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Christmas I Remember Best: Raising a star on a truly silent night

Randall P. Jensen

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 10:51 p.m. MST

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Editor's note: This is the fourth of six winners in The Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best." See the first winner here, the second winner here, the third winner here, the fifth winner here and the sixth winner here.

The double-thump firing of two 105mm howitzers woke me from a shallow sleep. I rolled onto my back and slowly opened my eyes. Just inches from my face was the flat, hard rock of the cave I had chosen for my sleep. The "cave" was actually a crevice formed by two large rocks that had slammed together ages ago. The top part of the rocks formed a tight seam, but the angle of the boulders made a separation below, and it was in that space I had wedged my cot. It was just wide enough for it to fit snugly but at just a hint of an angle.

It wasn't really a good sleeping setup, but it was far better than the mud. Of course, when it rained, the crevice became a mini waterfall and I had to scurry for dry cover. But last night it had not rained, so I had slept after a fashion. I turned over and put my hands under my chin and looked down onto the valley so very far below. It was going to be a clear day.

The sun, rising up from the South China Sea was quickly burning off the night clouds and fog. The sun was already high enough that it was reflecting off the water-filled paddies. It would be a copy of the previous day and the day before. The sun would reflect from the paddies and gradually fill the day with the silver-blue heat of the sky.

Since the cave was so tight, I couldn't really sit up in the cot, so the only way out was to slither up the cot until I toppled over and rolled out. I stood and stretched. Just then, all four of the howitzers thumped and launched four shells toward some target out in Arizona territory. Seconds later, the sound was repeated, and this happened once more. It was a battery three, which meant that each gun was firing three high explosive rounds for this fire mission.

I checked my watch; it was 0935. The cease-fire wouldn't begin for about eight more hours. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to hear the silence of Christmas Eve. The day went like most others. My watch in the Fire Direction Center was scheduled to be from 1000 until about 1800 hours. During the watch, there were the normal interdiction fire missions and actually one contact fire mission where Bravo Company had run into some kind of ambush. This mission kept us busy plotting the coordinates, and before it was over, we had fired more than 30 rounds. Toward late afternoon, the Marines in the fire fight had been extracted and the dead and injured evacuated to somewhere in the Danang area. The sun continued the slow arc to the horizon as the time approached 1800 hours. Marines began to look and act differently. Perhaps it was something in their faces.

The lines began to soften, and a slight upturn of their mouths almost suggested a smile. I could feel it also, a gradual easing of some great tensioning weight. Then there was the sound. Hard to nail down at first, but then unmistakable — the sound of silence.

I walked out of the bunker to the edge of the mountain and looked north, out over the great free-fire zone of Arizona territory and much further, to the hint of lights from Danang. For the first time in seven months since arriving in Vietnam, I looked into the gathering darkness and there were no flashes, no explosive thumps and no tracers arching and ricocheting into the sky. There were no flares or jets swooping in on some target to drop the roiling napalm or high explosives. There was just, nothing.

Perhaps for the first time, I listened to the evening insects and felt the gentle evening breeze. And above all, I could see a billion stars that flashed an eternal light that made no connection to the wars of Earth. In the gathering night, I could see the dim figures of Marines, sitting down, stretching out and for the first time in so very long, seeing and hearing. I joined them and sat on a rock and stretched so my back rested on a ledge. It felt good and comfortable and strangely right. It was going to be a silent night, and I wanted to embrace every minute and second as a precious gift.

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