By Bill Derby
It never fails. Each Christmas I start thinking about our military stationed in some faraway land thousands of miles away from their families and loved ones. Even today’s Skype communications can’t replace the lonely feelings of being away from home at Christmas. If you have never experienced a long distance separation especially in a danger zone, it’s hard to explain.
I recall my experience stationed in Korea during Christmas 1966. It was bleak and cold with a constant wind blowing down from Siberia. The loneliness sucked all the Christmas spirit out of your soul. Army buddies became closer as more family Christmas stories spread throughout the chilly barracks to help ease the lonely and empty feelings.
Many families sent us “care packages” to arrive just before Christmas. These were our special presents and treated with reverence and just about as much excitement as a kid opening his first Christmas present. When a care package was delivered from home to one of our barrack’s members we all gathered to see what each box held. It never failed there was always a pair of heavy socks in each package. Many a box held tantalizing smells as they were gently opened. Anything edible was shared. It was our way of spreading a little cheer as far as it would go. I can’t recall anyone not sharing his care package from home.
We had a set of twins bunking in our barracks with Italian ancestry and boy was it fun to eat some of their goodies. My good friend Carmine, who actually came to America from Italy when he was 12-years old, was also a recipient of a box full of delicious cheeses, Italian sausages and other homemade delights.
We also had a number of buddies with Mexican ancestry. They had boxes full of special Christmas flavors with a spicy accent. Thinking back on it, we were fortunate to share food from America’s melting pot during that Christmas season.
One of my goodie boxes held a lemon sponge cake sent by my grandmother. By the time it arrived in Korea it was in crumbles and had to be eaten with your fingers, a pinch here and a pinch there. Every pinch was delicious. It soon disappeared after the first trip around the barracks. Some of the guys didn’t get anything from home but we made sure they sampled our boxes.
Even though it was illegal to send any booze by box, Carmine’s family ignored the rule much to our happiness. Along with Carmine’s Provolone cheese, his sister had lovingly packed a bottle of Chianti red wine. That special liquid was only shared by Carmine’s closest of friends and boy was it good with the cheese. I think it helped keep the chill off that evening.
Our Camp Red Cloud I Corps Headquarters was a great place to be stationed if you were in Korea. The Army did its best to make our Christmas as pleasant as possible with the mess hall cooking turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and even cake for our Christmas meal.
There were also four clubs on base, the General’s special club, the officer’s club, the NCO club and then the lowly enlisted men’s club. Regular floor shows with bands from the Philippines and other Asian countries entertained during the holidays. Those establishments were mostly places to help you forget you were living half way around the world from your loved ones. There were many a melancholy tear shed after a healthy dose of abundant beverages during the holiday period. I can understand where the phrase “crying in your beer” came from, probably from Valley Forge.
I was lucky since we had a group of musicians who had formed a band to play good ole American Rock n’ Roll at many of these clubs. We played just about every weekend. Most were named after Korean War heroes like Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud or Camp Humphreys. Other clubs up and down the valley north of Seoul were the 59th Aviation Club., 55th MP Club, Signal Corp. Club and countless others. We even were invited to play the American Embassy in Seoul on New Year’s Eve.
Those opportunities sure did help ease the loneliness of being away from home. I have hundreds of photos of those 13 months in Korea and look at them from time to time to remember how grateful and blessed I am to live in America, especially during the peace and grace of Christmas.