It was a practice in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne) (Light) 187th Infantry Regiment for the unmarried sergeants to volunteer to take holiday duty for the wedded guys. So that's why I found myself standing on the landing outside the dayroom of the HHC barracks Christmas Eve day dressed tastefully in holiday-green tropical fatigues and a santa-red beret being violently abused by a Panamanian taxi driver.
It seems that one of our American heroes had, in an excess of Christmas cheer, commandeered the driver's services to motor all around Panama Viejo attempting to find a shapely little elf who would supply a Christmas stocking that he could fill.
Not surprisingly, given his slobberingly drunk condition, the only attentions he could find came from ladies who expected to receive green, folding presents in return, which struck our young hero as more than a little Grinchy.
This seeker of the true Spirit of Christmas imbibed some Chistmas spirits and then resolved to return to his only REAL family, his buddies at HHC 2/187, only to find on arrival that one of Santa's little ho-ho-hoes had lifted his wallet during his importunations. Or he had left it on the bar. Or whatever.
The upshot was, anyway, that he now had nothing to give the infuriated driver whose worn taxi now reeked of cheap perfume and drunken G.I. Worse yet, he turned out to be nimble as a monkey - even drunk - and had shinnied up the mango tree in front of the barracks and was hiding in the branches lobbing the occasional overripe fruit at both the driver and the taxi windshield.
The street in front of the barrack reeked of mango juice and the combined noise of a furious taxi driver and an intoxicated arboreal G.I. This, in turn, drew a small crowd of pre-Christmas revelers, who took turns abusing both parties and shying additional fruit at the taxi when the driver wasn't watching.
I managed to pay off the driver, scatter the crowd and talk the monkey-boy out of the tree just as one of my other single friends came sauntering down from his post as battalion staff duty NCO.
"I see life in the slums is still exotic and vigorous, even on Christmas Eve" he sneered.
SGT Chief: "Little you know about it, lolling about up there at Battalion as you do. It's like a freakin' Jerry Springer show down here, you know. Oh, and a Merry Christmas to you, too, jackass."
BN SDNCO: "Yeah, well, lucky for us that the first Christmas happened in Bethehem, not Fort Kobbe, eh?"
SGT Chief: "Why's that?"
BN SDNCO: "'Cause where the hell'd you find three wise men and a virgin around here..?"
It was an old joke but I was still chuckling as I ran back up the stairs to the dayroom to share warm Coke with the three guys watching football.
This year, as they have for the past eleven years now, American soldiers are preparing for a holiday in faraway places much less entertaining and far more hazardous than my Panamanian Christmas Eve two and a half decades ago. I'm sure that they share many of the same feelings I did then: loneliness, regret, some pride in a hard job well done in demanding circumstances, but mixed with others I didn't; fear of death or wounding, anger and grief at lost friends, hope that their own homecoming will be soon and safe.
As do I.
So Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah...however you say it, however you celebrate it, all you young - and not so young - men and women in the hard places far from home; I hope you will all be home soon to enjoy this time with your families.
And to you, all my friends here, from near and far, let me say that although I have no more religion than I have hair on the top of my head and no more faith than I have illusions regarding nations, men, and women I'm touched on the heart a bit every year on this night of all the nights when we pretend that there really can be Peace on Earth to men and women of goodwill.
May you and yours find sleep this night at peace, surrounded by love and the loving of those you cherish. May you wake tomorrow to good cheer, and the promise of a better, brighter day.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof; tonight let us put aside what we know of the world and our fellow men and simply live in hopes that there can, indeed, be a silent night made holy by the caring and loving of one for another, and of us all.