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  • The snow blew in under our cots whenever someone opened the plywood door and the canvas of the tent swelled and flapped. “Close the damn door!” one of us would yell.

    Mt. Fuji Marine Corps cold weather training center was a primitive place when I was there in the 1960s. No permanent buildings, only tent structures built atop wooden platforms. The mess hall, command headquarters, chapel, and even the officers’ quarters were all canvas. It’s modern today I understand with permanent buildings.

    The Christmas I was there was a particularly cold one. When we weren’t in the field we huddled around our oil-fueled stoves. The NCO club was one of the warmest places on base, so we hung out there when we weren’t on duty, getting drunk on “mojos”—Saki mixed with sweet slo-gin. I still remember Christmas Eve when we drank, smoked, laughed, and played all of the Marty Robbins’ record on the jukebox. “Cowboy in a Continental Suit” still resonates in my memory.

    On Christmas morning we awoke with hangovers and weren’t excited when the chaplain poked his head into our tent and asked if we’d like to drive up to an orphanage and distribute gifts to the kids. Grudgingly, a few of us volunteered.

    The winding road up toward Mt. Fuji was alight with fresh snow, and the evergreen trees glistened in the morning sunshine. It was good to be alive on Christmas morning, hangovers and all.

    The orphanage with a cluster of concrete buildings with no heat and little furniture. The Japanese nuns who ran the place spoke no English and simply smiled. They led us into a large bare room with a cement floor and a few wooden chairs. Then a gang of boys between six and ten came bustling in. There must have been twenty of them: snotty-nosed, smiling, and smelling of urine. They were shy at first, but then chattered on to us. We rubbed their shaven heads and roughhoused a bit with them.

    The chaplain opened a large bag of toys, mostly wooden, and a few balls, and handed them out to the kids. We then spent the next hour playing with them. When we were finished the nuns brought the kids and us hot tea and rice cakes. The tea was weak, and the rice cakes were stale, but we ate and drank and accepted the offer of seconds.

    On the drive back to base one of my buddies said, “That was one of the best Christmas mornings I ever had.” Thinking about it, both then and today, I have to agree with him.
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