My cold, cold-war Christmas

Someone once asked me, "What is the best Christmas you've ever had?" Difficult to answer. I'd say 99 percent of my holiday seasons were beautiful beyond expectation.

Then there is that 1 percent.

Christmas 1969, for instance. Soldiers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers were camped in a frozen forest near Baumholder, West Germany. Yards from our tent city was the Czechoslovakian border. Our standing order: Do not cross it either accidentally or intentionally.

Germany was divided in 1969; Czechoslovakia was all Communist. "Any of you lunkheads get captured," a sergeant joked, "we won't pay your ransom." Perhaps he meant to put us in a festive mood.

I stood guard from 1 to 3 a.m. Total darkness, 10 degrees below zero. I stamped my feet and hummed Beatles tunes to stay awake. What was I looking for out here? I'd been told to watch for Russian soldiers. If a Russian wanted to be out in the cold, he could stay home in Moscow just as well.

My relief watch came at 3. I went back to the tent and stood by the stove to thaw.

Then I lay down on my folding cot to try to sleep, but I couldn't really sleep. I had to get up every hour to start the Jeep and run it to prevent a cracked engine block.

I'd run the engine for 20 minutes, then tramp through the snow to the tent and lie down. Two weeks out here on maneuvers seemed an eternity. We thawed snow for shaving. We couldn't shower. We were itchy, unwashed, moody, longing for home and food that remotely resembled Christmas dinner. There wasn't anybody out here but us. What could happen?

Then the tent caught fire.

Every 20-man tent had a diesel stove, with a chimney jutting up through the canvas. A metal sleeve protected the canvas - when someone remembered to install it.

I awoke to see the tent roof evaporating. I saw stars. Flaming tent fragments were falling. We ran out of the tent and stood there wearing our blankets as shawls. "All right, lunkheads," a sergeant roared. "Put out that fire!"

So we made snowballs and threw them at the fire - our only combat episode out there in the woods. The fire extinguishers were frozen. We saved our duffel bags, but our tent and cots made a nice bonfire.

Now, 20 of us were tentless and cold. We were ready to go to Czechoslovakia and find a hotel with a dIning room and hot baths. Officers disliked our attempts at humor. "I promise I won't say another word," one fellow quipped. "Just give me one air ticket to Miami Beach...."

We drove slowly back to Dexheim in convoy. Several times, I had Jeep trouble. I worked on it with frozen fingers.

As I lay upon the snow, refastening skid chains with baling wire, I thought warm thoughts. This time next year, I'd be a civilian. Next year, we'd have a white Christmas - "just like the ones we used to know...."

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