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This page last viewed: 2017-08-21 and has been viewed 375 times
Rating: Adult NC-17
Summary: Christmas in 'Nam reveals a bad memory and new traditions are formed: Light Slash.
Warning: Contains minor character deaths off screen.
Unbeta'ed: All mistakes are mine. Having trouble finding a beta that can work on all stories. Any volunteers?
Feedback: Level 2
Status: Final Draft
Author's note: Yes, I know it's really late for a Christmas story. And New Year's. And Easter, but I had a medical crisis last year. I'm fine now, but I really didn't feel like writing. Plus, I'm flying without a beta reader and so my writing OCD has kicked into overdrive.
A week before Christmas at Alpha Base, Vietnam 1971
Ray stared in utter delight at the small tree in the team's hootch. He didn't know how Face had done it, but he had somehow managed to scam . . . uh, 'procure' real trees for Christmas. Face hadn't walked into the jungle, chopped a bush down and said, "Hey guys if we squint real hard and drink enough beer, this could almost look like a tree!"
No, this was an honest-to-God Douglas fucking Fir tree, right here in the roasting bowels of hell that was Vietnam. The son-of-a-bitch thing came with its own cones, a tree stand and it even *smelled* American.
Ray reached out to touch it, just to make sure that it felt as real as it smelled, but he pulled his hand back before he made contact. If this was a product of his overworked and feverous mind, then he wanted to enjoy it for as long as possible.
Ray was still staring at it when B.A. stomped in, muttering under his breath about FNG's, cherry L.T.'s and the general jackassedness of C.O.'s everywhere. However, the sight of a five-foot tree parked in the middle of their living quarters shut him up.
"What the heck is that?" Despite the ten months they spent in hell as a unit enduring firefights and his team mates free use of any and all profanities, both B.A. and Face managed to keep their language relatively clean. Ray supposed that B.A.'s Southern Baptist mother had kept him pretty much in line language-wise and Face had grown up in a Catholic orphanage where even a dirty thought, much less a spoken word, had earned him hours of penitence on his knees. It took an extreme amount of stress or worry to get either one of the men to utter anything worst then an occasional 'damn' or 'hell'.
And since B.A. obviously saw the tree himself, that was a good thing. At least now, Ray knew that he wasn't hallucinating after all.
"It's a tree, B.A."
"I know it's a tree. I can see it's a tree. What I want to know is where did it come from and what's it doing here?"
Ray simply handed over the note that he found tacked to the central supporting pole by the tree when he walked into the hootch twenty minutes earlier.
'Dear guys. Merry Christmas. Since I got it, it's up to you to trim it. I can't do everything you know. Be back later, out delivering more cheer. Santa Face.'
"It's a Christmas tree, Ray," said B.A. in a bewildering tone.
"I know, B.A. I read the note, too."
The two big men were still staring at it in wonder when Hannibal walked in, smoking a fresh cigar. He stopped cold when he saw the two big sergeants standing in the middle of the hootch with dumbfounded looks on their faces. He was about to ask what was up when he too spied the tree.
Hannibal blinked, removed his cigar and rubbed his eyes hard with
his free hand. He didn't see what he just saw. It was impossible. There was
simply no way in hell that there was a five-foot Douglas Fir
tree in the middle of a hootch in the middle of
Vietnam. There simply was *no* way.
It was ridiculous. It was impossible. Maybe it was true, maybe he did finally go around the bend. After all, you can only do so many squirrelly things before you actually turned nuts. Or maybe it wasn't all in his mind.
Hannibal stared in suspicion at his cigar. It had *smelled* alright, but you can't tell just by smell alone anymore. Some wiseass might've thought it was a big joke to lace a Lieutenant Colonial's private cigar stash with LSD, but when he got a hold of the culprit he was going to make that joker wish that his parents had never conceived him in the back of whatever hot-rod they were in at the time. The bastard would beg for the stockade before Hannibal got through with him.
"You ain't seeing things, Hannibal," said Ray.
"Yeah, man. It's a tree. A real honest-to-goodness Christmas tree."
"A Christmas tree? Where the hell did it come from, Santa Claus?"
"Close," replied B.A. as he passed the note over to Hannibal.
Hannibal read the note and couldn't contain the chuckle over the signature. He had known the blond lieutenant was a world-class scrounger, getting things that they needed or wanted without waiting for months for the red tape to clear.
Need Cuban cigars? See Face.
Need good Scotch? See Face.
Got a date with a nurse and want a bottle of real French perfume to smooth the way? See Face.
Your AK-47 crapped out on you on your last patrol and you didn't want to go back out into the bush without putting your life in anymore danger then it already was? See Face.
Your boots are falling apart from jungle-rot and you can't wait for five months for the red tape to clear to get new ones? See Face.
Your first choice of destination for R and R wasn't available? See Face.
Your girl back home threw you over for some war-protesting-peacenik-long-haired-draft-dodging-hippie while you were out risking your life time and time again for God, country and apple pie? Well, Face couldn't get your girl back, but he would buy you drinks at the bar until you forgot all about that cheating no-good hussy back home. And if that didn't work, he could get you laid by some of the more sympathetic nurses who were all too eager to ease your suffering heart.
The fact that Face didn't seem to mind that he broke about a hundred laws during one of his scams never seemed to stop him from getting things that the team needed or wanted. Hannibal knew that half the things that his lieutenant got he turned around and sold for profit, but he also knew that he never sold anything to the enemy and most of the profits went to the local orphanages.
Which is why he didn't not only look the other way, but he also stood behind his second-in-command whenever the higher-ups got their panties in a wad and tried to bring charges against Face whenever he was caught.
Which was rare. Face covered his tracks well, which drove the other brass up the wall. They knew something crooked was going on, but they couldn't really *prove* anything. It gave Hannibal a chuckle every time someone tried to bring charges against one of his boys but couldn't find concrete proof.
Hannibal wondered what favors Face called in to get real trees for everyone and hoped that the Scrooges in charge of this chicken-shit base got into the Christmas spirit and looked the other way for once. But just in case, Hannibal didn't mind going to bat again for one of his men. It was Christmas damn it, and if they could get through the rest of the month without losing any of his men, that would be the best present of all. Christmas wreaths should be green, not black.
"Wonder where the crazy dude got all these trees?" asked B.A.
"Maybe the same place he got that '57 Cadillac convertible two months ago," speculated Ray.
Hannibal grinned, getting into the spirit of things. "Well, wherever he got it, it's here now and it's up to us to decorate it."
"We ain't got no ornaments, Hannibal. In case you forgot, we in the middle of the jungle, man."
"Now, B.A. no need to get cranky. Just last week I saw you fix that jeep with nothing but scrounged up baling wire, an old ink pin and duct tape. I'm sure that if we look hard enough, we'll come up with something to dress this tree with."
Chuckling and with blue eyes twinkling, Hannibal left the hootch to hunt up decorations. Not to be outdone, Ray and B.A. quickly followed in different directions, minds already filling with possibilities.
They met two hours later, each one loaded down with discarded things that they had found around the base. And as they had search, they'd spotted other grunts rummaging around the base, each one spotting the same maniacal grins and determine looks as they were. It had become a race, each hootch or outfit determined to have the best tree.
Hannibal wouldn't have been surprised to find that Face had done just that; made it a sort of contest to see who could be the most creative or who would have the most Christmas spirit. What the prize was, he had no idea. Unless it was this festive air that suddenly surrounded the base.
As a career soldier, Hannibal knew that the most depressing time of the year had to be around Christmas. A man was in a far-off land where he didn't understand the people, the language, or the culture and the only turkey he got for Christmas, if he was extremely lucky, came in a little tin can.
