A Christmas Story

I wrote a short story for my Facebook friends that I thought you would enjoy.

Now that's an electric Christmas tree!

Christmas 1969: I arrived in Vietnam in April (IIRC) of 1969 and flew helicopter combat and resupply missions until one day in late December, the Captain came up to me.

“Mr. Vaughn?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, thinking “Now what?”

“Do you want to leave Vietnam?” he asked, looking at a piece of paper.

This sounded like one of those trick Army questions like “We’re looking for volunteers.” I hesitated.

“Your brother is coming to Vietnam and assigned to a nearby artillery unit. Under the Sullivan Act, you can opt to stay in theater or be transferred.”

I had no idea my brother was coming. We had barely spoken in years and I had forgotten about the Sullivan Act that kept siblings from fighting nearby—I had not even considered where I would go. My mind was racing…”Inter-theater? Like Hawaii?”

The Captain grinned. “Ah, no. Korea.”

“I’ll stay here,” I said. “I hate the cold. Unless there are other choices.”

He started reading off the list of alternatives: “The Philippines, (a couple of places I didn’t recognize), Thailand…”

“Thailand. I speak Thai. I went to High School there. I would love to go back.”

After I signed a few forms, I was placed on “non-combat” status and sent to another airfield close to the Cambodian border. My job would be to fly a daily “milk run” to ferry supplies and intelligence to a forward listening post in a gray area near Cambodia—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. This assignment took many weeks as the military filled out transfer paperwork and coordinated my departure. During that time, I was nearly shot down, resupplied a lost patrol who had run out of ammo (by landing on a cliff edge), and air-evaced a woman who had tried to abort her GI-sired kid.

When I finally arrived in Korat Thailand, my new base, I was told that because I had just left a combat area, I was eligible for 30 days leave.

“Swell,” I said to my new CO.

“There’s one catch,” he said. There was always a catch. “It takes eight weeks to process leave papers.”

“If I walk them through, can I go? I could be home in time for Christmas.”

He shook his head but reluctantly agreed. I took the orders and started going up the chain of command to get them approved. It didn’t take long at all. About six signatures later, I had cleared the post and at the airfield in Bangkok with my bag in hand. I had no way to tell anyone state-side that I was coming or even thinking about trying. I was excited—right up to the point when the Sergeant manning the check-in desk asked: “Let’s see your passport, sir.”

“Passport? They didn’t give us a passport when we came to Vietnam, just a pistol.”

“You’ll need a passport. It takes weeks to get one. Didn’t they tell you that back in Korat?”

“No, Sergeant. If I get a passport can I go?”

“In two hours? We board at 17:30.”

I looked at my watch: 15:30. “I’ll be there,” I said. I immediately launched myself toward the cab line outside. From some hidden recess in my brain, my long-dormant Thai came back. I pulled out a red 100 bhat note (about $5) from my wallet and flashed it at the driver. In the ’60s that and a bottle of Jim Beam could buy you a cab for the day. “Get me to the American Embassy—fast as you can,” I said in Thai. The driver smiled, nodded and we sped off. I’ve told this story many times, and I still think he drove on the sidewalk on at least one occasion. I’m not really sure because my eyes were closed at crucial times. Along the way, I began to recognize my old neighborhood, it had changed. The entire city of Bankok had changed in the last five years and the traffic was far worse. With me encouraging him to keep going, I didn’t wait for the guard at the embassy gate who chased us down the driveway. He relaxed when he saw I was in uniform and a Warrant Officer. I pushed open the door as a lady was about to lock it.

“I need a passport!” I cried. I told them my story about wanting to get home for Christmas and about the last flight and Vietnam but my chest-full of medals for valor and Vietnam service told them most of that.

“Sure. We can ask the ambassador to stay a few minutes. Where is your photo?”

“Photo? You can’t use a Polaroid or something?”

“It’s broken and no. Sorry. You’ll…”

“If I can get a picture and get back here in ten… fifteen minutes can you wait that long?”

“Well…”

“Just fifteen minutes,” I pleaded.

She nodded and smiled. I headed back out to the cab and gave him the address of a friend who owned a photo studio nearby. I have no idea how I remembered his name. We were there in a flash.

“Mr. Boghn,” the owner said—the Thais never could pronounce my name. “It’s been many years…” (in Thai)

I replied in Thai. “I need a passport picture NOW.” (Or at least that’s what I thought I said. It might have been gibberish to him, but he got the idea.)

“Mai dai,” he said, shaking his head. (which is Thai for “no way”).

“Tham DAI!” I replied. (which is Thai for “you sure as hell can.”) I pulled out another 100 bhat note.

“Dai,” he nodded (yes). He sat me down, took a quick picture with a plate camera, developed the negative, made a contact print, and I dried it out the cab window on the way back to the embassy. The guard was waiting for me and waved us past with a salute.

The staff was waiting–all of them and was surprised to see me come back so soon. “How did you…”

“Friends. Old Thai friends,” I said.

They filled in the passport, the ambassador signed it and shook my hand. “Good luck,” he said. I got back in the cab and we raced back to the airport on the far north end of the city—in rush hour. With not much time to spare, I ran up to the check-in desk with my passport in hand.

“How did you…” the Sergeant said.

“CIA,” I replied with a wink. Not another word was said.

After a very long flight to Elmendorf Air Force Base (near Anchorage Alaska) as a layover, I dashed to the nearest phone and called my mom. I didn’t tell her about how we nearly belly-landed because the gear wouldn’t go down. I asked her to get my new wife Marilyn to meet her at the airport in Kansas City on some pretext. She was thrilled to help. I did have to convince her I had not deserted. 

Marilyn and I had been married while I was still in flight school (think Officer and a Gentleman)—in June of 1968. By this time, I had been apart from her longer than we had been married. Her new mother-in-law had just asked her to leave school in Emporia, Kansas and drive three hours in late December to “have coffee” with her at the Kansas City airport as she passed through. She thought my mother was nuts. I have no idea why she did what she was asked. She arrived a bit ahead of schedule and waited for the plane to unload. 

I spotted her shivering in the cold by the door as the passengers filed off. She was looking for my mom so she didn’t recognize me as I walked right by her. I came up behind her and asked if she was waiting for someone. She turned and broke into tears.

“But how? Did you desert? Are you…”

“Isn’t it enough that I’m here?”

It was, and it was a lovely Christmas. One I will not soon forget.

In airports all over the country, servicemen and women are fighting their way back home for Christmas. Let’s not forget them, and the ones we’ve left to fight our battles in far-off lands.

Merry Christmas.

Bill — CW2 7/17 Air Cavalry 1969 II Corps Vietnam

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