Christmas tree Norvell

When John Norvell was stationed overseas during the Vietnam War, this Christmas tree had special meaning.

Care packages are in the news a lot this time of the year. With good reason: The holiday season is one of the worst times for American military men and women serving overseas. It is hard for those who have not served to understand this. Paramount is the feeling of disconnection — not being part of the world you currently are in or part of the world you left.

I experienced this nearly 50 years ago during my time in Thailand and the Vietnam War. On a holiday, there may be a big feast planned at the officers’ club or chow hall, but it’s not the same. One holiday long ago, we decided the night before to have our own private celebration. It was to be our own special meal. Perhaps, also, our own attempt for the missing family experience.

  • Our small base exchange (BX) had a somewhat limited commissary selection and never had quite the same things twice. For our own “feast” we chose packaged cheese fondue, which we could heat in a pan on a hot plate. Why the BX had packaged cheese fondue remains a mystery. We also had spray cans of artificial snow. Again I am not sure why — often these things took on a M*A*S*H-like reality. But there was no bread to dip in the fondue. Sometimes the exchange had hot dog rolls, though seldom hot dogs. The shelves, however, were bare — perhaps others were having their own private celebrations with care packages from home supplemented with the BX’s meager fare.

So we scanned the freezer case and found frozen bagels. GIs are very inventive. Bagels were another type of bread, so why not dip them into packaged cheese fondue, which had bizarrely appeared in our war zone for a holiday meal? It all made perfect sense. The theory, however, turned out to be better than how it actually worked — the fondue congealed in the pot and the bagels disintegrated.

But we ate it anyway.

Care packages were a way that home came to you. The modern concept of the “care package” may be dated to the period after the Second World War when “C.A.R.E.,” an international relief agency, sent packages to European civilians left in dire circumstances after the war. However, such boxes for troops probably date back to the founding of the Republic when military members often got packages with necessities sent from home.

Care packages were always special, but sometimes relatives, in their eagerness to send things, did not think through the whole process. I once had a jar of jelly sent to me with no lid on it, only a wax seal that did not survive the heat of SEA en route and nicely coated everything with its contents in the box. Then there were the many cans of sardines that came my way. I had mentioned to my mother that I liked sardines and voilà, not only did she send me cans of sardines, but all my relatives did. One would think that I was a very large Cat that flew F4 fighters for a living. Still care packages connected you with those far away.

In those long ago days of the Vietnam War there were no instant communications such as email, Facebook or Instagram. Phone calls were an excruciating undertaking due to the about 12-hour time difference and the inability of the local operators to often speak or understand English. So phoning home seldom occurred, but letters and care packages were always welcome, even if the contents were covered with jelly or contained many, many cans of sardines. And the most special packages came at Christmas.

To send a box to Thailand nearly 50 years ago meant that my wife had to gather her few Christmas gifts for me in September and mail the box no later than the beginning of October to reach me on time. She became very adept in making the perfect size cookies to fit exactly into a Pringles potato chip can, so each package had one or two cans of her cookies, and the requisite cans of sardines, smoked oysters, or potted meat. Sometimes there would be an audio tape that the family had made earlier in the year at a gathering. And for Christmas she included a small decorated tree that I placed in my room near my wife’s photo. There I sat, listening to the tape, eating those special cookies and looking at that tree sent lovingly to me. For a few moments, I was almost home.

Yes, the most special care packages came at Christmas.

John E. Norvell is a frequent contributor to the Times oped section. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Vietnam air combat veteran, and former assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and Hobart alumni director. He has written for The Washington Post and several newspapers and historical journals around the nation. A 1966 graduate of Hobart College, he lives in Canandaigua.

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