Hannibal had lost track over the years of how many Christmases he had spent dug in some trench in some foreign land with someone shooting at him. War didn't take a holiday and neither did death. He had also lost track of how many boys he had sent home in body bags during this holiday and he hoped that this wouldn't be yet another one.
Hannibal was pulled out of his morose thoughts when Ray began to hum a carol. A bad rendition of 'The twelve days of Christmas' if he wasn't mistaken. Well, he had always been a firm believer that if you didn't know the words, hum it.
He and B.A. joined in, putting the hum into words. Just about the time they had good-naturedly started to argue about who or what came around the tenth or eleventh day, Face and Murdock walked through the door.
Well, walked might have been an exaggeration. Stumbling might have been a more accurate description.
Face was definitely trying to hold up a weaving Murdock who held a beer can clutched tightly against his chest like it was his favorite teddy bear. It was a sight that stopped the other three men cold. Murdock rarely drank, citing the fact that he might have to hop into his chopper at a moment's notice, even if he was off-duty, as the reason for why he refrained from drinking too much. That excuse didn't deter the other pilots in the camp however. The base bar always had a passed-out pilot or two a day.
Which was one of the reasons why he preferred that Murdock was their pilot. That and he was the best damn pilot that Hannibal had ever seen in his life.
The three other men stood stock-still as Face maneuvered a weaving Murdock to B.A.'s bunk in the back. The big man didn't protest, knowing that on the off-chance that Murdock woke up and decided to make a break for it for whatever reason, they could at least have a chance of tackling him before he made it to the door.
Once Murdock's ass hit the cardboard-thin mattress, the rest of him seemed to collapse and he promptly passed out. Face carefully pried the can out of the still clutching hand and gently lowered the pilot's head down to the pillow. He then shook out the blanket that had been laying across the foot locker and tenderly tucked the sleeping pilot in.
And then, and only then, did he turn around to face his concerned team mates.
"What's going on, Face? I've never seen Murdock like this. How many beers has he had?" asked a concerned Hannibal.
"Ricky at the bar told me that this was his fifth beer."
"*Fifth*?!" exclaimed Ray. "I've never even seen him finish *one* beer, never mind drinking five."
"Yeah, me either." Face further explain. "Artie, one of his door gunners, tracked me down because he was concerned about Murdock's behavior. He had already started on his third when Artie decided to hunt me down. It took him nearly an hour to find me. Murdock had gone on an emergency run this morning about twenty clicks from Firebase Delta. All their pilots were otherwise occupied or their birds had been shot down, so of course Murdock volunteered to go in. A bunch of Marines were pinned down, but Murdock managed to pull them all out at a great risk to himself and his crew.
"Unfortunately, not before three guys bought it on the ground and another guy bled out just as Murdock was landing back at the base. He's taking it kind of hard. He thinks that if he could've flown faster, he would've saved the guy. Artie told me that even if Murdock had flown at the speed of light, he still wouldn't have made it. The guy had half of his head blown off but apparently, his heart was still beating and Murdock thought that he could still save the poor s.o.b.
"It wasn't his fault, but you know how Murdock is. He always takes these things personally. To add insult to injury, he also found out that the guy that bled out in his chopper was supposed to transfer to Stateside soon. He was supposed to get out in a month. What the fuck was that bastard doing on a mission?! Fucking two weeks short of rotating out of this shit hole and the guy buys it on Murdock's flight. Hence the reason for the drinking."
The festive mood in the hootch just took a down turn as each man contemplated their own mortality. It was hard enough to wake up every morning to the fact that you just might die that day without the irony of being two weeks away from being home-free. Life, and death, just wasn't fucking fair sometimes.
The mood in the hootch started to pick up after about a half hour as each man sorted their finds and began to fashion them into something resembling ornaments. It wasn't that they didn't care that some random stranger had died. If you became too depressed over things like this, you could lose your focus and cost you, or someone you knew, their lives.
You could acknowledge the death, but then you had to move on. You had to because you just might be the next one in line for a bullet. And if you dwelt on *that*, you could never move forward and do your job; which was to stay alive and make sure that your buddies stayed the same.
They had all heard the stories about grunts who'd
let it touch them too deeply. Some became drunks, or worse - drug addicts - not
caring that their buddies were depending on them to help keep everyone safe and
alive. Some deserted by disappearing the next time they were in Saigon or by
simply walking away during a patrol while they were the rear guard. A few
became suicidal by standing up in the middle of a firefight or deliberately
triggering a land mine. No, death had already taken one life,
it didn't need any help from someone who was wallowing in grief. Better and
safer to just deal with it and move on.
Face started to softly sing another Christmas carol and the others joined in, mindful of waking the still sleeping Captain. They weren't sure how long a drunk Murdock would sleep, but they knew a sober Murdock only slept for short stretches at a time.
It had taken them all some time to get used to it, but they soon learned to compensate for the pilot's insomnia. Whether due to nightmares courtesy of this bloody war, or because of Murdock's naturally hyper personality, the fact remained that the man only slept a few hours at a time before he was up and about. Hence the reason that he normally took the bunk nearest the door in case of a needed quick and quiet exit.
Three hours later, the tree was almost completely decorated. Hannibal had taken some colored wire and with loops, braids and twists, had managed to make a garland of sorts out of it. Ray had taken a sack full of beer cans and retrieved all the pop tops. He had then tied some of them together with twine to form an extremely loose definition of tinsel. B.A. had taken some old spark plugs, and along with some nuts and bolts, had polished the lot to a high sheen. He then tied them to the branches using some copper wire that he had found somewhere.
Face had taken some of the discarded beer cans that Ray had tossed aside and had managed to use a pair of wire cutters to make, of all things, a few dozen small snowflakes. The rest of the team never even thought that Face knew which end of a pair of wire cutters to hold, much less that he was artistic enough to make something as delicate as a snowflake.
All four men stepped back to observe their creation. It was a good-looking tree, but something was missing. They all stared at the bare top.
"It needs a star," Face declared.
"No it don't, man," B.A. protested. "It needs an angel."
"An angel? Are you crazy? *Everybody* knows a Star of David goes on top to light the way to the manger. And speaking of which, think anybody in this outfit can make a nativity scene out of the rest of these beer cans?"
"*Beer cans*?!" B.A. hotly exclaimed. "You can't have a manger scene made of beer cans! You can't make the Baby Jesus out of a Budweiser! That's a sacrilege thing to say! You can end up in Hell for just thinking that! You ought to know better, you growing up Catholic and all. And everybody knows that it was an angel of the Lord that told Mary that she was going to have a baby and it was an angel that announced the birth to the shepherds and they got there first. Two angels trump one dumb ol' star that just hung there up in the night sky and didn't really do nothin'!"
"My family always had a spire on top of ours," injected Ray. He hated to be left out of a fight, whether physically or verbally.
"A what?" asked both B.A. and Face, momentarily distracted from their debate.
"A spire. You know, it's sort of round in the center with a long needle-type point at the top. Kind of like a star, but without the extra points in the middle."
"*Hannibal*!!" They all cried at once.
All three men looked to their leader. Hannibal had a sudden flashback to his childhood when he and his cousins fought and had one of their dads decide who was right. Hannibal suddenly felt like a father to three unruly boys. Albeit, three boys who could take out a patrol of Vietcong without so much as breaking a sweat or blinking an eye.
"Well, we didn't have much money when I was a kid, so we always made our own ornaments, kind of like now. Anyway, we always ended up putting a big red bow on the top."
"A *bow*?! Are you crazy, man? We ain't gift wrapping a tree," B.A. hotly exclaimed. Unfortunately, he was also bit too *loud*.
"What's going on, man? Can't a guy pass out in peace 'round here no more?" asked a voice in a thick Southern drawl.
