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December 25, 2010

When You Can’t Come Home for Christmas: Nelson DeMille on The Once and Future King

Posted by Anonymous
NelsonDeMille.jpgNelson DeMille is a decorated Vietnam veteran and the critically acclaimed author of 16 action/adventure novels and spine-tingling thrillers, including THE LION, the long-awaited sequel to THE LION’S GAME that hit stores this summer. On this Christmas Day, Nelson reflects on the year he had to spend the holidays in the scorching jungles of Bong Son --- and remembers the books that helped alleviate the hardships of a Vietnam Christmas.
I grew up on Long Island, New York, a nice setting for a traditional northern latitude Christmas: brisk weather, sometimes snow, lots of pine trees and even chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The houses in the suburban towns were outlined in colored lights, the stores sported holiday decorations, and every church had a crèche out front.
Inside the DeMille house, the halls, and other rooms, were decked with holly. We cooked and baked, we decorated the tree, wrapped presents, wrote Christmas cards, and we shopped a lot. Anyone over the age of about 16 who stopped by got a highball or a spiked egg nog. It was the 1950s, and all was right with the world.
In 1966, after three years of college, I joined the army and was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, but I was lucky enough to get a Christmas leave to come home. The war in Asia was heating up, and there were a number of friends and relatives who were also home on leave, and the older of my three younger brothers was about to be drafted. Things were changing.
A night or two before Christmas, my mother said to me, “I remember when your father came home after the war ended.”
I nodded and said, “I remember it, too.”
She smiled and reminded me, “You were only two and a half.”
I insisted, “I remember when he came home.” And I did. We were living in a small apartment in Queens, a borough of New York City. I was an only child at that time, and my father was in the Navy, and I had no memory of him, though my mother would often point to a framed photograph of a man in uniform and say, “That’s your father.” She’d sometimes add, “He’s coming home soon.” But she didn’t always say that, so sometimes I’d say it. “He’s coming home soon,” though I didn’t know what soon meant.
Then, in what would have been the fall of 1945, the men started returning. My mother’s two brothers, Uncle Pat and Uncle Joe, would come by the apartment, still in uniform. Sometimes I would go to my grandmother’s house a few blocks away, or to neighbors’ houses and apartments to see the men who had come home. But none of these men looked like the man in the photograph.
Apparently the war was over, though I wasn’t entirely sure of what that meant. But everyone seemed happy about it.
And then one day, sometime in December, my father came home. I don’t remember the knock on the door, but I do remember my mother running to the door and opening it. And there stood a man in a Navy uniform. I’d never met this man, but I knew who he was. My mother started to cry, so I cried, too.
I also remember that Christmas in 1945, and I’m sure it was the happiest Christmas in America since World War One ended. The uniforms, which I had taken as normal, were gone, and I recall everyone talking about how much food was now in the stores. We had a big Christmas ham and trays of pastry from the Italian bakery, and everyone was happy that the sugar rationing had ended. 
More importantly, the toy rationing and the wrapping paper rationing had ended, and there was a pile of wrapped presents for me under the tree, including Dr. Seuss’s AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET, which I still have, and which I’ve read to my three children.
By the early 1950s, we’d moved to a suburban Long Island neighborhood, and the memories of the old neighborhood and of the families who had lived there were dimming.
It’s now 1967, and it’s my turn. I’m in a place called Bong Son, Republic of Vietnam, and I’m an army lieutenant, leading a 40-man infantry platoon. This is my first Christmas away from home, and I’m sad and scared. I have almost a year left in this place, and I’m fairly certain I’m not getting home for next Christmas. I had a vision of my parents and my three younger brothers gathered around the Christmas tree.
On Christmas Eve, the entire company, about 150 men, gathered in an area called the White Sands, a sweltering expanse of scrub trees and mosquitoes. Not the worst place I’d been in, but not a great setting for Christmas Eve.
Dinner was C-rations, though there was a promise of a Christmas meal the next day. The enemy had agreed to a 24-hour truce, starting at midnight, so we weren’t entirely relaxed until then. But it was a nice clear night and you could see every star, and a pale crescent moon rose in the east. All is calm, all is bright.
We talked, mostly about home, and Christmases past, and I mentioned Christmas 1945. A few of the guys around my age also had some dim memory of that Christmas, when the world was at peace and 12 million heroes had returned home.
Midnight came, and we relaxed a little and experienced the Divine Miracle of the contraband liquor bottles, which appeared from a few dozen backpacks. We passed the bottles and got mellow, and even sang a few Christmas carols, ending with “Silent Night.” A lot of guys, battle-hardened soldiers who seemed to have lost the ability to show emotion, got choked up.
Christmas morning was clear, hot and humid, and I had a craving for sub-freezing weather and a breakfast of ham and eggs, but settled for a can of beans and franks.
We were still standing down, so we didn’t have to patrol and go looking for trouble. This was the best gift: a day we knew we’d live through. Spirits were high, but beneath the surface there was a subdued mood, and everyone, I was sure, was thinking of past Christmas mornings in better times and places.
Later in the morning, the battalion chaplain, who was making his rounds by helicopter, arrived in battle fatigues. He was a black guy, an Episcopalian, and well liked by everyone. Indeed, there are no atheists in foxholes, and everyone gathered in an open clearing, an uncommon occurrence in hostile territory, but the truce seemed to be holding.
The chaplain wished us all a Merry Christmas, then began the service, reading from the Gospel of Luke, “And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings, of great joy…”
The chaplain flew off in the helicopter, and about an hour later, another helicopter arrived, this one carrying Santa Claus, and everyone cheered and laughed.
Santa was sweating beneath his heavy red outfit and white beard, and he had a Colt .45 strapped around his waist. He also had a few dozen mail bags that the battalion mail office had been holding for awhile to be delivered on Christmas Day, so there was a lot to distribute.
Santa called out names, and letters and parcels were passed along to the 150 assembled men. Santa called out the name of a man who’d been killed a few days before, and there was a silence, then the man’s sergeant said, “Killed in action.”
After the last mail bag was emptied, and Santa had flown off, we all wandered back to our dug-in positions to open mail and packages.
I had a few dozen letters and Christmas cards, mostly from friends and family, but also cards from strangers, people who, through various organizations, took the time to write to the men and women serving overseas, telling us that we were in their thoughts and prayers this Christmas. Very nice.
I left the packages unopened and read the cards and letters from home.
About midday, another helicopter arrived, this one carrying the promised Christmas meal, which consisted of thermal containers filled with turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. I’ve had better Christmas dinners, but it was the mess sergeant’s thought that counted.
I opened a few of the packages, which were mostly food, but one of them was a book from my father.
It was THE SWORD IN THE STONE, the first book of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, the story of King Arthur, beginning with his boyhood.
White is sometimes funny, often scholarly, always erudite, and a great storyteller. The four volumes of The Once and Future King had been on our bookshelves, and I’d started this one on my leave before shipping out. I think I’d left it in my room, with a bookmark where I’d stopped reading, and here it was now with a note from my father that said, “I don’t think you finished this. Let me know when you want the other three books.”

