”

Hooker shrugged. “What else is there to do in this God-forsaken country? Do you think he’ll give me a loan?”

“Don’t ask me. How’s your credit? What do you need it for anyway?”

Hooker hung his head again. “I forgot to buy a present for somebody. Where is he, anyway?”

Lee jabbed a thumb over his should toward the office behind them. “Him and Davey and Sam are in with the Major.”

“What are they up to?”

“Wrangling a pass for you, me lads,” came a voice from behind them. Sergeant Mike “Pappy” Yeager strode toward them, grinning like an appetite-satisfied terrier. Lt. Alfred “Davey” Crockett and Cpl. Sam Thatcher followed close behind.

“Passes?” Hooker and Lee said together.

“Right. Passes. We’re off to the village.”

“Now?” Hooker asked.

“In the daytime?” Lee added.

Pappy nodded. “Immiji-ately.”

“On a mission of mercy,” Davey Crockett put in.

“Mercy?”

“Right,” Crockett said. “I’ve delegated my able associate here to take this squad down to the ville and liberate the booze for our party.”

“Booze from the ville…in the daytime?” Lee asked.

“Right,” Pappy told them, his sharp eyes glittering with amusement. ”I’ve arranged with your namesake, Mamasan Lee, to acquire a quantity of good old American sauce—scotch, bourbon, vodka” he said, ticking them off on his fingers. “All at a most reasonable price.”

“American booze…from the village?” Lee said, starry-eyed/

“In the daytime?” Hooker said again. “How we gonna get it past the MPs?”

“I’ve reconnoitered the area,” Sam said, “and our good friend, Chavez, is on duty at the gate. Since he’s invited to the party, he’s not going to be inquisitive and foul things up.”

“We’re really gonna have a party and you and Davey are paying for everything?” Lee asked Pappy.

“You might say it’s a Christmas present for our loyal customers.”

Lee and Hooker exchanged doubtful glances. Pappy was a most mercenary man. For him to do something without consideration of profit was highly uncharacteristic. They wondered if there was a hidden catch. The men regarded Pappy with ambivalence. He was their NCO-in-charge, editor of the Division newspaper they worked on. If the General’s wife was their mother, he was indubitably their father. He could be a merciless taskmaster when he wanted production and a gouge when they needed a loan; yet, at the same time, he was always available and ready with sensible advice when a man had a problem or needed encouragement. And he wangled them privileges unheard of it other units. Even Davey, who by virtue of rank, should have been the leader turned to Pappy for direction.

“And the Major knows about all this?” Lee asked, incredulous.

“The Major is a good scout,” Davey said.

“And,” Pappy added, “in exchange for a bottle of scotch he continues to see, hear and speak no evil. Let’s be off.”

“You coming, too, Davey?” Hooker asked.

“To the ville? As an officer and gentleman, such conduct…”

“No, man. I meant to the party.”

Davey traded a pained look with Pappy. “Consort with enlisted men? I am obliged to raise cups with my fellow officers and gentlemen at the BOQ.” Then, he smiled. “Of course, you idiot. As soon as those snobs are snookered enough for me to sneak out, I’ll be there.”

Pappy thumbed his hawk nose at Davey. “We salute you, sire. I shall now take leave to escort my valiant squad ‘crost the frozen fields to accomplish our assigned mission.”

With a wild bellow of laughter, Davey cuffed him. “Be off, you oafs. And don’t drink any on the way back.”

 

It had snowed a little overnight and the straw-roofed houses of the village sat like mushrooms in a field of white below them as they ambled down the hill toward the gate.

Passing clusters of other soldiers, some working on vehicles, or walking guard, doing mess hall chores, policing the area and additional tasks, Lee reflected on how lucky he was to be on the Cavalier staff. They were an elite group, despised by a few, tolerated by others and envied by all. Ambitious officers, conscious of how stories and photos detailing their accomplishments brought recognition and abetted advancement, granted him privileges unknown to other soldiers. And, because they didn’t flaunt their advantages and were gregarious, decidedly unmilitary and likable young men, and Pappy employed his wheeling and dealing to provide opportunities for all, they were admired and respected by other less fortunate enlisted men. Holding his head erect, thrusting his shoulders back, Lee doubled his pace to catch up to Pappy, suddenly very proud to be a member of this unit doing its part in defending Freedom’s Frontier.

Chavez winked, knowingly, and waved as they passed through the gate and headed into the village.

The village had a look of poverty, though it was probably wealthier than most because of its proximity to the military camp. The twenty or so houses and stores, restaurants and bars comprising the village were jammed together, helter-skelter, on both sides of a narrow, muddy track. The air which had been brisk and clean up on the hill was polluted now with an effluvium of moldering straw, stale food smell, human stench and the excrement of the chickens, dogs and oxen that ranged freely through the village. Old men sat or stood in huddles, talking and smoking; women cooked, washed clothes and gossiped near the hootches, and everywhere roamed children—boys in black school uniforms and caps that made them resemble miniature policemen and girls like little dolls in frayed but clean and bright-colored gowns.

