Baumholder, West Germany, Christmas Eve 1974
To adapt an adage, 'Misery loves Charlie Company'...
It was not only the 18-year old Specialist 4th Class Charles Miller's first Christmas away from his family, but he would be on guard duty.
At Charlie's Charlie Company's usual morning formation they were informed by their furious First Sergeant standing on the barrack's elevated porch, that Company 'C', 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry (Mechanised) had been 'volunteered' for Christmas guard duty.
'Top', short for 'top sergeant', was angrier than usual as some unknown soldier would soon wish himself dead rather than face Top's personal revenge and then a court martial for stealing his last pair of army issue black plastic horn rimmed glasses called 'Clark Kents'. Not every enlisted member of Charlie Company was out in the cold bleak street facing their dingy onion domed late-1930s former Wehrmacht barracks. The cold 'Charlies' fought to keep a straight face as from an open window from their warm barracks, 'Fafa', the nickname of Spec 5 Faafautele, the Samoan Vietnam veteran head company medic, was facing his company on parade wearing Top's own spectacles upside down, wobbling his head from side to side and gibbering like an idiot. Charlie Company saved their laughter until they were back in their barracks heated by diesel fuel stoves.
The obese Top resembled a combination of Bill Cosby's cartoon friends Fat Albert and Mushmouth, as he spoke with a speech impediment and seemed to have the IQ of a belligerent child. Sp4 Robertshaw had christened Top 'the fountain of useless'...
The vapour out of Top's mouth made him look like a steam engine at a threat factory. When the squinting Mole Man put one hand on his hip and did a sweeping pointing of his finger at all the members of 'C' Company to vow that vengeance was his, Sp4 Miller whispered the nursery rhyme,
'I am a teapot! Hear me shout! This is my handle! This is my spout!'
If profanity was electricity, Top was a dynamo and a one man powerhouse. He could use all seven dirty words that the comedian George Carlin said you couldn't use on television in one sentence. He also possessed the dubious skill to use the two word phrase for a man having sex with his mother as noun, verb and adjective...
The unlucky '1st of the 13th' had a reputation for being 'selected' for every unpleasant assignment or spending weeks in the mud on the live firing ranges and armpits of Germany, Hohenfels and Grafenwohr, where they had just returned from. They were volunteered by their officers who were desperate to build up 'Brownie Points' to avoid being bounced out of the Army they once thought they'd make a career out until they became the victims of the post war Reduction of Force, or being 'RIFed'. Their officers and senior NCOs who earned decorations and Purple Hearts in Vietnam were now sucking up like Hoover vacuum cleaners.
Top was on a roll with no sign of him coming to an end. 'C' Company had always debated whether a person could have a heart attack if he didn't have a heart. One infantryman had earned himself an Article 15 non-judicial punishment for honestly answering Top's question,
'When I die, you jus' gonna pith on mah grave, right?'
'No Top, when I get outta the army I ain't gonna stand in a long line for anything!'
The litany of threats delivered with a speech impediment had finally ceased.
'Platoon Sahgenth, keep yo' shidhaidth in line...oh elth! Dith-MITHHHED!'
Top returned inside to the warm company office. Fafa placed Top's spectacles into some effeminate flowered gift wrapping paper and tied a cutesy bow with pink ribbon...
'Headquarters Platoon, stand fast', ordered their acting platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Kay.
All three rifle platoons and the weapons platoon returned inside their barracks to continue the maintenance of their equipment.
The company training NCO had replaced Sergeant First Class Mahon; their normal HQ platoon sergeant who was head of the motor pool. Mahon was 'back in the world' of the Continental United States for leave.
S/Sgt. Kay's calling them that was another reason that Sp4 Miller and the rest of his platoon admired him, and as the expression said, would go through hell and high water for him. He lead his men, he never drove them. None of his soldiers ever wanted to let him down. To many of the infantrymen of Charlie Company, he was the only sergeant that they actually worshipped, next to their basic combat training drill sergeants. He wore jump wings, a Combat Infantryman's Badge and a Pathfinder badge on his chest and as his overseas combat patch he wore a RANGER tab over his Americal Division shoulder patch; Vietnamese jump wings were on his right chest. For those who didn't admire him merely because of his superb leadership ability, his respected combat record and his razor sharp appearance of starched fatigues and boots covered with Glo-Coat shiny floor wax, there was his reputation met with fear or worship due to his being busted from buck sergeant to corporal for punching the lights out of an incompetent 'shake and bake sergeant' and his diffusing a potential race riot by flushing the ringleader's head down a toilet. Like Davy Crockett, he was a living folk hero.
'You know the grunts have just come back from "Graf" and they've been given a shit sandwich for Christmas, so I'd regard it as a personal favour to me if you'd put up your hands to volunteer for Christmas Guard Duty. I'll be the Sergeant of the Guard.'
Normally headquarters platoon were exempt from guard duty or other details. However, every 'swingin' Richard' of Headquarters Platoon who wasn't on leave raised their hands. S/Sgt. Kay was that kind of man...
