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Monday, October 24, 2016

A Soldiers Christmas Memory

A Soldier's Christmas Memory
It was the evening before Christmas Eve, and I padded along in my boots headed for the snack bar where I hoped to have coffee and conversation with my army buddies.
New fallen Snow covered the streets of Blakeman Caserne near Frankfurt, Germany and brushed with angel hair even the rows of battle tanks lined up like toys on the barbed wire enclosed concrete field that determined the northern boundary of the U. S. Army post. I noticed that the fir trees surrounding the small pond that was the heart of the Caserne were filled with drifts of white snow, almost but certainly not quite making even an army post into a magical place for Christmas.
Actually, the multi-storied, stone barracks and service buildings taken over by the U.S. Army's Third Armored Division after World War II still had a little of that look of a medieval fortress as it row after row of buildings marched up the hill. Were it not for the uniformed servicemen and soldiers on guard duty walking around, a visitor might have felt that he/she had truly returned to the Olde Country for the Holidays.
This was my third Christmas in Germany, and God willing, it would surely be my last. I was tired of the military life with all my decisions being made for me, had only contempt for the military pecking order with its artificialities of respect and classification, and had rather unsuccessfully not managed to sublimate my desires sexual or otherwise into a bottle.
However, there was an almost sacred comradeship that developed among soldiers, and even at twenty, I realized that I would probably not know such friendships again in my life.
I had also learned to love the beautiful land of Goethe and Schilling even while casting a cold eye on times past while visiting Zeppelin Field in Nurnberg where the ghosts of millions continued to scream.
While on maneuvers, gazing at the village lights tucked like jewels into the foothills of the Wildflecken or falling asleep beside pools streaming starlight in the Schwarzenwald near Stuttgart, I felt as if I lived in some labyrinth of magic and mystery. In my soldier's loneliness, I awaited only a sweet, flaxen-haired Ariadne, whose eyes would hold me fast in their blue depths until locked in dreamy armor, we at last followed her silvery threads through those misty corridors to what. . .something more wondrous and finer than hard steel and a landscape of olive drab.
Walking along lost in thought, I suddenly felt a tremendous slap on my back that hurt just a little also. I stumbled a little and turned to look around for Father Brewer, the only person I knew who would dare deliver such a blow to a young GI, a "trained killer." Indeed, I thought I saw his slight figure up a head, hunched down into his overcoat against the damp chill of the German night. I thought I could make out that deep chuckle of his in the distance also.
I suppose that I should explain that Father Brewer was noted for giving these great Zen-like "whacks" on the back. You would be wandering around the post lost in your own thoughts when suddenly you would feel one of these powerful slaps. I mean, I am not talking some little friendly tap on the shoulder. No, I am talking big, powerful soul-rattling whacks that totally filled your consciousness for a second or two. You could not deny such an experience.
"Just wanted to be sure you were ok!" he said to me one time. Having through some wonderful but mysterious agency been the recipient of several of these "whacks," I had noted that usually he just smiled at you while holding your eyes with his crisp, blue ones.
The effect of Father Brewer's engaging rather "Zen-like" whacks should not be underestimated. To this day I remember that deep look, that sense of compassion and, feeling as he had shared some deep, unfathomable mystery of God with me.
I looked up, caught a deep breath of starlight, and started hurrying to catch up with Father Brewer. Once or twice we had shared coffee and some pleasant small talk. Suddenly I wanted that cup of coffee more than anything in the world, more even than getting out of the Army or sharing a real Christmas with a real girlfriend.
I went into the PX and then entered the snack bar. I looked around for the Father. I even asked a friend who was sipping coffee with a group of other soldiers at a table near the entrance to the snack bar, if they had seen the Father enter. No one seemed to have seen him that evening though.
I did not learn the truth until the formation the next day.
Standing stiffly at attention with several dozen other headquarter's personnel, various clerks, medics (such as I), cooks and signal personnel, I listened to Captain Aves, the company commander say
"Many of you knew Father Robert Brewer. You also know that he was recently transferred to Vietnam. Be it known that he died yesterday while leading services in a small village near Saigon. I do not know any other details.
"Remember, men, though I want you to enjoy the holidays, we must always we remember that we are soldiers first. Always be prepared to be called back to base if necessary.
Youth is such a time of black and white, right and wrong. Everything is such high drama; even real tragedy so often becomes a mere melodrama. I remember sitting with a beer in the room in the barracks that we medics shared. I stared through the window engaging the darkness, pondering the meaning of life and death until Taps was finally played, ending my attempts at playing roles of great sadness and profundity.
Of course, I will never wonder who actually gave me such a bone-rattling whack on the back on that evening near Christmas at the height of the Vietnam War; I know and do not really care if you believe me or not. I actually seldom saw Father Brewer as I was not Catholic and did not know that he had so recently transferred to take up a chaplain's post in Vietnam.
Looking out that window into the ensuing darkness, I gaze from that selfsame window even now, as dusted with age and grave beyond stars, I write these words.
I did get out of the Army, though I stayed in Europe for a while, eventually winding my way back home to finish college and marry and proceed down some more of life's seemingly endless byways.
It was there in Germany though that I began to see that there is a true self that is at once all beauty and heart and intelligence. You cannot hold it even as you cannot hold the wind or spread the stars, hold onto your youth or hold your true love without trembling.
You will know it one day when you open a door and are suddenly engulfed by a yellow morning. You will know it when the fire you are making springs to life or as you watch each ember die. You can come to know it with every breath you take. You will know it when you reach with care for someone. You will know it when you are aware of the movement of life and death within yourself.
I first knew it when a certain priest came up behind me and whacked me on the back so hard it jarred my self awake.
Editor's Note:Though this story is quite autobiographical, I consider it a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. There are many barracks in Germany called Casernes (also Kasernes), but "Blakeman Caserne" is fictionalized though modeled after a real caserne.
Copyright 2002, Thomas James Martin, all rights reserved.

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