Flashing her familiar gold-toothed smile as they entered the Starlight Club, Mamasan Lee immediately put a record on the turnstile, “Sho-jo-ji,” a Japanese folk song that had become Pappy’s theme in the village.

Sho, Sho, Sho-jo-ji,

Sho-jo-ji, No-ni-wa-wa,

Tsun, tsun, tsu-ki-yo-da,

Minadete-ko, koi, koi!

Giggling, a trio of girls who had been smoking and smacking gum in boredom around the charcoal stove clustered around them, clapping their hands and singing the chorus, “Koi, koi, koi, koi, koi, minadete koi, koi, koi!” Beaming, Pappy strode to the bar, joining the girls on the second chorus of the song which told of Tanuki-san, the badger, beating his belly like a drum in the moonlight, calling on his friends to join him and enjoy the wonders of the night.

Mamasan sat up a round of beers, big bottles of the domestic OB brand, dark and yeasty, and the girls cuddled up to the boys, laughing and talking. Mamasan put on an American record and Thatcher took one of the girls in his arms and whirled out on the dance floor.

More music, dancing and laughter followed and all were in a merry mood when Mamasan finally produced a wooden crate containing the object of their mission. Pappy opened the crate and made a quick inventory before paying Mamasan.

“Holy Hannah!” Hooker said, eying the array of bottles with avarice. “I’ve never seen such stuff. I’ll bet the officers don’t even get stuff this good. Where’d she get it, Pappy?”

Mamasan beamed with pride at her accomplishment and the wad of money she was stuffing into her bodice as Pappy explained, “anything you want is available on the black market, provided you have the shekels to pay for it. Yours is not to reason whence it came but to heft one end of the crate whilst Lee takes the other. And be careful, lads. I don’t want any lost.”

“Why you taking booze away?” Mamasan asked, frowning. “You no having party here/”

“No, my love. This is for a special migook holiday party on post. A Christmas party.”

“Korean peoples having Christmas, too.”

“I know, and a very merry one to you, madam.”

“You no wanting girls? Girls too much liking party.”

“Of that I’m well aware and their company is always a pleasure. But, alas, not this time. Inform the girls I, personally, will select number-one presents for each and all from the PX. They will be delivered in due time by one of my able associates. Until then, adieu.”

They left Mamasan shaking her head in bewilderment but, happily, re-counting her money.

“No girls?” Hooker asked outside. “What kind of party we gonna have with no girls?”

“I didn’t say there would be no girls” Pappy said, smiling mysteriously. “I said these particular girls weren’t invited. This is a special occasion and our party will be graced by the presence of a bevy of young ladies of the ARC.”

“Donut Dollies! You gotta be kidding. They always go to the BOQ party,” Hooker said.

“Not this time,” Pappy told him, smiling again. “I decided it was time the Red Cross provided enlisted men with a little more than coffee, donuts and cigarettes.”

“How’d you arrange that?”

“Let’s just say some choice words were whispered in proper circles.”

“What words? What circles?” Lee asked.

“I’m not at liberty to say at present,” Pappy answered, another mysterious smile flickering over his lips. Steepling his hands before him, gazing skyward, he added, “You might say there was a bit of Divine intervention.”

 

Ultimately, the great party day arrived and the staff and other invited GIs gathered at Pappy’s quarters. “Hey, what gives? Isn’t the party here?” Hooker asked as Pappy locked the door of his hootch.

“The party is later. First, we’re going to church.”

“Church? What’re we going there for?” Lee asked.

“I haint been in church since I got here,” Hooker said.

“Good enough reason for going,” said Pappy, who despite his many failings went to church faithfully every Sunday. Many thought it hypocritical, others assumed it was somehow connected with his ceaseless business activities, but none dared question him about it “Since we wouldn’t have Christmas without Christ I think its not only appropriate but imperative we go and thank Him for it.”

“But I’m a Buddhist,” Thatcher protested.

“The Lord isn’t prejudiced. The chapel’s open to all,” Pappy said, turning on his heel and starting off.

There was a bit more grumbling but finally they followed. After all, Pappy had the booze locked up. There wouldn’t be a party without him, so they saw no alternative but to humor him. They entered the chapel and went through the motions—except for Thatcher who stubbornly remained outside, acting as doorman and greeting all arrivals with a cheery “Om-padme-om.”

Their chagrin increased after the service when Pappy led them to the chaplain’s office instead of his hootch. The furniture had been pushed to the sides and a great Christmas tree, hung with bright balls and garlands of popcorn, stood in the center of the room. A table along one wall held trays of sandwiches, cakes and cookies and other sweets, a large bowl of punch and several cases of soft drinks. Another table was laden with stacks of gaily-wrapped presents.

The GIs exchanged shocked stares. “What do you think, guys?” asked Pappy, who stood grinning in their midst.

“We’re gonna have our party here?” Lee asked.

“Good evening, boys,” said Father Flanagan, the chaplain, who was followed in by Davey Crockett, laden with more presents. “Nice seeing you all in church,” Father added.