* * *
Sp4 Miller, the youngest of the mostly university educated company headquarters, found himself with the Christmas Guard at attention facing the flag pole of post headquarters as the snow fell. Though US Army Europe respected the 1/13th Infantry's field prowess on live fire exercises and war games but regarded the insubordinate battalion as The Dirty Dozen, they always looked like F Troop when they engaged in any form of military ceremony. Charles remembered his first view of the French Army on guard duty looking like cute cartoon toy soldiers dressed in a enormous berets that looked like black uncooked pizza dough dropped on their heads, greatcoats down to their ankles and sharply marching back and forth and forth and back with wooden rifles with fixed bayonets near a red white and blue striped sentry box and wooden gate with a red ARRÉT sign. By contrast, in the words of one of their lieutenants, Charlie Company looked like 'the criminally insane masquerading as soldiers'.
S/Sgt. Kay removed the 'F.T.A.' card placed on the flagpole and shook his head that made the joker who put it there feel slightly ashamed. He signalled for one of the soldiers to fire the M116 World War II era 75mm airborne pack howitzer that shot out an empty beer can as a recorded bugle played Retreat.
'Soldiers, this is your flag!'
S/Sgt. Kay lowered the colours as the soldiers presented arms with their Armalites. Thanks to their Sergeant's remark, all the men stood tall and proud.
* * *
The procedure for guards was two hours on and four hours off; S/Sgt. Kay wouldn't sleep at all. Tradition had it that the sharpest looking guard was designated 'supernumerary' that meant he had the super power of staying warm and being able to sleep uninterrupted in the guard house where the post guard lived for 24 hours. If one of the sentries took ill, the 'super' would take his place. Because everyone appeared in starched uniform and spit shined boots, S/Sgt. Kay drew the super's name out of his helmet to the sound of the platoon drumming on their helmets.
Due to the Christmas holiday, S/Sgt. Kay drew C-Rations for his miniature platoon, though the Battalion mess hall would provide a giant urn of coffee as well as one of hot water for shaving, cocoa or tea. The guards were divided in three shifts, with Fafa being Miller's shift leader.
Charlie Company lived up to their tradition of having fun being miserable; Fafa played his guitar as everyone sang Christmas carols. Miller opened the parcel of candy bars his mother sent him and doled them out to his friends; like the loaves and fishes, there was just enough for everyone. They dined on C-Rations that they were able to heat up washed down with coffee or C-Ration cocoa.
'Fafa! Prepare your men for duty!'
It was time to go on guard again. Fafa went to speak to S/Sgt. Kay in private.
As they boarded the 'deuce and a half' truck, Fafa was nowhere to be seen, S/Sgt. Kay took his place.
'Specialist Miller. Would you please go to my desk and pick up the clipboard on top of it and bring it to me?'
S/Sgt. Kay seemed to be the only sergeant in the battalion who ever said the word 'please' without sounding like a wimp or being sarcastic. He also addressed his men by their rank and not only their surnames.
Charles easily found the clipboard of the guard's special orders. On going outside he heard a strange noise that he followed to find Fafa crying. He quietly reported to S/Sgt. Kay without Fafa noticing him to bring him the clipboard that had replaced the swagger stick as a symbol of authority.
S/Sgt. Kay's eyes demonstrated that he knew what Charles had seen.
'Thank you, Specialist Miller', he whispered, 'It happens, Miller; you never expect it with some people, but when it happens, it hits them the worst...sometimes it pays not to think...'
* * *
He had been left off by the truck in the middle of nowhere with his faithful black M-16A1 rifle, but he was warmly dressed in what his battalion called their 'alert uniform'. He wore an olive drab wool shirt and scarf, faded green and heavily starched M1951 field jacket, field trousers, and the winter 'Elmer Fudd' ear flap cap, black leather boots with felt insoles, set off with 'light webbing' of a green pistol belt with the green attachments of a first aid pouch, plastic canteen filled with hot instant coffee made with the cream and sugar packets from his C-rations together with a metal cup in its pouch, a single ammunition pouch and a bayonet and scabbard. A gas mask in a pouch and a steel helmet with a tan camouflage cover completed his ensemble.
Except for the lack of sleep, he never really minded guard duty. Unlike KP or other work details, he felt like a soldier when he was on guard. Though he was alert, it gave him time to think things over and remember things.
He had enlisted with his parent's permission shortly after his seventeenth birthday and shipped out for his basic training six weeks later in September. The day he graduated basic training was one of the happiest in his life and he felt that he had become a man. Attired in his tailored dress green uniform, he joyously bought a Playboy magazine and a beer at the airport, for the legal drinking age in his home state of Illinois was 21. On board his first flight, from St. Louis to Washington D.C., the stewardess told him that he was being upgraded to first class. Conversing with a smiling air hostess, having a free Scotch and soda as he read his Playboy with his in-flight meal had been a taste of 007 luxury heaven. He saw his family again over Christmas where his weapons school in Virginia had adjourned allowing him to spend two weeks with them.
