Christmas holiday memories from the Army years

D E Larsen DVM

“Company D, Private Drake speaking. Can I help you?” Bill answered the phone on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1965.

He and I were pulling CQ (charge of quarters) duty for Company D, a duty company for troops waiting for school at Fort Devens, Mass.

We were a couple of lucky ones: permanent CQs. We were given private squad rooms in the old World War II barracks that housed an overload of troops in the considerable buildup of Vietnam forces. We worked in 24-hour shifts, with 48 hours off.

“Yes, I know a couple of guys who would be interested,” Bill said into the phone.

“What are you getting us into now?” I asked. I was not expecting an answer, but Bill was always quick to volunteer my services.

“We can meet you at Battalion Headquarters by 8:15,” Bill continued. “We don’t get relieved until 8, but we should be able to make that schedule.”

Bill hung up the phone and looked at me, a big smile on his face.

“We have a Christmas dinner to go to tomorrow,” he said. “We have to be in Class A uniforms and meet the Battalion CQ at Headquarters by 8:15.”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Does it matter? It is going to be better than eating Christmas dinner at the mess hall and sleeping for most of the day.”

Bill and I took turns going to the barracks, showering and changing into our Class A uniforms at 6 a.m. When we were relieved by the next CQ crew, we walked through the half-dozen blocks to battalion headquarters in the snow.

I imagined that we looked somewhat like Mutt and Jeff.

Bill was 6-foot-4, with a heavy black shadow on his face even though he’d shaved a couple of hours before. I was trying to match his stride, and I had to stretch to measure 5-foot-8.

The Battalion CQ was a Specialist four who had been in the Army for several years. He was waiting at the doorstep and fell in with us.

“We meet them at the main gate in 15 minutes,” Stan said.

Bill and I were mismatched height-wise, but we were both in good shape and trim. Stan was taller than me and somewhat well-rounded.

“The main gate is over a mile,” Bill said as he lengthened his stride. I was used to matching his long stride. Stan sort of looked like a young kid who had to take four steps and then run four more to keep pace.

By the time we reached the main gate, the snow was probably close to 4 inches deep. Mr. Terhune was waiting across the street in his VW van with a couple of preteen boys. Getting into the warm van was a welcome relief.

We drove to their house in Groton, some four miles distant. The Terhunes had four kids. Their daughter, a high-school freshman, was the oldest, followed by three younger boys. We had dinner, which Bill jumped right into the kitchen to help prepare. Then we spent the afternoon and evening telling stories and enjoying the company.

Having just pulled 24 hours of duty, a full day of eating and storytelling, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow that night. But it was a Christmas to remember, and the Terhunes remained friends and a place to escape to for the entire year we were at Devens.

Christmas in Korea was a different event, but just as memorable.

I arrived in Korea in the middle of September 1966, and I was well-adjusted by Christmas. I was stationed south of Seoul with the 177th USASA Company. I spent a lot of my free time at the orphanage we supported in An Song.

A group of us spent Christmas Eve there. Following dinner, the group of primary school kids continued my lessons in Korean. The little girls were very serious about this instruction. They would frown when the boys became hysterical over my pronunciation of even the simplest words.

We did a Santa for the kids with toys purchased by the guys at the 177th. The kids all went to midnight Mass, so it was late when they went to bed. 

On Christmas morning, we loaded everyone up and took them to Camp Humphreys for Christmas dinner with the entire company. Before dinner, the staff and older kids had opportunities to take showers in the barracks.

That was probably the best present we could give them. Then dinner in the mess hall and entertainment in the NCO club. All the kids were well worn out when we loaded them onto the trucks for the trip home.

The next morning the young kids were hanging all over me. It was apparent they didn’t want us to go. The staff was still in a state of euphoria from their day at the company compound. But we loaded up in the trucks for the drive back to the company.

I opened the window and shouted goodbye to the kids in Korean.

“Annyeong,” I yelled. The boys almost rolled on the ground, but the girls laughed and waved.

 The drive back to base seemed longer than usual as we rolled down a dusty dirt road lined with dry rice paddies. My mind did drift back home with only a twinge of homesickness.

My experience in Germany was different still. I arrived in the middle of December 1967. Even though I had friends from Fort Devens there, I really had no time to settle into an off-duty routine before Christmas.

My first Christmas in Germany was spent on the base at Rothwesten. Christmas dinner at the mess hall was well-done and accompanied by some German carolers. I spent the evening at the NCO club, again filled with entertainment. It was less than ideal, but a pretty good day.

Christmas in 1968 found me in Schöningen, a small village on the East German border. I was stationed at Wobeck, a significant border electronic listening post. About 70 of us were there. Christmas here was super. The town went all out on decorations and festivities, with a Christmas spirit everywhere. 

We had a major Christmas Eve party at our “Swing Club” in the Banhof Hotel. The club was not supposed to make a profit, so it had to give away a lot of booze to make sure the books came out even for the year.

Needless to say, there were a few drunk GIs.

A couple of us were invited to Christmas dinner at Howey and Holley’s house. Wives were a recent addition at Schöningen. Until recently, only men without dependents were stationed there.

Holley was the best cook I had seen since my mother. Howey was very drunk at the end of the party, and we had to help Holley get him into the car.

They lived in Wolsdorf, a small village a few miles out of Schöningen. They had an upstairs apartment in a new house, still under construction. It was built on a hillside, and there were three stories with a high porch to the entry on the middle level. The steps and porch were new and not completely finished. There was no railing on either the steps or porch.

When we arrived at 1 p.m. for dinner, Holley was slow to answer the door, and she looked like she was running on empty.

“Are you OK,” I asked? “You look like you have been cooking all night.

“I feel like it. We had quite a time at the party last night,” Holley said. “And my night was just starting when we left.”

“You know, we can find a place to eat in town,” I said. “You don’t have to wear yourself out to feed us.”

“I should have had you guys help me get Howey home last night,” Holley said. “Let me tell you the story.

“When we got to the house, it was not too hard for me to get him out of the car. And I sort of kept him against the wall as we struggled up the steps to the porch. We made it up here with no problem. I stood Howey up on the porch, then I turned around and unlocked the front door.

When I turned back around, he was gone. There he was, 10 feet below, spread-eagled in the snow and mud.”

“Is he OK?” Kurt asked. “That is a long way to fall.”

“He was too drunk to get hurt,” she replied. “But that was just the start of it. I had to get him up out of the snow and mud, back up the stairs and then up the stairs to the apartment.”

“It looks like you made it,” I said. 

“Yes, I made it, but there was a trail of snow and mud all the way. There was mud on the wall going up the stairs. You know how the Germans are. They would kick us out of here for such a mess.

“So there I am, in the middle of the night, mopping the porch and washing the wall. It seemed like I no more than finished and it was time to get the turkey into the oven. It was certainly a Christmas Eve that I won’t forget in a long time.”

About this time, Howey made his entrance from the bedroom. He was fresh out of the shower but still feeling the effects of the party. We greeted him, but Holley didn’t have much to say to him.

The dinner was excellent, as was expected from a cook like Holley. But with her shooting visual darts at Howey through dinner, there was more than a bit of chill in the air. 

Kurt and I made a pretty quick exit following dinner.

– David Larsen is a retired veterinarian who practiced 40 years in Sweet Home. More of his stories are available on his blog at