I wrote the following embedded poem 30 years ago, although by then it was already 20 years in the making. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that Christmas in Vietnam, 1968, and, unfortunately, little has changed except the decades.

Fifty years ago in Vietnam

Was a long, long time ago

Where Christmas cards and photographs

Were all that we could show.

Fifty years from Vietnam’s

Been a long, long row to hoe!

The war was not a cliché like the line above, but the years since might be as the row keeps getting longer.

Of Christmases past, there are only two that generally come to my mind: one was when I was 7 years old and Santa came early in the evening on Christmas Eve, maybe 6:30 or 7 o’clock. I realize now that it was the opportune time because Dad had closed the bar downstairs back when all small-town taverns closed on Christmas Eve. I was 19 for the other one, and it is most memorable because, like everybody else, I was just trying to stay out of the line of fire.

It was back in 1968

Just outside Da Nang

With long hot days, and longer nights,

When Puff, the dragon, sang.

Fifty years ago in Vietnam

And how those mortars rang!

Puff is, or was, an anomaly of the war somewhere between a surreal oriental dragon; a Peter, Paul and Mary song that snuck into our hearts like the drifting smoke of cannabis; and a genuine red-eyed monster of the battlefield. In truth, it was an old AC-47 twin-engine airplane with three mechanized Gatling guns that each shot 6,000 rounds per minute. At 18,000 rounds per minute it was said that it could put a bullet in every square foot of a football field in 60 seconds. Mathematics, however, says it would take an additional 45 seconds. I only tell you this near Christmas because there was no other choir to be heard when Puff was singing, and when it stopped the silence could be deafening!

Our main camp was southeast of Da Nang situated on a high sandbank between the South China Sea at our back and a broad river delta pocked with rice paddies in front of us.

Sand-bag bunkers up above

With rice paddies down below;

Through concertina and claymore mines,

‘Twas a long, long time ago.

Fifty years from Vietnam

And some still can’t let go!

Most of us in the Midwest know what barbed wire is from growing up on or around farms. And most of us have seen the coils of its celebrated cousin, concertina wire, fanned out on the war-torn beaches of World War II films or the recently enhanced border wall in Texas and Arizona. On the other hand, we know much less about claymore mines, the hand grenade’s big bother, but that is only good as I see it.

It’s 50 years this Christmas time

That we stood at war’s front door

With Jim and Keith and all those guys

Who’ll never know what for.

Fifty years since Vietnam —

It was a long, long time ago;

Fifty years from Vietnam

And I remember Christmas so.

Thus it is another complicated Christmas with a wall full of names and empty spaces in a multitude of places. We were there although we wished we were here and I only share it again because the wishes were so big and the reality so small. And now, 50 years later, try as we may, it is still a Christmas that won’t fade away!