CHRISTMAS EVE WITH THE 6TH CAV
“Hey, Doc. Wait a second.”
We were leaving Colonel Gompf’s morning staff meeting when the Regimental Chaplain, a Catholic priest, pulled me aside. “ Glad you’re back. I’m having a mass for Christmas Eve tonight. Come on by.”
I thought for just a moment. “Sure. Where?”
“Tank barn. I’m going to start at 10:30. See you then,” and he walked off into the cold, grey day.
Full disclosure…I am not Catholic.
As a Medical Corps Captain, Regimental Surgeon for the 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment, I was the only non-West Pointer on the Colonel’s staff. Except for the Chaplain. We became friends and he and I opened a bottle of wine together a few times a month in the basic surroundings of the BOQ or wherever we happened to be. And discussed life, philosophy, the religions of the world and the relative merits of Chateauneuf du Pape burgundy. Nothing was off limits. I don’t remember his name because I always called him ‘Padre.’ I had been away and this morning was the first morning I was back.
Even though we were armored (tanks) we had a strong connection to the history of the 6th Cav and its place in every US war since the Civil War. That always meant horses.
The tank barn was exactly that. A large, drafty barn. Literally. A metal structure just high enough to accommodate the M48 Patton tanks that were parked there every night, lined up along the walls, gun tubes pointing inward. I knew it would be cold. I pulled a heavy field coat over my fatigues when I left the BOQ.
6th Cav on training maneuvers in cold Camp Drum, NY
The cold wind carried a few leaves and some flurries of snow along with me when I walked in. I knew most of the men, boys really, who had arrived before me, sitting on folding chairs that had been set up in rows in the space in the middle of the tank barn. Some ammo boxes had been piled into a makeshift podium in the front. Off to the side the lights of a Christmas tree pushed back against the perpetual gloom of the barn. The smell of pine competed with the oily smell of diesel fuel.
A few of my corpsmen called out in a loud whisper. “Captain Foxx. Doc. Come sit with us.” These were men I had been training for the past few months. Teaching them how to work out of the back of armored personnel carriers, teaching them burn protocol, chemical weapon defenses. They were in their early 20’s, most of them, from Tennessee, New York, Puerto Rico. My first sergeant was from Florida. An undertaker in his pre-Army medic life. I sat with them. They were my team. We watched each other’s backs.
Viet Nam was starting to heat up and we were on track to go in the next few months. We knew it would not be dancin’ in the moonlight and the tank training, the mock drills I put my corpsmen through, had been taking on a more serious edge. Exactly where we would be next year was unknown. One thing was sure…we would not be here.
When Padre said: “Go, the mass is ended,” someone began to sing Silent Night. And somewhere in the midst of that, soldiers singing off-key Christmas carols in the shadows of war machines, a window opened on eternity and the spirit of Christmas came down and sat among us.
I remember the walk back to the BOQ didn’t seem near as dark. Nor as bleak. Nor as cold.