The good nature arguing stopped as all four men turned to where Murdock was currently sitting up on the side of the bunk, holding his head and looking a bit confused.
"How're you feeling, buddy?" asked Face a bit too bright and cheery.
"Like a herd of Wildebeest tapped danced on my head, how do ya' think?" the pilot informed him with an evil glare at the chipper blond.
Murdock's sarcasm was quickly lost as he spied the tree. The shock seemed to have sobered him up and he rubbed his eyes like a little boy who had just woken up. Face thought that he looked adorable.
"Uh, I must have drunk way more than I thought and I must still be drunk 'cause I think I see a tree growing in the middle of the hootch. Either that or I've finally gone off the deep end. Again."
"You aren't seeing things, Captain," Hannibal informed him with a broad grin. "Face got everybody a tree for Christmas."
Murdock just sat there, looking a bit stunned. Ray figured that that was how he must have looked the first time he saw the tree himself. Then he got a bright idea.
"Hey, since we decorated the tree and can't decide what to put at the top, why don't we let Murdock decide?"
"Yeah, that's a good idea, Ray. What should we put on the top, Murdock?" asked Face.
"What?" Murdock's stunned look was starting to fade and he started to get a panicked look in his eyes. He stood up and began to inch towards the door, keeping a wide berth around the tree.
"Yeah, man. What did you have on the top of your tree when you were a kid? And you better say Angel," demanded B.A.
"We didn't have a tree when I was a kid. I don't care what you guys put on top."
"You didn't have a tree? Why not? Everybody had to have at least one tree when they were growing up," wondered Ray.
B.A. nodded in agreement. Even though they'd been poor, they'd
always managed to scrounge up the money for a tree. And the few times they
couldn't, Mama had taken a length of butcher paper, drew a tree and after he
had colored it in, she attached it to the wall, and they taped the ornaments on
"We didn't celebrate Christmas at our house. Can we change the subject now?" asked a very visibly nervous Murdock.
"Didn't celebrate Christmas?" asked Face. "What are you, Jewish? If I had known that, I would've gotten you a menorah, like I did for a few of the other guys on base."
"No, I'm not Jewish. We just didn't celebrate Christmas at our house, ok? Can we just drop the subject?"
By that time, Murdock had made his way to the door, via climbing over the other cots.
"I gotta get some fresh air. See y'all later." With that, Murdock bolted out the door.
"Now what the hell was that all about?" asked Ray. Murdock was the last person he would've thought that hated Christmas. The pilot acted more like a kid hoped up on sugar most of the times and the attitude he just gave off made absolutely no sense.
"I don't know, but I'm about to find out. I'll catch up with you guys later." And with that a concerned Face was out the door.
Everywhere Murdock went there were guys holding up improvised decorations for the others to see, telling each other what they got for gifts when they were kids, talking about the feasts they were missing out on. There was even a small group standing around and doing nothing but singing tone deaf Christmas songs accompanied by someone on a harmonica. Somebody even tacked up drawings of a mooning Santa on the latrine doors! It was sickening.
Murdock raced from one side of the camp to the other, desperately searching for one place, just one fucking place that was free of Christmas crap. Just as he thought that he would have to walk into the jungle for some peace and quiet, he stumbled upon the camp dump.
Filled with discarded trash, broken equipment, piles of marked medical wastes, it was blissfully, thankfully free of any holiday decorations or sounds. Peace at last. He sat down on a half-broken stool, trying in vain to keep himself from falling completely apart.
Face stumbled upon him forty minutes later.
The blond had been frantic in his search, trying to find Murdock before he did something completely stupid and irreversible.
He had searched everywhere and asked everyone. The hanger and the mess tent. The bar and the stockade. The base hospital and the rec room. The showers and he'd surprised a Major in the crapper. Finally, the base chaplain mentioned seeing the pilot in a hurry on the south-side of the camp.
The south-side? There wasn't much on the south-side except for the base dump. Face took off in a near run in that direction.
Searching the mountains of garbage, he'd almost given up before he saw the tip of Murdock's baseball cap sticking up behind a mound of old rubber tires. He made a slow and cautious way around the trash heap and what he saw nearly broke his heart.
Murdock was perched on an old broken bar stool, hunched forward with his arms clutching tightly around his middle, as if he was trying to keep everything from flying off into different directions.
His eyes were flitting around, not landing on anything for more than a second before drifting off to somewhere else. His jaw was clinched tightly as if he was trying not to scream like a banshee in rage. His entire body radiated with a pain that Face couldn't comprehend. This was more than just losing one guy on a flight that had already bought the farm anyway. This was something much deeper, more primal. And Face was bound and determine to find out what was going on.
Face approached the hunched figure as if he was a skittish deer, ready to bolt at the slightest sound.
"Murdock?" he softly asked.
Nothing. Not even a flicker of acknowledgment that someone else existed in his narrow little world.
Still treading softly, Face reached out tentatively and gently laid his hand on Murdock's shoulder.
Murdock flinched at the touch and Face was grateful. 'At least he's not completely out of it', he thought.
"C'mon, Murdock, let's get out of here. Let's talk about it," he cajoled as he gently tugged on the other man's shoulder.
Murdock shrugged the hand off and announced in a tight voice, "Ain't going back to the hootch and don't wanna talk about it. Just leave it, Face."
But Face couldn't just 'leave it'. Murdock was hurting and Face couldn't stand it. Murdock might not want to talk about it, but he would listen even if he had to get B.A. and Ray to hogtie the man and sit on him.
"We don't have to go back to the hootch, but we need to get out of here. The dump is no place for the kind of privacy we need."
Gently tugging the other man up, Face guided Murdock though the piles of rubbish to the teams' supply hut on the east-side of camp. Well, it was really Face's supply hut that he used for all his 'acquisitions' that he needed to use to trade, buy, or bribe for whatever the team needed.
Taking out the only key, he unlocked the door and tugged Murdock in behind him. He then turned and locked the door, ensuring them of all the privacy that they wanted.
Face loved this little shack; it was his own private haven. Not only did he have the only key but thanks to Ray's and B.A.'s genius tinkering, it was completely pick-proof. Face had tried and gave up after an hour. If he couldn't work the lock, then no one could.
Not that anyone *would* steal from the team's supply hut even if the door was left wide open and the walls were taken down. Everyone from the Cherries just stepping into this hell-hole country to the man who oversaw the base knew not to even touch anything in the hut without Face's explicit permission. Anyone caught stealing from it would not only have to face B.A.'s and Ray's wrath, but Face would make sure that the culprit *and* his squad would have to wait the three months for the red tape to clear for a tube of toothpaste. Nobody was stupid enough to risk that.
Face tugged the pilot though the short maze of stacked boxes to where he had stashed a small roll of blankets they used as a pallet. Murdock sat down on the floor in an angry silence, knees drawn up, arms clutching legs and a mulish look in his jaws as he stared at his knees.
Swallowing a sigh, Face shook out the blankets and arranged them neatly before taking a seat himself. Going by Murdock's body language, he was sure that the pilot wasn't going to join him and make himself comfortable. Oh, well. It had at least been worth a shot.
He took a moment to study the man beside him. Usually, Murdock couldn't stand silence and filled any quiet pauses with inane chatter. The man could talk about anything, everything and nothing all at the same time.
Face had heard him talk about things such as the real people that the book War and Peace was based on to where the wreck of the Titanic might have possibility ended up at and the fact that the Mayans might have predicted the end of all times. Murdock could tell you the exact size of a whale's arties, the fact that bumblebees could still fly even though their wings were way too small for their bodies and that butterflies taste with their feet.
