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The Tentacle


December 23, 2005

No Holiday at the Outpost

Norman M. Covert

When I shoved my aging Army Class A uniform in the closet to hide yet more gifts, it reminded me that thousands of American servicemen and women will not be home tomorrow night - Christmas Eve - and the start of Hanukah the next evening. They are continents away in Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Europe and other outposts of freedom.

They will be offered some trappings of Christmas, including the opportunity to worship in their faith when their day's duty is done, their weapon cleaned and prepared for tomorrow's dangerous foray in the war zone. Military chaplains do their best, but their services will only approach the warmth of the troops' home churches.

If you're far from home at this time of year, you know that all the good wishes among your comrades are great. The inevitable thoughts of home can bring an overwhelming homesickness when you finally climb into your bunk or sleeping bag. You cannot avoid thoughts of home and hearth.

On December 24, 1968, I was assigned to the 237th Combat Engineer Battalion in Heilbronn, Germany. It was a brilliantly cool and starry night. The gasthauses had closed early and neither vehicle nor pedestrian was seen on nearby streets. Everyone was indoors for Weinachtsabend.

My discomfiture about being so far away from home was eased by my responsibility of playing the organ for both the Protestant service and midnight Roman Catholic Mass. Music was to soothe my soul that night. Between the services, I played an impromptu Christmas repertoire on the Hammond organ with me as the primary audience. They heard it in the nearby barracks.

The visiting Roman Catholic priest heard one of the songs and we agreed that it resembled a 14th century carol. When I played it again in that style at the Midnight Mass, my buddies turned to look up at me in the choir loft and grinned. They knew the name of it, "A Whiter Shade of Pale," a classic '60s rock song by the group Procol Harem. Not Georg Friedrich Handel, but it diverted the heart!

When researching my family history, I learned that my great great grandfather - Walter C. J. Wev, a private in the 16th Mississippi Regiment of Volunteers - was an accomplished trumpeter and had been detailed from the engineers to be Company C's bugler when it was sent to help defend the Confederacy in 1861.

Walter and Company C were bloodied at the first Battle of Manassas, at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, after which they were sent to winter quarters along the southern bank of the Rapidan River.

On Christmas Eve 1862, the 21-year-old Walter was convinced by his homesick comrades to play an impromptu concert of Christmas music. A federal soldier is said to have heard Walter playing and yelled across the river, asking him to get closer to the river so they also could hear. His concert lasting more than an hour was roundly applauded for bringing a touch of home in an unscheduled Christmas ceasefire.

He later fought at Gettysburg, and more than a year later was captured in the Battle of the Wilderness at nearly the same spot as his impromptu concert. After the war, he became bandmaster at Virginia Military Institute and is buried in Lexington, Va.

British writer/illustrator Bruce Bairnsfather wrote of a spontaneous ceasefire in 1915 when his company of British infantrymen exchanged tobacco and other simple gifts with German soldiers in the no man's land of the Somme during World War I.

One of my American Legion and Fort Detrick comrades is William (Bill) Kennedy, Sr., who along with his brothers, Brick (who died last year) and Bud, was reared on East Second Street in Frederick. They all were serving overseas in Christmas 1944, which must have been a particularly stressful time for Bill's mother Daisy.

Service members sent and received V-Mail, well designed letter paper, which could be folded into an envelope that reduced some of the logistical burden of handling millions of pieces of mail sent to all the theaters of war.

Bill has allowed me to share some of his military memorabilia. None is as poignant as the V-Mail Christmas greeting he sent home from his station in India. The printed message is "Christmas and New Year's Greetings from C.B.I. (China-Burma-India Theater)." It is signed simply, "Bill," and bears the censor's approval stamp.

The thin paper depicts a soldier sitting amid palm trees holding his M1 Garand rifle, his chin in his hand and the obvious thought, "Peace on Earth" beneath a brilliant star illuminating a simple church.

I'm sure many an American combat soldier, sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman, or airman, will have the same thought tomorrow night. May God bless and keep each of them safe and assure them that we have them wholly in our hearts as we celebrate the Christmas and Hanukah seasons.

Let there be peace on earth!



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