Movin' On with Nellie: Christmas 1967 from Rio Grande Valley to Pleiku, Vietnam

It was 1967 and Christmas was marked with the absence of our step-daddy. While a ceasefire was being observed in Vietnam, at Pleiku AFB, a US Air Force base, we were enjoying slightly cooler nights in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Palm trees, 30 feet or higher, lined the neighborhood and at night we could see holiday lights and decorations in houses through town.

If yards were decorated, they were decorated with hand carved pieces, not store-bought blow ups. Flocking fir trees was a way of bringing the northern snow to the tropics. Glass windows often donned a layer of the stuff to create a scene for Hallmark.

In later years, I enjoyed the designing and painting of scenes that Daddy drew on a big plate-glass in the living room. A favorite scene was Rudolph and his red nose leading St. Nick’s sleigh and other reindeer.

But this column is about 1967. Mom shared letters from Daddy and paragraphs for me, Barb and Lori as well as Jerry, Edna, Uncles Arnold and Willard and Aunt Leona. Everyone took their turn reading their paragraph from the jungles of Vietnam. Daddy wrote that he spent many bombing nights under his cot. Although they were set back from the fighting front, sometimes an explosion would shake the Air Men. He wrote too that children and women carried bombs on them or under their clothes; so, there was a lot of angst in the squadron. He was enjoying and sharing the latest care package that we sent, including the oatmeal and raisin cookies that I had baked. He said they actually hadn’t arrived as whole cookies but as crumbs, “but still they’re delicious.”

Mama served spaghetti and meatballs on her Melmac dishes from a recipe given by Grandma and Grandpa Hammond from Fall River, Massachusetts. Jerry and Uncle Arnold had seconds, Barbara, Lori and I ate quickly and helped gather the plates and scrape the food off of them in the kitchen. We were all in our Sunday clothes because we had gone to Christmas Eve services and carried on the German tradition of exchanging and opening gifts that Santa had brought afterward.

Jerry opened his package with a new Zebco fishing reel. Everyone was oohing and ah-ing about how soon he would get out to fish at Carter’s Lake. Lori enjoyed so many toys that she didn’t know which to play with first: an Easy Bake Oven, Chatty Cathy, Play-Doh, Silly Putty, princess play shoes and garb. All three of us girls, opened up presents with clothes for school. Mama’s present from her sister Aunt Leona was a new leather purse; and Edna’s present was a new western outfit along with a new halter for her horse. Uncle Arnold’s present was a Swiss Colony cheese and sausage package. Uncle Willard opened up a new shirt and pants. Finally, the adults had a cold Schlitz out on the porch while the kids enjoyed milk and German Chocolate Cake in the living room. An old Roy Rogers movie blared from the GE television but even that couldn’t block the laughter from the screened-in porch. 

Then the black Western Electric phone (aka land line) rang and it was an across-continents call from Daddy. Mama held the phone gently while she talked and whispered. The call was about 30 minutes. As expected, Mom had the longest time talking to Daddy than any of us. When I held the receiver, Daddy reminded me to be good and to help mom. Lori was the youngest and everyone called out with her as she sang out, “Merry Christmas Daddy!”

—Nelda Curtiss is a retired college professor who enjoys writing and fine arts. Contact her at [email protected]