And yet, for all his talking, Face knew almost nothing about the man. Oh, he knew that Murdock's mother was deceased, he had a father and grandparents, grew up in Texas and was the best damn pilot in Southeast Asia. But he had gotten all that information from the pilot's files. Murdock simply didn't talk about himself or his past. The black hole that was Murdock's previous life was starting to make Face's anxiety rise to the roof.
Especially now since he realized that he knew more about Hannibal, a notoriously closed-mouthed man, then the man he'd been sleeping with the past few months. Which was now beginning to disturb Face on a whole new level.
Well, if Murdock refused to talk, he'd just have to fill in the silence himself. He didn't have a silver-tongue reputation for nothing.
"The first Christmas that I remember was at the orphanage and I was five years old. I have no real memories before that. I didn't even know my own name. In fact, a priest named me after the two officers who had found me wandering around an abandoned building. Anyway, all I remember was that I now had a warm bed to sleep in, plenty of hot food to fill me up and I was actually clean for the first time in my memory."
Face cut his eyes to the side, watching Murdock. The pilot still sat in an angry silence. Face swallowed a sigh. When he used his orphanage stories on the women, he usually got a 'oh, poor sweetie' and a bosom-filled hug. Murdock was going to be a tougher nut to crack then he thought.
"Where was I? Oh, yeah, the orphanage. Anyway, a few weeks after Thanksgiving the nuns and priests started to get the place ready for Christmas. I didn't know what the hell was going on at the time. All I knew was that the older kids were singing all the time and people were putting trees up all over the place and putting pine branches over all the doorways. Then the nun in charge of my age group sat us down one night and told us the story of Jesus' birth and why we celebrate it. I don't think it really clicked for me at the time. After all, a baby's a baby and even though it slept in something that animals ate out of, well at least the kid *had* a set of parents. Which was more than anyone at the orphanage had at the time."
Face checked again. No reaction at all. The man didn't even scoot over a smidgen. Was Murdock even listening? He went on with the story.
"Then one afternoon, a week before Christmas, one of the priests read a story to us; 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' and at the end of it, the guy in the story showed up! He looked just like the book said, fat, dressed in red and white and with long flowing snow white hair, beard and mustache. He sat down in a chair and the other kids lined up to sit on his lap, talked to him and then got a candy cane after they were done.
"One of the older kids filled me in on what the story *didn't* tell you. You know, Santa giving presents to good little boys and girls and bad boys and girls got coal in their socks. Santa knew when you were sleeping and knew when you were awake. He even knew if you had been good or bad. I was terrified of the guy! After all, I had to contend with the priests and nuns telling me that God could see everything that I did and now I had *this* guy looking over my shoulder too?!
"When it was my turn, the poor nun had to practically drag me to Santa and sat me on his lap. The guy looked down at me and asked me if I had been a good boy and what I wanted for Christmas. I was frozen in terror! I *hadn't* been a good boy, I was sure of that. So, I finally opened my mouth and screamed my head off. I don't know who was more startled by my reaction; the nun, Santa or myself.
"One of the priests came over and took me to a quiet office to calm down. Then I started confessing to *everything*. Swiping Susie's crayons when she wasn't looking. Convincing one of the Sister's in the kitchen that I hadn't gotten my desert when I had eaten it first. Even sneaking my Brussels sprouts onto another kid's plate during lunch. I even confess to things I *hadn't* done just for good measure. Then I started on telling on the other kids! I was suddenly one big flowing fountain of information. I'm pretty sure I even made some stuff up.
"But afterwards, the priest assured me that I *had* been a good boy, that all children were good at heart and that was what counted. Not the things we did but what our true feelings were at the time is what really mattered. Then he pointed out all the good things that he'd seen me do. Like the time I showed the younger kids how to tie their shoes by themselves, picking up the napping mats for the Sisters without being asked, sitting quietly with one of the shier boys at playtime, not falling asleep during one of the longer and dryer sermons, and making one of the older boys stop pulling on Caroline's hair. All good things that I had done. Then he gave me a candy cane that he's confessed that he had swiped from Santa's bag and sent me on my way. And that was my formal introduction to Father Maghill."
Face looked over at Murdock's stone face. He couldn't believe that the pilot never even cracked a smile over little Face's confessions. Even grumpy B.A. would have chuckled over that. Swallowing a heavy sigh, Face continued.
"Christmas Eve was real special. It was my first Midnight Mass and we all got to stay up past our bedtimes. After the standard Mass, the church got real dark and quiet. I wasn't sure what was going on, but no one was getting up and leaving so I just stayed put. I'm glad that I did.
"Some of the nuns and priests began to light candles all over the place. Then the precession started, all the altar boys scrubbed clean and shiny, a proud look on their faces. Then the priests and nuns came in, singing in Latin. I felt this sense of absolute peace and calm settle over me. It was the first time I ever remember feeling *safe*. It was like a dream come true, you know?
"It got even better when a real live donkey came down the center aisle, carrying one of the girls playing Mary and a boy playing Joseph following them. Father Maghill started to narrate the story and an Angel appeared at the top of the choir box and took over as soon as Mary put the baby in the manger. We even had a real baby playing the part, one of the infants from the nursery. And as each part of the story was voiced, the characters and animals began to appear at the side doors; the shepherds and the sheep, the three wise men carrying gifts. I think that the only things missing were the camels. I doubt that they could've fit through the doors anyway.
"And near the end of it, all of the candles lighting the church were snuffed out and then out of the darkness, one candle glowed bright. It was the Angel in the choir box. She slowly walked down and started to light one of the parishioner's candle and then that person lit the candle of the person next to him and so on until all the candles were lit. Even us little kids got a candle to hold, with an adult's supervision of course. And then, once the last candle was lit in that dark and quiet church, we held up our candles and sang 'Halleluiah'. I gotta tell ya' Murdock, it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen or felt in my life.
"After the last chorus was sung, the lights went up, the candles were put out and all of us younger kids were taken into the dining hall where we got a glass of milk and a graham cracker and sent to bed to wait for Santa. I'll confess it now, I thought I'd stay awake all night to catch the old guy in the act, but I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning I got a big surprise. There at the foot of my bed was a wrapped box; it even had my name on it and everything. I tore off the wrapping, ripped off the top and there in my hands was my very own stuffed teddy bear in a stripped night shirt with a funny little nightcap over one ear. It was the one thing in the world that I didn't *ever* have to share if I didn't want to.
"I carried that bear with me everywhere I went. The Sisters had to wrestle it out of my hands just to give me a bath. I kinda felt bad for the teenagers, though. They got boring clothes and jewelry and things like that."
Face looked over at Murdock's frozen face in disbelief. Not even an 'Awwww, how sweet!' at the picture he painted of a young Face with his teddy bear. That story always tugged at the ol' heart strings of anyone he told. Was the man's heart made completely out of stone?
Face continued with his monolog. "And that's how Christmas was in the orphanage. Every year it was the same, but . . . different, ya' know? Then when I was about . . . ten? Yeah, I was ten when I discovered that Santa wasn't real. One afternoon, a few weeks before Christmas, I noticed that a lot of the nuns and priests were missing. Well, not really *missing*, but there were less adults around. And I discovered that some of the parishioners of the church had their cars parked in the parking lot, but I didn't see them anywhere around. They were there, but they *weren't*, ya' know? Then I saw that one of the priests was acting kind of 'suspicious' so I followed him. It wasn't too hard, I had a lot of practice keeping out of sight of some of the bigger bullies.
"Anyway, I followed him down to the basement where we kids were never allowed because it's 'too dangerous' the adults said. Boring was more like it. There wasn't anything down there but the furnaces and the water heaters and broken furniture. At least, that's what was there the last time I snuck in to explore. But once the man went through the door, I caught it before it shut completely, snuck in and peeked over the stairs and got the shock of my life.
