Welcome, visitor!


Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Thirteen

                                              SANTA IN GREEN

Returning home to Emporia from L.A. for the Christmas holidays, I found myself once again in a quandary as to where I might seek work and go exploring next.  I’d seen commercials on TV about the Red Cross needing personnel to provide humanitarian services to the troops in the field overseas.  The Midwest Area HQ for the Red Cross, I discovered, was in St. Louis, so I hopped a ride with an old college roommate, Larry, whose job promotion was taking him there, and lined up an interview.  Lo and behold, they hired me and scheduled my four-week orientation and initial training with a dozen other new hires two months later at Fort Hood, Texas.

I’m sure some desire to emulate one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, and his Red Cross service in World War I, played a role, but mainly I knew the Vietnam War would impact American culture for years into the future and I wanted to see it firsthand for myself.  The fact I hadn’t passed the draft physical proved to be no barrier for Red Cross employment, and my first assignment for further on-the-job training came up as Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Jim Bowling was the field director there, a superb training supervisor to boot, who got the service guidelines and counseling skills drummed into the staff greenhorns thoroughly and quickly.  Health and welfare reports, verification for emergency leave, delivering death messages, compassionate reassignments, birth messages—I encountered and mastered handling them all.  Then it was off to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for the winter and gaining experience working with the Navy, and, following that, a brief stint at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Finally, with the arrival of spring came the long-anticipated assignment—deployment to Vietnam.

I stepped down onto the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, in early July of 1969, just prior to the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  (I remember thinking at the time how ironic it seemed that humankind could put a man on the Moon, but—as I surveyed the barbed wire, sandbags and bunkers all about us—not cease killing one another.)  I was given a substation to man, located at Bearcat, the Thai Panther Division area of operation.  I worked there six-and-a-half months providing Red Cross services to the American support elements (supply, communications, transportation, assault helicopter companies) until I received a new assignment to Bangkok, Thailand.

The bonding among comrades in a hostile-fire zone tends to remain indelibly in one’s memory for a lifetime.  Years later, when I was residing back in my hometown of Emporia, The Emporia Gazette sponsored an essay contest with the theme “memories of Christmas during wartime.”  So, I penned a piece about a Thai soldier I’d known in Vietnam and submitted it.  And I was honored to win first place and publication.  That essay encapsulated much of the essence of what I experienced during my tour of duty among the Thai troops at Bearcat, and I therefore think it most appropriate to include it here in its entirety.


        Unusual Christmas Ornament Is Reminder of a Special Friend

A little carved teak-wood elephant from Thailand, sans tusks, certainly battered and scratched—what an odd Christmas-tree ornament, some might declare.  Nevertheless, there it perches, on the highest branch of my tree, above the tinsel and plastic canes and lights.  It’s done so each Christmas since 1969.  And, indeed, it always will.

It was in 1969 that I was stationed in Vietnam serving with the American Red Cross.  As chance would have it, I was assigned to a one-man substation near where the Thai Armed Forces conducted operations.  I thus became acquainted with several Thai soldiers and in particular with one sergeant named Bumroone.

Sergeant Bumroone was a Thai major’s cook.  He worked in a makeshift kitchen adjoining my hooch.  What an energetic young soldier he was, and how curious about everything around him.  “I volunteer to come Vietnam,” he once told me, “for looking.  I want to see with my own eyes the war.  I want to understand.”  He was curious too about life in America.  We exchanged many stories and much information about our respective countries.  His big dream was one day to attend a cook school in the U.S. and become a chef.

As December approached, all Red Cross personnel were busily preparing for the distribution of Christmas ditty bags—little cloth sacks containing health and comfort items (prepared by Red Cross chapters in the U.S.) given to troops in combat areas.  “Santa Claus in Green,” they called us.  And this project was no small task for those of us on one-man stations without transportation.  Over 5,000 had to be conveyed, checked, sorted, and counted into bunches through my office alone.

Not to despair, however.  Sergeant Bumroone rose to the challenge.  He volunteered to spend his off-duty hours helping me sort ditty bags.  We two ourselves prepared all the bunches.  On several occasions he even commandeered the major’s jeep to assist me making deliveries.  And before the 25th, through Sergeant Bumroone’s aid, I’d met every unit’s quota.

The day before Christmas, Sergeant Bumroone was assigned temporary duty at a nearby fire-support base.  Before his departure he left me a small package (to be opened on Christmas) as well as his cheery well wishes.

On Christmas day a ceasefire was in effect, and the silence—awesome and suspect—hung about us like a pall.  No artillery fire.  No thump-thump of chopper blades.  Just a tomblike quiet.

I took Christmas mess with the Special Liaison Section.  As the men were departing the dining hall, a sudden thunderous explosion rocked the entire base.  We all scrambled for the nearest bunkers as a huge, boiling cloud of gray smoke mushroomed skyward away to our south.  “That’s Support Base Gray,” an N.C.O. near me exclaimed.  “They’ve hit the ammo dump.”  We waited cautiously, but the only ensuing event was the return of the oppressive silence.

The N.C.O. had been right.  It was the ammo dump.  Unluckily Support Base Gray was where Sergeant Bumroone had been assigned duty.  I would learn that evening that my worst fears had been realized—that Sergeant Bumroone, indeed, had been among the Thai soldiers killed in that explosion.

Upon returning to my hooch, I remembered Sergeant Bumroone’s package.  I took it from my locker and gently pulled back the wrapping paper.  Inside I discovered a little teak-wood elephant along with a simple message: “Merry Christmas Santa in green.”

And so, each December is a time for me to remember another Christmas far away; to remember especially a certain little Thai sergeant amidst piles of ditty bags.  A little sergeant who went to Vietnam “for looking.”  Who dreamed one day of coming to America and becoming a chef.  But whom I’ll remember best as the giver of an elephant and as a very special Santa’s helper.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Mark Scheel on BloggerMark Scheel on Email
Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

6 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Thirteen

Leave a Reply