319th Station Hospital, Bussac, France 1957
My first Christmas away from home came within five months of my arrival overseas at a US Army duty station where I would spend the next two years.
Arriving there culminated a disruptive series of events. Following schooling in New York, I had served a brief stint at the Pentagon, and six months at Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia. I’d gone home on a pass to spend Christmas with my family in 1956.
Then came the deployment overseas to the 319th Station Hospital in mid-summer. It was culture shock from day one. Our flight across the Atlantic on a Flying Tiger aircraft included some serious engine problems at 20,000 feet. My buddies and I had hardly breathed a sigh of relief at our safe landing, when we were herded onto a crowded French train. At the end of a long ride from Paris to Bordeaux I was ready to get settled at an up-to-date army post, hopefully someplace like Vint Hill Farms. It was not to be.
In Bordeaux I was shuffled with another guy into the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck for a 35-mile ride to Bussac in the middle of the night. I was dropped off on a rough-surfaced street with board sidewalks. I reported to the CQ in a tarpaper shack that was company headquarters. Then I was assigned a bunk in a plaster and straw building that had been a German Luftwaffe barracks during WWII. That night the two years remaining in my enlistment seemed like an eternity.
I’d hardly gotten adjusted to the new setting and routines when the first sergeant reminded everyone that if we wanted to send Christmas cards and gifts home, we had to have them crated and ready in early October! I’d never thought about Christmas in October! It seemed the holiday that had always been a warm fuzzy family time back home would become a dismal sulk in rainy southern France.
This was in the days before smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, and the internet. People didn’t connect with the flip of a digit. Arrangements were made for a special transatlantic telephone call from somewhere on post–but a lot of guys signed up, and if we got through at all, it was only for a few brief moments. It was depressing.
So, when Christmas finally arrived, I discovered a tradition in our unit that transformed my expectations. It became a joyful experience. Our unit hosted a group of boys from a nearby Catholic orphanage for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, carols, and gifts. Everybody got into the act. It turned out these kids were part of a boys choir. After we took them back to the orphanage, we stayed for a stirring concert of Christmas music.
Joyeux Noel–Merry Christmas!
We gave those boys something that seemed small to us, but was tremendous for them. The experience shook me out of my self-focused musings into a larger sense of where I was and the opportunities I had to help make life better for others…even overseas. We did this each of the two Christmases I was in Bussac, and each was a very special time I have always remembered.
Joyeux Noel! Christmas is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s about God reaching into a flawed human world with an ever-fresh message that His love prevails. Christmas gives fresh birth to hope, joy, peace and the higher stirrings of the human spirit. It pulls us together, reaffirms the value of our lives, and offers an inner reconnect with God himself.
We do wrap the holiday in other traditions, and its easy to get side-tracked with the wrappings, and miss the central event. We can all get lost in that side of Christmas. When I feel that happening, I remember a group of orphaned French boys who were thrilled with a Christmas treat offered by some American soldiers…and then thrilled us with the true Joy of the season through their music.