"There they were, all of the missing adults. They had pushed all the old furniture to the corners and had set up long tables everywhere. They were going though boxes that had 'Donations' written on them, and fixing them up. Dolls were repainted and redressed, and in some cases, new hair was put on the heads. Broken toys were fixed or used as parts for other things and clothes that had rips or something stained on them, had big flowers or bows or patches sewed on them. Clothes that couldn't be fixed were taken apart and made into clothes for the dolls and stuffed animals after they had new eyes sewn on or hats put over missing ears. Nothing was wasted or thrown away.
Once something was ready, it was taken to another table where a couple of the Sisters sat and decided who got what. They looked it over, looked over their lists, wrapped the gift, put a name tag on it and crossed that name off the list. Another volunteer put the gifts in another box. It was like an assembly line.
shock turned into anger. We were getting other people's junk for Christmas.
Stuff that should've been thrown into the trash but they decided to give their
broken and discarded things to *orphans* and we should be *grateful*
to have it. I felt just like the contents in those donation boxes; broken and
stained, tossed aside and unwanted by anyone.
"I would've stormed down there but before I could, Father Maghill found me. How he always knew when I needed an intervention, I'll never know. But he was always there when I really needed someone. He took me to his office and sat me down. He listened as the hurt and anger I was feeling boiled out of me.
"It was bad enough that my own parents didn't want me and none of the prospective adoptive families wanted me. I didn't own anything, not even my own name. I belonged to no one. Life was hard enough already without feeling like a castoff shoe, why remind us kids of what we were by giving us things that had also been thrown away?"
Face peeked over at Murdock again. Once again, there was no emotion on the pilot's face, but he did see that most of the tension was gone from the hunched shoulders. 'At least,' Face thought, 'the man is listening to me.' He continued. If this didn't break though the man's shield nothing would. And Face wasn't a quitter. Not by a long shot.
"After I was though ranting and raving, Father Maghill set me straight. One thing that I'd always admired about the Father, he was a straight shooter. He never tried any of those guilt trips that the other adults tried. You know, about how lucky I was to be where I had food three times a day, clothes on my back, a bed all to myself, and a roof over my head. Not a lot of orphans had what I had. No sir, Father Maghill never pulled his punches.
"He told me that I wasn't unwanted and unloved. God loved and wanted all of us. So, what if we did get hand-me-down toys and clothes? The fact that everyone was working so hard to make them seem like new was a testament to how much they wanted us to be happy. They weren't doing it because they pitied us, or that they were being paid to do it or out of some sort of guilt or because it was their 'Christian duty' to do it. They did it because they loved us and wanted to see us happy. Then he asked me to think over the past Christmases, about how the nuns and priests watched us with excitement as we unwrapped our presents and about how much they smiled at our happiness. Had there ever been a time that all the adults looked happy and relaxed, not worrying over how to stretch the food and clothing budget or where to put the next new child that walked through the doors?
"And when I thought about it, I realized that he was right. All the adults at the orphanage *were* happy during Christmas, even sour-faced Father Dossett. You know, the first time I had ever seen that man smile, it nearly scared me to death. I thought that he'd run over a small child! That was the only reason that I thought would get the man to crack his dour looks. But at Christmas, the man smiled as if he was a child experiencing the wonder for the first time.
"Then Father Maghill told me something that has stuck to me to this day. He told me that I may feel broken and unwanted now, but someday I would meet the right person and that person would 'fix me', just like the toys in the donation boxes. They wouldn't know that they were doing it, but their love would make me feel whole and complete. I thought that I had that with Leslie, but now I realize how wrong I was. It's you, Murdock. You are the first person who has ever accepted me without any strings, without any expectations, without any conditions. You made me feel whole and complete without either of us realizing it."
The shack got quiet. Face watched as the tension seemed to drain completely out of the pilot and saw his face finally relax. It was another few minutes before Murdock finally broke his silence.
"I was five when I found out that Santa wasn't real," he said.
If Face hadn't been so in-tuned with the pilot, he wouldn't have heard the whisper-soft words. Face scooted closer to the man.
"Five? That's awfully . . . young, isn't it? What happened," he asked with a wide grin, "you sneak down to catch a peek at Santa and caught your parents in the act?"
Murdock was so quiet for so long that Face was beginning to think that he would never answer the question. But finally, the pilot raised his head and stared blankly at the boxes in front of him as he began to speak in a soft voice. Face moved even closer to hear.
"A few days before Christmas, I was helping mama bake cookies for the church's charity baskets. I was her Big Boy helper. My job was to taste a few of the cookies in each batch to make sure that they had baked just right. I was pretty good at my job, too."
Face smiled at the picture Murdock painted. He could just see Murdock at that age, standing on a chair and dutifully eating the cookies before solemnly pronouncing them fit to eat.
"She had been singing Christmas songs all day while she baked. Mama always sang when she cooked. She had a beautiful voice Face, just like an angel. Anyway, she had just put a new batch of cookies on the table when she stopped singing in the middle of a song and decided to take a nap on the floor."
Face frowned as he thought, 'That doesn't sound right.' Murdock continued.
"I tried to wake her up. I really did. I shook her, I pinched her arm, I begged her to wake up. But the longer she slept, the more scared I got. I hugged her and started to cry. The first time I ever remember really crying. And then I cried myself to sleep. Daddy came home hours later and found us, but it was too late. She was gone. Between one heart beat and the next, she was just *gone*. When I was old enough to understand, my grandparents told me that she died from an aneurism, a blood clot in her brain. It was . . . instantly, like flicking a light switch off. They made sure that I knew that she felt no pain. She was dead before she even hit the floor. That had worried me for years ya' know, the thought that she felt pain when she hit the floor hard like that.
"I've seen a lot of death over here Face, more than ya' think. And one thing they all had in common was that they were noisy. Ya' hear guys screamin', beggin' for the pain to stop, callin' out for their mothers, their buddies or for God before you hear a gasp and a gurgle and then silence. It was like they were fightin' death and didn't want to let go of life. Those deaths I *understand*. I don't understand the quiet ones, the instant ones. I don't think it's right for the Grim Reaper to just sneak up on a person like that and take 'em without a sound, without a final word or a whisper. It's just not fuckin' *fair*!"
Face's heart ached and he had to force himself not to gather the pilot into his arms in an attempt to bring comfort. Something told him that Murdock was far from done and he was right. Murdock kept talking.
"The day after she died, daddy took the tree and all of the decorations outside and put 'em in a big pile. He took all the presents that had been under the tree and hidden in an upstairs closet. He even took all the food that had been cooked beforehand and added 'em to it. Then he took all of mama's clothes and things, all the pictures, every bit he could that belonged to her and when he got done, he set it on fire. Everythin', Face. Do you understand? It was like he was trying to burn her out of existence."
Face couldn't comprehend the cruelty of such an action. A five-year old boy had just lost his mother and now his father was essentially taking her away again.
"As I watched the flames eat everythin' up, I saw somethin' that the fire hadn't gotten to. It was . . . " Murdock closed his eyes in concentration. "her jewelry box. It was shaped like a pirate's chest. It had been in her family for generations, handed down from mother to daughter or mother to granddaughter on her wedding day. Their names and dates were carved on the outside and it still had plenty of room. It was her maternal family tree, so to speak. It was her favorite thing in the whole world. I went for it, I actually had it in my hands. I had saved it. But then daddy caught me, snatched it from me and tossed it into the middle of the fire. Then he carried me into the house. I tried to stop him, I kicked and screamed for him to let me go. He threw me into my room and locked the door. The window faced the front yard and I was too little to reach the window latch. All I could do was stand on a suitcase so I could see out the window and watch the fire burn for hours. I never knew that a fire could burn that long and that angrily. It was like a mad, living thing, consumin' everythin' it could get its hands on.