“Donut Dollies and a priest?” Thatcher said, scratching his head.

“Yeah, and where’s the booze?” Hooker asked.

“All your questions will be answered post haste,” Pappy said, consulting his watch. ”Now, excuse me a moment, gentlemen,” and he disappeared into a back room.

 

The silence that followed and hung over the room for long moments like a hovering hawk was broken by the sound of vehicles arriving and the voices of many small children. The door popped open and the Donut Dollies burst in, bearing more gifts and food and accompanied by a troupe of children and Miss Oh, the young and attractive directress of the county orphanage.

The GIs had barely recovered from this surprise when a bugle blared from behind them. Swinging around, they were confronted by the sight of Pappy, decked out in a horsehair papasan hat, dark glasses and a scarlet kimono embroidered with gaudy golden dragons. “I couldn’t find a Santa Claus suit,” he explained with a shrug and a boyish grin. “Come on, girls,” he yelled, “get the kids some food and Santa Hot-apogee will give them presents and tell them all about Tiny Tim-yah and Scrooge-hot-apogee, Bah, Humbugasayah!”

There was no time for questions then as the girls, herding the shy, affection-starved children ahead of them, swooped in on the GIs. No explanations were necessary. Time passed without notice. There was talking and laughing and singing in several languages and tears fell without shame as the Americans saw the children eating sweets and guzzling pop and opening presents of dolls and toys and other things they’d never seen in such bounteous supply.

Later Lee and Hooker found Pappy, seated on the floor with Miss Oh by his side, surrounded by a group of beaming children, all of them singing a Christmas carol. “What do you think of my party, guys?” he asked as the song ended.

“Great,” Lee said, kneeling beside him. “Even without the booze.”

“Yeah,” Hooker agreed. “Whatever happened to the booze, anyway?”

“He sold it to the officers to raise money for this party,” Davey Crockett said coming up to them with Father Flanagan.

“No kidding? Well, if a dry party can give you this kind of jolt, I’m all for it,” Hooker said.

Pappy smiled. “It does feel good, doesn’t it? We all do a lot of drinking over here and it’s because we’re trying to forget where we are and what we face if Charlie decides to come back South. But it doesn’t work. We’re still here and he still might come and all we have the next day is a lousy hangover. There’s no profit in that. I thought this might be a better investment.”

“No denying that,” Lee said, hugging a little girl who snuggled up next to him with her new doll.

“I wish I could say my sermons accomplished this,” Father Flanagan said, a wistful tone in his voice as he gazed at Pappy. “Why don’t you tell them everything, Michael?”

“Aah,” Pappy muttered, hanging his head and blushing behind the dark glasses.

“Maybe it was your sermons, Father,” Lee ventured.

“No. I’m afraid not. Michael started coming to chapel because of a deal he made me.”

“Deal? What deal?” Lee and Hooker asked.

“Tell them, Michael. Or we will. They have a right to know,” Davey said. “After all, they’re major contributors.”

“Aah.”

“Or do you want all the credit for yourself?” Davey prodded.

The head shot up, the glasses were swept off and his eyes flashed. “Hey! I didn’t do it for no credit. Besides, you guys helped. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“And them,” Davey said, gesturing around the room at the other GIs. “Father and I only helped a little compared to them.”

“Hey, for cripe’s sake…oops, sorry, Father. I mean, what are you guys talking about?” Hooker asked.

Placing a hand on Pappy’s arm, gazing at him warmly, Miss Oh said, “Michael has been helping the orphanage for months. We would have had to send the children away long ago if it had not been for him. And you.”

“Us?” Lee said.

Pappy faced them. “Except for a little operating capital, the payback on your loans goes directly to the orphanage. It’s never enough. The building’s a mess. The furnace is worn out and the roof leaks. But we manage to keep the kids fed and clothed and reasonably happy.”

“Well, why didn’t you just ask us to donate instead of making us think you were a Shylock?” Lee asked.

“Would you have given as much as you do in paying double on your loans?” Father asked. “Of course you wouldn’t. I know you mean well but, let’s face it, GIs never have any money. That was the beauty of Michael’s scheme.”

“But how’d you get involved in this in the first place, Pappy?” Hooker asked.

“I saw Miss Oh in the village one day. I didn’t know who she was. But, you know me. I’ll follow a beautiful lady anywhere. When I got out there…well, I’m just a sucker for little kids.”

“He came to me and we got our heads together to see what we could do,” Davey said. “I suggested talking to Father and he made a deal with Pappy: Come to church and I’ll do what I can to help the project.”

“And he has. Clothes from back home, food from the mess hall, medical supplies. And him and Davey kept me from getting in trouble for loan-sharking and other scams. Actually, it’s been a group effort from Day One.”

“Well, what do you know about that? Christmas with the Cav haint so bad after all, is it Hook?” Lee said.

“Yeah. Except for one thing.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“You know that loan I wanted before?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Pappy turned me down. Said I owed too much already.”

“So?”

“So you’ll have to wait till payday for your Christmas present,” Hooker told him.