By Dr. Earl H. Tilford
“This could be the greatest day of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst.” — Bluto Blutarsky, Faber College, Autumn 1978
On Christmas eve before bed, I received a Facebook message from a friend overseas. It included a photo of his hometown on Christmas night. More on this later.
We received a few Christmas cards this year, all wishing us “a better 2021.”
The year 2020 had been a hard year for most folks. Personally, the Covid-19 pandemic claimed three close friends. All were professors at the University of Alabama who played key roles in my career as a historian.
Additionally, in August my wife Grace was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It has metastasized to her lungs and associated skeletal structures. This is her third and probably last bout with cancer.
Surgery in October put Grace in ICU for days. There was no Thanksgiving because, due to radiation and chemotherapy, Grace couldn’t eat. Our daughter and her family cancelled plans to visit due to Covid restrictions that would have led to a two-week quarantine when they returned to Pennsylvania. That’s when I gave in to the current “cancel culture” by canceling Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Medically, a case of Covid would likely kill my wife given her diminished lung capacity. I avoid as much contact with people as possible. No church since August. No weekly Rotary meetings. No gym. Grocery store shopping only when absolutely necessary. For exercise, I walk alone. Other than doctor appointments, we were isolated.
I made one quick trip to the mall to purchase gloves and a bookstore gift card for my wife. Small fake tree on the entry table. No gifts out until Christmas eve when Grace put a few on the table while I checked my email and Facebook. I awoke at 2:00 a.m. Christmas morning braced for a full-on Yuletide pity party.
A few days before we watched our traditional movie, “Family Christmas Vacation.” While John Belushi was not in this motion picture, for some reason one of his last notable quotes from the 1978 classic “Animal House” flashed into my predawn subconscious.
I was determined to let my 75th Christmas be one of the worst days of my life. My wife may not see another Christmas, but when you are a septuagenarian there are no guaranteed days ahead.
I remember almost all Christmases after the age of three. I was an only child. So was my father. My mother’s brother never married. I had four grandparents for almost half my life. And my childhood Christmases were loaded with presents. Great joyful memories!
My early morning darkness reminiscences revived two truly lousy Yuletides: Christmas 1971, recently divorced, home from war, and living alone in Omaha; and Christmas 1992, after our 14-year-old daughter died. Bad memories done and over, I then reflected on happier years.
In 1970, my first wife, a woman I met at Intelligence school, and I had just married and were serving as intelligence officers in Southeast Asia. I worked 12-hour shifts from noon to midnight. As a new guy I was partnered with an experienced captain, a devout Jewish family man. A Christmas ceasefire allowed for one-man shifts for Christmas eve and Christmas day.
The Jewish officer offered to work three shifts straight, so I could spend time with my wife. I don’t remember what I gave her, but she gave me a muzzle-loading, hand-crafted Hmong musket. Christmas celebrated at an officer’s club in a war zone was memorable.
Christmas 1972. I was serving in the Intel shop at headquarters, Strategic Air Command. We were conducting Linebacker II, the 11-day bombing campaign over North Vietnam. Single guys agreed to work through Christmas to enable married officers to have the day off. There was a ceasefire from 6:00 p.m. Hanoi time Christmas eve to one minute after midnight on the morning of December 26.
The day before the ceasefire, Air Force fighter bombers destroyed the surface-to-air missile (SAM) storage and assembly area inside Hanoi. This rendered North Vietnam virtually defenseless against B-52 attacks. Just after midnight on December 26, 1972, 120 B-52s and associated support aircraft bombed 10 targets within a 15-minute period. A few hours later, Hanoi’s leaders agreed to return to peace negotiations. America’s war in Vietnam was over within a month.
How is this all connected, and why am I now celebrating this new year? In the early morning darkness, I recalled the Facebook message I opened before going to bed. For his Christmas greetings, my friend Dr. Nguyen Hung attached a photo of bright lights in downtown Hanoi where he is a history professor at the National University.
We are veterans of the same war, enemies now united as friends; scholars in search of understanding. Thanks to Bluto Blutarsky and Nguyen Hung I decided to make this the best possible ending to 2020.
Here’s to a better 2021!
[Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City (Penn.) College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his Ph.D. in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.]