"We buried her on Christmas morning. Daddy insisted on it. Pastor Brewster tried to talk him out of it, everyone tried to get him to see sense. It wouldn't really hurt to wait just one more day, would it? Just one single day. Daddy got angry and told the pastor that if he wouldn't do the service, he'd find somebody who would or do it himself. So, while every other kid in the country was waking up, rippin' open presents, playin' with toys and trying to hide the underwear they got from their maiden aunts, I was dressed in a little black suit with shiny shoes and slicked back hair and I watched my mother being lowered into the dark ground. I remember that it was real cold that day, colder then I had ever felt before or since. The whole world seemed to be only shades of brown and gray. The hole looked like a great big dark mouth, ready to swallow everythin' up. For years, I had nightmares about somethin' swallowin' me up.
"I remember that I didn't cry. I couldn't. It wasn't as if I didn't want to," Murdock said as he finally turned and looked at Face with grief-filled eyes. "It was because I had learned at a very young age that boys didn't cry. *Ever*. Especially in front of their fathers."
Murdock turned to face the boxes in front of him as he continued. Face already mourned the loss of contact.
"Afterwards, everybody came to the house with food and they sat around and talked. It's what happens in a small Southern town. Someone dies and people show up at your house after the funeral with food and they stand around, drinking coffee or sweet tea and sharing memories with each other. A lot of them are relatives that you haven't seen for years, even though they only live a few miles away. There's nothin' like a funeral to bring people together, ya' know.
"I remember that my grandma went to hand me a present; a gift for Christmas. But before I could touch it, daddy snatched it out of her hands and ripped it apart. Then he told her that if she tried to do that again, he'll make damn well and sure that she and grandpa would never set eyes on me again. A lot of people said that it was the grief talkin', that he didn't really mean it. But he did. We *knew* that he meant business. Daddy never said anythin' he never meant. He never made threats, he made promises that he *kept*.
"Then he stormed out of the house and went to a wet county. I don't know if you know this, but people in small dry Southern towns have to go to the neighboring wet counties to get drunk. The nearest one was only an hour away. Bars do a surprisingly booming business on holidays. "
Face stared at him in dawning horror. That bastard *left* and got drunk, leaving his grieving five-year old boy behind?
Face finally found his voice. "He just left you on your own? How could he do that to you?"
Murdock shrugged his shoulders as he replied, "Wasn't 'xactly alone. The house was full of people. Grandma and grandpa stayed the night. No big deal. He came home early the next day."
Face could just imagine what shape the man came home in. When he'd been in collage, back in the World, he'd spent a few weekends partying. And why not? He was young, on his own, and his new friends made it seem like so much fun. It had only taken a few massive hangovers to discover that the fun wore off quickly in the cold, merciless light of day.
Murdock continued. "When I was six, a day or two before Christmas, we woke up to find a basket full of food on our porch. It had a whole turkey, stuff for a dressin', sides, cranberry sauce, stuff for pies and it even had a few wrapped gifts included. It even had cookies in it. The same type of cookies that mama had been bakin' before . . . ya' know.
"It was the church's charity basket, the one they give to all the poor families in the county. Daddy . . . daddy was enraged about it. He wouldn't let me touch it, it stayed on the front porch until Christmas Eve night. Then he grabbed me and the basket and drove to the church where they were having the Christmas service. He barged in, cussin' up a storm and threw the basket down the aisle. He told them that Murdocks didn' take charity. That he and I would never darken the church doors again. He even told the preacher that if he or any of them do-gooders ever tried to do somethin' like that again, he'd set the basket on fire before he tossed it through one of the stained glassed windows. Everybody in that church knew that he wasn't bluffin'.
Christmas day, he took me to my grandparent's house. But as soon as we walked
in the door and saw the Christmas tree, he jerked me outta
there and took me home. Told me not to step foot outside the door and don't let
anyone in. Then he went to the bars again. I'll tell ya'
Faceman, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches make a
pretty crappy Christmas dinner.
"That started our new Christmas tradition. He would go off and drink and I would stay home in a silent and dark house, eating sandwiches until I was old enough and big enough to cook on my own. When I was nine, I had traded a week's worth of wood choppin' with a neighbor for an old broken down bike that I fixed up. I rode it everywhere. And I started my own secret Christmas tradition.
"I saved every penny I could scrounge up for months and bought a bouquet of silk poinsettias a week or two before Christmas and hid it in my room. Then once the ol' man left, I took the flowers, a quilt and a flashlight and biked to the cemetery. I would put the flowers on mama's grave and sit and talk to her. I turned on the flashlight once it got dark and I wrapped myself up just in case it got colder. And I would tell her how the year had been, how I was doing in school, the chores I was doing, the food I had learned to cook and that I was hopin' to learn more recipes. Just every day, ordinary stuff that everybody talks about. Nothin' real special. Sometimes, if I was really quiet and really still and if the wind wasn't howlin', sometimes I thought that I could hear her sing to me. Even if I fell asleep, I was always home long before daddy."
Face suppressed a shiver at how matter-of-fact Murdock sounded. It was as if everyone spent their Christmas nights in a cold cemetery with a flashlight, talking to the dead and sleeping on a grave.
"And that was my tradition until I turned fourteen," said Murdock before he trailed off.
He was silent until Face gently prompted him.
"What happened when you were fourteen, Murdock?"
The pilot was quiet for so long, Face was afraid that he would have to ask again. Just as the blond opened his mouth to speak, Murdock beat him to it.
"It was still daylight, I had only been there a few hours, and for some reason - daddy had either ran out of money or they finally got fed up with him and tossed him out of whatever bar he was in - he was passin' by the cemetery and saw me sittin' in front of the headstone; Mama was buried near the front. Well, one minute I was tellin' mama about how the new calf fell in love with one of the pigs and kept tryin' to climb into the pigpen and the next, I was lookin' up at the angry face of my father. The very next thing I knew, I was wakin' up in a hospital room with my grandmother cryin' in the chair next to the bed and daddy was sittin' in jail."
"He . . . he*hit* you?" asked a horrified Face.
Murdock shrugged his shoulders as if it was no big deal. "Daddy was a very firm believer in sparin' the rod and spoilin' the child."
"This wasn't the first time he hit you, was it?" asked Face as he kept a tight rein on his anger. If he ever came across that bastard, he would pay him back in spades for what he had done to someone as sweet as H.M. Murdock.
"No, but it was the last time. Broken arm, cracked ribs, concussion, fractured ankle, bloody nose, two black eyes, multiple bruises. It would've been worse if the groundskeeper hadn't had seen him and pulled 'em off me. My grandparents raised me after that. And . . . and they tried to celebrate Christmas after that, but . . . but I was too old by then and didn't want to have anythin' to do with it. Too many painful memories so they just gave up after a while. I always felt kinda bad about that but . . . it just hurt too much, ya' know?
"I didn't even visit mama again until just before I shipped out. I took her real flowers that time; a nice bouquet of wild flowers. Grandma told me that they were her favorite. I stayed there for a while and told her why I had kept away for all these years. I know that the dead can't hear us, but in a way, it made me feel better talkin' to her. Just like when I was a kid. And that's why I don't celebrate Christmas. It's just . . . just one more day in the year to me. Sorry if I'm bringin' ya' down, but I never found any reason to celebrate, ya' know?"
Face shifted a bit on the blanket, and when he did, he heard the quiet rustle of plastic and it reminded him of another tradition he'd hoped to share with Murdock.
