Editor's Note: This piece is part of "12 Days of Classics," a holiday series drawn from the magazine's archives and published at magazine.nd.edu from Saturday, December 22, 2018, to Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Merry Christmas!
A journey that began on the other side of the world ended in the jungle on Christmas Eve. Upon entering at dusk, we were surprised to hear Bing Crosby’s voice singing “Silent Night.” The record player looked out of place there on the ammunition box in front of the tent.
We had endured. Three days by train from Kansas to California. Two weeks of waiting at the port of embarkation. Thirty days by ship to Bombay. Eight by train across India to Assam. Three down the Ledo Road by truck. And now this clearing on the Irrawaddy River, near Myitkyina, in Northern Burma.
I entered the tent and handed my orders to a disheveled Major who reeked of bourbon. He squinted at the mimeographed sheet, held it nearer the candle, and read it with moving lips. His face went a little off-center while he paused, as though trying to decide how best to say it.
“Lieutenant, we don’t really need you.”
Christmas Eve. On the other side of the world. And they don’t need me!
“We don’t use mule trains anymore. We air drop. Fly in low, and kick the stuff out by parachute.”
Four months earlier at Fort Benning, Ga., I was writing training manuals at the infantry school. A notice on the bulletin board asked for volunteers to organize Animal Pack Transportation Units. Mule trains.
Mules were needed to carry supplies across mountains and through jungles in northern Burma where Merrill’s Marauders fought the Japanese. The Marauders, all volunteers, made it possible for the Ledo Road to be built from India to China.
The Army accepted my willingness to study the mystery of mules. Maybe because I had grown up on a farm in Kentucky. Anyway, I spent four weeks at the cavalry school at Fort Riley, Kans., along with cowboys, horse trainers, polo players, ranchers and jockeys.
We learned to throw single diamond, double diamond and squaw hitches. We studied shoeing, spavins and saddle sores. Matters that are not normal concerns of the day. And now suddenly all had become impedimenta. We are not needed.
As I left the Major’s tent, “Silent Night” played on. Earlier I hadn’t noticed the crack in the record: thomp. . .thomp. . .thomp. . .thomp. . .thomp.
Across the clearing, inside a pyramidal tent, four officers sat on cots, forming a circle around a candle enshrined atop a carton of C rations. In joining them I threw my musette bag onto the last empty bed.
A bull elephant trumpeted across the Irrawaddy. This encouraged talk about elephants and tigers and cobras and other jungle beasts.
“Hear about the tiger in Shing? GI sleepin’ in a bamboo basha. A tiger cuts through the wall with one swoop. Another swoop scalps the guy. But he comes out all right. Grabs his automatic, crouches in a corner and empties the whole clip.”
Since it was Christmas Eve, the five of us from across the world just had to speak of Christmases past. The pressure was too great to hold back memories.
My contribution was slight.
I told of the night Santa Claus came to our farm in Buechel, Ky. My cousin’s boyfriend, a tall, skinny fellow padded with pillows, made his entrance coughing and sneezing.
“Santa, how did you catch cold?”
“Slept in the lumber yard last night. Somebody left the gate open.”
When the candle sputtered out I was unable to sleep and kept thinking of how Christmas in childhood was especially transcendent. How a walk through the woods on Christmas morning brought a restrained joy that walking those same paths the next day would not bring. Even the horses in their shaggy winter coats had a special alertness on that day, a rightful pride.
Since our family had gone to Mass well before dawn, everyone was ready for bed early Christmas night. Except me. I would sit alone by the fireplace until midnight. In the big square room the only movement was the firelight glinting on ornaments and flickering across the tall ceiling.
I neither read nor prayed, just sat there keeping watch over hours magnificent and benign. I was relishing every minute of the holy day, not wanting to let go of a feeling that would not return for another year.
I recalled all of that last Christmas when a Carmelite nun said: “Contemplative prayer is natural to everyone. It’s looking at things with wonder and joy. A child is a natural contemplative. Too many of us lose that as we grow older.”
Christmas morning of 1944 dawned with the clatter of mess gear. We stood in line waiting for tangerines, coffee, creamed chipped beef and toast. A good breakfast considering we were dangling “out at the end of the thinnest supply line of all.” That’s how General Marshall described it.
As we cleaned our mess kits in a drum of hot water, the Major lurched from his tent in sad disarray. After a few disjointed announcements he said, “In an hour. . .Roman Catholic Mass. . .up that trail a piece.”
Up that trail I found Father James Stuart, a Columban missionary. With the compactness and quickness of a gymnast he moved about arranging a portable altar in a clearing surrounded by tall elephant grass. A dashing figure he was in paratrooper boots, GI suntans, a neckerchief of yellow parachute cloth and an Australian Army hat with the wide brim swept up rakishly at one side.
The young priest’s adventures were already legends. He and his Kachin parishioners knew all the hidden trails from the Naga Hills to the China border. They specialized working in enemy territory, rescuing American pilots shot down while flying the Hump.
During the reading of the gospel, a shift in the breeze brought the sickly sweet smell of shallow graves. The incense after battle. Those men had died for a place they could neither spell nor pronounce. Myitkyina.
Thirty years later that Christmas Mass, hemmed in by elephant grass, came surging back in memory when I stood beside Father Stuart’s grave at Navan in Ireland. Had the circumstances been reversed he might have said in his soft, lilting way, “Ah, yes, he is dead and gone to his people, gone where the comfort is.”
The Society of Saint Columba entered my consciousness for the first time that Christmas morning. You might even say that there was a hint of the Columbans in the air the night before, because Crosby had recorded “Silent Night” as a favor for a Columban missionary.
As Father Stuart told it, Father Richard Ranaghan returned from Hangyang in the mid-thirties with some film footage showing missionaries at work in China. When he stopped at Paramount Studios to have a sound track added, Crosby sang “Silent Night” over a Christmas sequence. Up until then Bing had always felt “sacred songs were a little out of my league.” The recording became one of the best sellers of all time.
I have often observed, along with the ancients, that coming events really do cast their shadows before them. At Christmas of 1944 I had not lived long enough to realize that a motif is sounded well in advance of its introduction and main theme. By the time I stood at Father Stuart’s grave in 1974, the Columban motif in my life had developed to the point that I was writing a trilogy telling of the missionaries’ work in Korea, the Philippines and Burma.
On the trail after Mass I tried to estimate what time it was back home: still Christmas Eve. About mid-evening. Mary still in Rensselaer? Or in South Bend? I could not place her in any setting.
Back in camp I put a helmet of hot water in a jeep, looked into the mirror and began lathering my face. The Major floated up, surrounded by a miasma of sour mash. “I’ll have an assignment for you, Lieutenant.” He floated away, bobbing like a toy balloon on a summer morning.
That was better than the word he had for me on Christmas Eve. Yet it would have been nice to have known on Christmas morning that soon I would conduct 57 war correspondents on the first convoy across the Ledo-Burma Road, form India across Burma and on up into China. After that, travel in India, Burma and Ceylon as a military historian. Assignments that required scant training as a mule skinner.
The Major suddenly returned. “I forgot. Here’s something for you. Merry Christmas!” He held out a packet.
Fourteen letters from Mary!
My first impulse was to rip them open. Devour them. I forced myself to walk over to a banyan tree and sit down. While gripping the packet in both hands, I decided to hold a vigil. Just as in childhood. Be aware of the wonder of the day, minute by minute. Fourteen magnificent hours left! One letter for each hour.
The author of 15 books, Ed Fischer taught courses in writing, film and design at Notre Dame from 1946 to 1976.