He ended up in the strangest infantry battalion in the United States Army when he was sent to Germany. Unlike the others, he loved Europe and its wonderful coffee, chocolate and beer; when his enlistment was finished he wanted to get a 'European Out'. When not on duty, he'd spend Sundays on service club excursions to attractive parts of West Germany, Luxembourg City or Metz, France. He spent furloughs in London and Paris, and finally lost his virginity in a Munich brothel.
He trained with his company until one day his battalion was alerted for deployment to Cyprus when the Turks invaded it. One of the rifle platoon sergeants had a visible nervous breakdown, with then Sergeant Kay taking over his platoon, though no Americans deployed to Cyprus.
As Charles entered the army as a Private First Class due to three years of Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, he was promoted to the rank of Specialist Fourth Class.
He suddenly sensed he was not alone.
He quickly took his rifle off his shoulder and pointed it at an advancing figure.
'Where ya goin', Chief?'
'Staff Sergeant Kay, Sergeant of the Guard!'
S/Sgt. Kay's symbol of authority was a .45 calibre pistol worn on a holster of his pistol belt.
'I couldn't say "Halt, who goes there?" as it sounds too much like the cartoons, Sergeant.'
'Cartoons reflect reality, and vice versa. When you see an officer, go the full cliché; they eat that shit up. You OK, Specialist Miller?'
'Fine, Sergeant. How's Fafa?'
'Back to normal. Just one of those things. Thanks for not telling anyone...if you're not laughing, you're crying. This must be your first Christmas away from home...'
'Yes, Sergeant. You must think this is stupid, but though I've a good home, I really don't mind being here.'
'Outstanding, Specialist Miller, there's never any time for regret, only for opportunity. You're like me, you must've joined as soon as you turned 17.'
'Yes, Sergeant. I wanted to go into Intelligence but you had to be 19 or 18 and a half with a waiver, so...'
'So you ended up here, with all the other misfits...I joined as soon as I turned 17 too. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but they said I was too young, so I bided my time with the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, then fought like hell to get over there.'
'It sounds stupid, but I wanted to go to Vietnam too, but with the Paris Peace Accords...Do you mind if I ask you something, Sergeant?'
'Not at all, Specialist Miller. You're pretty switched on.'
'How did you get in an Airborne Ranger Company in Vietnam? Did you go the Ranger School?'
'No, by the time I got there, no one wanted to be the last American soldier killed in Vietnam, so all the hardcore were put into the Rangers, what they called the LRRP teams. I made Sergeant pretty quick because a lot of people were getting killed off pretty quick. Just one of those things; do the right thing at the right place and the right time, stay alert and stay alive and stay lucky...Remember that, Specialist Miller, remember that...'
Charles nodded, S/Sgt. Kay continued.
'What would you be doing back in, Waukegan is it?'
Charles nodded and was impressed that S/Sgt. Kay knew his hometown.
'We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve in our house. Every year my Dad told one of his two Christmas stories. how he was at the relief of the Battle of the Bulge behind a machine gun thirty years ago, the other story was when his brother died at ten years old, with his presents still wrapped beneath the family Christmas tree.'
'Your Dad sounds like mine, a horrible life in the Depression, then World War II. He was in the Army too, the Fifth Army in Italy.'
'My Dad was in Patton's Third Army.'
'I remember when I had my first leave from the army after 'basic'. I had all these stories to tell because I had more fun and excitement in a couple months than I had in my entire life. All my old buddies were bored, then I realised that they'd always be what they were and where they were and they didn't mind being stuck there. I knew I didn't belong back in my hometown anymore.'
'Same here, Sergeant. Funny, I've more friends and fun being on guard in Germany than I did in high school where I always felt socially excluded.'
S/Sgt. Kay looked into Miller's eyes.
'I was a real punk and a loser then. You can make yourself the man you always wanted to be in This Man's Army...'
'This will be our last Christmas together. I'm off to Drill Sergeant school next year. Between you and me, Top and SFC Mahon are involuntarily retiring, the Captain is being RIF'd, and I've heard more than a rumour that you're being transferred early next year, so act surprised when it comes, I'll say no more. Fafa's been passed over for promotion for the third time so he'll be leaving next year, same with Barrett the Commo Chief. Lots of the dopers will be getting General Discharges...So it's more than "those wedding bells" that will be "breaking up that Old Gang of Mine"...'
S/Sgt. Kay looked at his watch.
'It's just about midnight, Charles.'
He produced a hand held pop flare; at midnight he shot it into the air. As it illuminated the German snowfields the pair sang God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen together. On one of the hills a party of three wild boars took in the scene.
Once the flare finished, S/Sgt. Kay said farewell.
'Fafa will be with your relief truck. If the boars charge you, head up a tree. I've seen one of them take a .223 round between the eyes, shake his head, then charge.'
S/Sgt. Kay walked into the blackness where he had come.
'Thanks for spending Christmas with me, Sergeant!'
'Thanks for the Snickers bar, Specialist Miller! "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"'
Charles swore that he heard the three wild boars answer back...
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND (all from Lulu.com). I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).