Quickly reaching into the pocket of his fatigues, he pulled out a small, transparent plastic bag. The green leaves shone brightly through the bag as if lit from within.
Murdock eyed it a bit before saying, "I don't do no weed, Face. Hell, I don't even like aspirin."
Face gave him an exasperated look before opening the bag and gently and carefully, pulled out the small green bundle. It had pointy green leathery leaves with bright waxy white berries and had a length of red ribbon holding the sprigs together.
Murdock had a puzzled look on his face as he tried to figure out what it was and what it was used for. After about five minutes, Face clued him in.
"This is the best part of Christmas, well almost as good as getting presents. It's mistletoe! This little bit was harder to get then the trees. I had to trade four boxes of my good bourbon and two boxes of Hannibal's cigars for this little baby!"
Murdock's face was still disturbingly blank. "What's it for?" he finally asked.
"What's it . . . what's it *for*?" asked Face in disbelief. He studied Murdock's face, looking for signs that the pilot was yanking his chain. There was no mischievous light in his brown eyes, no grin threatening to erupt from those full lips. Murdock actually didn't have a clue to what it was used for.
Face was yet again reminded about Murdock's past. Not only had that bastard took Christmas away from a little boy, he apparently left him completely ignorant of the holiday as a whole.
His face softened as he told the pilot, "Well, the tradition is, you hang mistletoe above a doorway or an archway and if you catch someone standing under it, you give them a kiss."
"Why?" asked Murdock.
Face floundered for a moment. He'd forgotten how inquisitive Murdock could be, wanting to know the reason behind every little thing. Sometimes he reminded Face of a three -year old, always asking 'why' every five minutes.
"Well for luck and, it's just something that everyone does, I suppose. Once I was old enough to understand and old enough to be attracted to girls, I used to hang around the doorways of the orphanage, hoping to catch the girls under them. You know, practice makes perfect. And boy, did I get in a lot of practice!"
As he had hoped, a brief smile graced the pilot's face. Face thought his heart would burst with pride at the thought that he made the man he loved happy, even briefly in the middle of the hell that was Vietnam.
Taking the mistletoe, Face held it above Murdock's baseball covered head. Murdock gave it a brief glance before saying, "I thought you needed to catch someone under it in a doorway."
"Well, considering where we are and the sad lack of proper doorways, this'll have to do in a pinch." And with that, Face leaned in and softly kissed Murdock.
The pilot melted against him, sagging with relief and with more than just a smidgen of lust. Face licked the seam of Murdock's lips, asking for and gaining entry to the warm mouth of his lover. Their tongues dueled briefly for dominance with Face finally gaining the upper hand. He both felt and heard Murdock's soft sigh of surrender.
Dropping the mistletoe, Face wrapped his arms around the lithe body of his lover, and with one quick, and much practiced move, he had Murdock on his back on the pallet. The blond pushed Murdock's shirt up around his shoulders and was quite busy and happily running his hands over the pilot's chest. He had once thought of himself as a breast man, but Murdock's flat hairy chest turned him on like no woman ever had.
He was searching for a place to put a hickey where it wouldn't be seen by anyone except himself when Murdock's voice finally penetrated his lust-filled brain.
"Face? *Face*! I wanna go back to the hootch."
"Wha . . ." was the only response that made it through the lust-filled fog that enveloped the blonde's brain.
He stared down in confusion at Murdock's eager and determined face.
"I. Want. To. Go. Back. To. The. Hootch." said the pilot in a slow and deliberate voice.
"*Now*? Was the only thing Face could squeak out.
"Yeah," said Murdock as he wiggled free and rushed to the door, waiting with impatience for Face to unlock it.
Behind the stacks of boxes, Face muttered, "Now he wants to go back. Now, he says. Why do we have to hurry back, especially since we were both going to get very lucky and very happy? He can't wait an hour or two? Noooo, it has to be *now*. I can't believe I'm in love with a crazy man."
He slowly got up from the pallet and made a slow and shuffling way to the door, thinking frantically of every hatchet-faced nun he had ever known in order to get rid of the massive erection that he was sporting. It wouldn't do for anyone to question a suspicious bulge in his pants while he was exiting his shack with another man.
As he reached the door, he saw the pilot practically dancing in front of it, waiting for it to be unlocked. He reminded Face of some of the younger orphanage kids who were desperate to use the potty and they had to wait their turns.
With great reluctance, and with just quick look that said, 'are you sure about this?', Face unlocked the door and opened it. Murdock shot out of the shack as if he's been fired from a cannon. The blond quickly locked the door and hurried after the pilot, more than a little puzzled about what set off Murdock this time.
As he trotted to keep up with the Texan's long-legged lope, Face looked around, more than a little pleased at the scene he'd created. Grunts and officers were smiling and getting along, joking and relaxing together; it was a vast improvement from this morning. This . . . *this* was what he'd been aiming for when he'd arranged for the trees to come a week before Christmas.
He'd noticed the mood of the base when he and the rest of the team had returned after a mission they'd taken on during Thanksgiving week. It wasn't the first holiday they'd spent in the bush, but it was the first one they'd had so close to Christmas and he'd immediately picked up on the dark air that surrounded the base as soon as they'd stepped through the gates.
The closer to Christmas, the darker and more depressive the mood had become. Face had felt as if a wet woolen blanket had covered everything, smothering every bit of cheer and happiness that it could. The war was hell enough but the mood that had descended on the camp made having a firefight with Charlie seem like a simple stroll through the park.
The only bright spot in all of that had been Murdock. The man had seemed untouched by the black mood surrounding the camp, the depressive feelings just bouncing off him like bullets off Superman. Until that morning when he'd followed a concerned and worried Artie to the bar, sure that once again this was another one of Murdock's pranks, Face had thought that nothing could get or keep the lanky man down.
The past three weeks hadn't prepared him for finding Murdock in the bar, slowly and methodically getting blind, stinking drunk. He never actually had a clue that Murdock had a dark side to him. At least, not this dark.
Face thought about the weeks following Thanksgiving. While everyone around them were sinking into a deep pit of depression, Murdock only seemed to get happier; as if his good mood was a flu and he was trying his best to get everyone around him infected with it.
Joking and singing through the worst of the hail storm of bullets that Charlie aimed at them, playing pranks on Ray and B.A. until they snapped and chased him, organizing an Elvis impersonation contest among the wounded. Face himself had awarded the crown, a gold spray-painted bedpan - where Murdock had found the gold paint Face never did found out - to Corporal James Red Feather, a genuine member of the Black Foot tribe and one of the few full-blooded American Indians on the base. Murdock later admitted that the man's faint sideburns contributed to his win.
Almost as if he had caught Murdock's 'happy' bug, Face had spent two weeks on the phone in secrecy to different branches of the military and with civilians in the States. He'd begged, bargained and bartered. He'd lied, told the truth, traded in favors and granted others until he got what he wanted. Genuine Douglas Fir Christmas trees from Colorado, three menorahs and the precious bag of mistletoe.
It hadn't been easy making sure that every building and tent in the camp had a tree. And they just couldn't be the usual Christmas trees everyone had probably grown up with. Just like everything involved with the military - right down to how many chocolate chips each cookie had to have before being served to a G.I. and which direction you shined your boots before an inspection - these trees had to pass a strict regulation.
They all had to be exactly five feet tall to fit in the small living quarters and not so full that they would impede any quick exits in case of a mortar raid; which happened far too frequently in Face's opinion. They all had to be of a sturdy stock, free of any pests or tree illnesses, have a strong and pleasant fragrance and they had stay green on very little water. Just like most things on base, water was strictly rationed and frowned upon if used frivolously. The only things not rationed, to Face's point of view, was blood and death.
