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Posts Tagged ‘The Navy Hymn’

Other Musings

December 13, 2010

Christmas Eve, 1967

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Christmas Eve day we worked our way from 881 South to 881 North. I walked point. The jagged line of damaged trees, the red scars of bomb craters, the misty remnants of December fog. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. But Sir Charles chose not to hit us that morning, so we moved on. Our company-minus patrol like a snake along the ridges and swales, the valleys and the brief, rough canyons.
In the afternoon we worked our way back to 881 South. Map click after map click we forded swollen creeks, their flows confused and bent from B-52 attacks. The bamboo thickets like walls. The trails well worn by both Sir Charles and us.
The sun showed its eager face and we rolled up the sleeves of our jungle dungaree blouses. I drank from a wide shallow creek. Flecks of silver and gold in the round stones. The glint of sunlight in the riffs of the water flow got in my eyes and momentarily blinded me.
Fog, the dark came upon us right after we returned to C-rations and hot cocoa heated over a lump of C-4. Someone told me there was going to be a service—a Christmas service. I decided to attend. I’d been in-country ten months and had stayed far away from church services. But at that moment, loneliness for my Arizona home, my orange haired, chirpy-voiced mother, my sullen father, my sister, her kids, all jumped on my back and lashed me like penitents in an old holy movie.
So I stumbled in the foggy dark, down the trench, repeating “Merry Christmas,” to the voices I heard come out of the dense mist. Maybe I knew them, maybe I didn’t, but the hushed tone spoke to our common loneliness. Voices pregnant with reverence.
In a tent we jammed into tight seats and listened to the chaplain speak. He read verses from the Bible that I had heard in one form or another all my days of celebrating the birth of Christ, who by that time I was not sure ever existed. But I listened, and smelled the musty, moldy scent of old dungarees, unwashed bodies, stale cigarette smoke and I was comforted at least by the knowledge that these, my brothers, shared my loneliness, my longing for home, hopes for an end to monsoon rain, to blood-thirsty leeches, to slippery, sticky, red mud, to . . . dare I say it . . . war?
The chaplain served communion, but I resisted, and sat in my chair, my butt unable to get up. The notion of eating someone’s flesh, drinking their blood, if only metaphorically, seemed pagan to me . . . a close cousin to the savage that lived down inside all of us eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year-old Marines and Navy Corpsmen worshiping in that tent.
At the end of the service, the chaplain stood and his helper handed out some pieces of paper with words to a song. My damp and rumpled copy read, “The Navy Hymn.” The chaplain said, “We’ll sing the Marine Corps’ chorus here.” He held up his copy and pointed towards the bottom of the page. “And then repeat it two more times.”
As I tried to get a notion of the words, the chaplain blew on a pitch pipe and we all limped into the song.
“Eternal Father, grant we pray
To all Marines, both night and day…”
Outside in the nearby 81-millimeter mortar pit I heard someone say, “Fire Mission.”
The chaplain used his long right hand to keep time to the a capella music we tried to make.
“The courage, honor, strength and skill”
I heard feet pounding in the red mud, muffled voices from the gun pit. Sounds of metal rubbing metal, squeaks, snaps, rattles.
“Their land to serve, thy law fulfill.”
More mumbles, grunts, some words I could not cipher over the rising din of the song.
“Be thou the shield forevermore”
I heard the low guttural thunk of mortar rounds leaving the tube.
“From every peril to the Corps.”
The outgoing mortar rounds hissed as they departed our territory for some location on a nearby ridge, some nook in a draw, the header of a canyon. I heard the mortar men grumbling and a laugh or two, a cough.
We repeated the verse as the rounds repeatedly departed the perimeter. Somewhere out in the thick, dense night, I heard the crash of rounds, or thought I did.
We ended the song, “From every peril to the Corps.”
I heard a round hissing, hissing, like it was spinning, maybe wavering into the heavy sky. No light, no sun, no stars, just damp and darkness.