The subtext, I guess, was that I should plan to be around to read the entire four volumes.
So, I found where I’d left off and continued THE SWORD IN THE STONE, sitting there in the hot sand on Christmas Day, far from home and far in time and place from medieval England.
But great books, of course, have the ability to transport you to other worlds and times, and to make life, which is sometimes difficult, a little more pleasant. In fact, a book can blot out reality, and this book, a fantasy, was perfect for that. I was in Vietnam, but my head was in King Arthur’s England.
Even in a war zone there’s time to read, and by the end of January I’d finished THE SWORD IN THE STONE, sent it home, and received book two, THE WITCH IN THE WOOD. By June or July, I’d finished THE ILL-MADE KNIGHT and THE CANDLE IN THE WIND, which completed the quartet of The Once and Future King. White published a fifth volume posthumously, in 1977, titled MERLYN, and when I read it, I was reminded of where I’d read the other four books 10 years before, and I was happy I was reading MERLYN in my easy chair.
Suggestion: this Christmas, send some books to our men and women serving overseas. It shows you’re thinking of them, but more importantly, a good book is a magic carpet to places nicer than a combat zone.
Photo Credit: Sandy DeMille
To learn more about Nelson DeMille’s fascinating life and all of his critically acclaimed novels, visit Happy Holidays and be sure to check in with us again tomorrow, as Linda Francis Lee reveals why she’ll always remember the day after Christmas.