Face had made one exception to those tree specifications. One tree was six feet tall and very full. He had delivered that first tree to General Morrison as soon as they had arrived. He wished that he'd had a camera to capture a picture of Ol' Morrison with his eyes nearly popping out and his mouth open but with no sound coming out. No orders, demands, curses, threats or insults.
Face had simply announced that he'd saved the biggest and best tree in the camp just for him, wished the general a Merry Christmas, snapped a razor-sharp salute and waltzed out of the office. There was no way in hell that Morrison could refuse to let anyone else keep their trees if he possessed the prized king of the trees himself. That was classic Face right there; always looking at all the angles, finding the loop holes, two steps ahead of the mark, master of the game.
After Morrison, he'd visited the other superiors before dropping trees off at his hootch, the med tent, mess tent and the rest of the camp. The poor guy at the Grave Registration nearly broke down in tears at the sight of Face with a tree in one hand and a menorah in the other. Face had stayed and talked with the guy for about half an hour, reassuring the man that he wasn't forgotten because of where his duty laid.
The poor guy really didn't have many friends. Who really wanted to hang out with a guy who spent his days surrounded by their dead buddies, soldiers who'd lost their lives protecting someone else or was unlucky enough to have stepped in the wrong spot at the wrong time? Sure, he shared his duties with others, but they didn't really want hang around with each other off duty.
You could always tell who worked at the Grave Registration by the cleared area in the mess tent and bar. It's as if dying was a disease that you can catch and no one wanted to hang around a carrier of it. Most of the camp considered them creepy and smelly due to the chemicals they had to use to try to preserve the bodies in the roasting heat of Vietnam.
Murdock occasionally hung around with them at the mess tent or sharing a lone beer with them at the base bar. Face sat with them also, listening as Murdock carried on long conversations of philosophy or trading jokes back and forth. He'd seen and felt their relief that *someone* was willing to spend a little time with them, however brief that it might be.
He'd once asked Murdock why he wanted to spend so much time with such creepy and morbid guys. The pilot looked a little impatient when he explained that it wasn't those guys fault that they had been assigned that duty.
"You think these guys volunteered or asked for this assignment? Hell, no. They were assigned to it, just like someone is assigned to be a cook or a door gunner or camp aide. They had no choice and they're doing a better job than some I've seen. At least the guys here don't rob the dead blind and they treat their charges with respect and dignity. You wouldn't believe some of the shit I've seen other guys do to the dead in other camps, Face. Robbing them, cutting them open and sewing drugs inside them to sell that junk stateside, morbid souvenirs or pictures just for shit and giggles. Sometimes they 'forget' to preserve them, letting the bodies swell and rot with jungle heat before shipping them home. There's some pretty sick and twisted bastards out there and these guys here are just trying to do their jobs the best they know how.
"Once a guy is dropped off, it's like everybody else forgets they ever existed. Not for Jack and the others who work there. They inventory everything, right down to how many cigarettes are left in a pack and that's *exactly* what they're shipped home with. They keep meticulous records, find out the guy's religious beliefs and asks the chaplain to say a few blessings or prayers over them. They work fast to make sure that they go home cleaned up and preserved in the best shape they can. They treat these guys like they were members of their own families. And isn't that what we all are to each other? Brothers-in-arms, family? All I know is that if something happened to me, I would hope that I ended up here where I know that I would be treated right. The same goes if it was you or the rest of the team.
"So, in the long run, what does it hurt to spend a little time with these guys and get to know them? They need friends just like everybody else here. Maybe more. It's tough to go through life without friends, especially in the middle of this shit hole."
And so, Face had spent some time with them and got to know the guys in Graves Registration. B.A., Ray, and Hannibal never batted an eye or said a wrong word when he or Murdock invited one of them over to have a drink with them at the bar. Face realized pretty quickly that once again, Murdock was right. These were just ordinary guys stuck in a shitty job in a hell-hole of a country, just trying to do the best that they could do. Like them, they only needed someone to vent to occasionally, someone to lift the mood on a dark day, someone to actually *see* them as people in need friendship.
Yep, after talking to Jack Face's jolly mood lifted higher. That was, until Artie tracked him down, frantic about Murdock's atypical behavior.
The sound of Harrison's braying laughter brought him out of his musings. Seeing how far Murdock was ahead of him, Face poured on the speed to keep up.
He entered the hut just as Murdock flicked open the lid of his footlocker and started riffling through the contents. Hannibal shot Face a raised eyebrow and the younger blond just shrugged. He had no idea what Murdock was up to, but it was better than the desperate look the pilot had in his eyes when he stumbled upon him at the dump.
Not content with just moving things around, the pilot began to pick out each neatly folded piece of clothing, shake it out and then toss it over his shoulder, not caring where it landed. Books, magazines, comics and spare boots were given the same treatment. Ray and Face worked frantically to pick up everything before the mess became worse.
B.A. moved quickly when Murdock was about to toss his service pistol over his shoulder. The last thing they needed was for the gun to accidentally go off and wound or kill someone.
Just as B.A. opened his mouth to yell at the pilot for his potentially deadly carelessness, Murdock held up a slim sliver case in triumph.
Looking closer, Face saw that it was one of those old-fashioned cigarette cases popular in the thirty's and forties movies. Gray duct tape was carefully applied around the seam, ensuring that no water or moisture ruined whatever it was that was in it.
The team watched in silence as Murdock retrieved his Swiss-army knife, pull out the sharp blade and slit the tape open slowly and carefully so not to disturb whatever it was in the case. His fingers hovered a bit over the object before he slowly opened it and withdrew a black and white picture of a smiling, laughing young girl. Going by the books she held in one hand, she was in high school at the time of the picture.
Still gently cradling the picture, Murdock found his yoyo, yanked a length of the string off it and carefully pulled a bit of duct tape off the case. He looped the string together and applied the duct tape to the back of the picture to hold it on.
Everyone stood back as Murdock popped up from in front of the footlocker and strolled to the tree. After a moment of hesitation, a deep breath for courage, Murdock slowly and carefully looped the string over the top of the tree. He straightened the photo and stood back, a proud smile on his face.
"Who's that, crazy man?" asked B.A.
Face shot him a disbelieving look. Anyone with one working eye could see the resemblance between the girl and Murdock. It might be in black and white, but you could plainly see that Murdock had inherited his mother's expressive eyes and wide smile. Murdock's father might've burned every picture of his wife but apparently, her parents had a few photos of their own and had passed one on to Murdock before he shipped out.
"An angel, B.A. A real live angel," Murdock informed his team mates. Then he burst into Jingle Bells.
B.A. shot Face a triumphant grin and the blond retaliated by sticking his tongue out before joining in the sing-a-long.
Murdock drifted back until he was side by side with Face. However, as soon as they got to the line about Mrs. Fanny Bright, he faltered and Face felt a cold shiver go down his back.
He knew before Murdock opened his mouth and said, "Sorry, don't remember the rest of it."
Murdock kept his eyes on the picture and Face just knew that that was the song his mother had been singing just before she died.
Linking his fingers with Murdock, he said, "That's ok, I don't know all the lyrics myself."
They were silent as the rest of the guys launched into 'Frosty the Snowman' and after about a minute, Murdock finally turned to look at Face.
"Ya' know, I think I like Christmas again," he said.
"How about mistletoe?" asked Face with a wide grin.
"I think I need a little more practice with that custom," said Murdock with a little wink.
"Well, I'll just have to practice with you," said Face with a wiggle of his brows.
Murdock laughed and enthusiastically launched into 'Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer' with B.A. and Ray.
Author's note: I'm not Catholic so I have no idea how they conduct their Christmas sermons. Hope I didn't offend anyone if I got any or all of it wrong.
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