It is said that St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity Scene in his yard. The mythology has it that he set up a manger, and the then made up other characters from whatever he had laying around. He wanted to recreate the birth of Christ, the best he could, for himself and his friends. I have one. A manger and the Nativity Scene characters. The stable I made myself out of some old wood with a hand saw and some nails. It has survived intact for twenty-nine years. In 1969 I was fresh out of the hospital from getting all shot up in Vietnam. I could not be a Marine and I could not walk, or move well enough, to get a job. So I sat around and waited. During this time I found a small apartment in San Clemente to live in. So cheap that my other dwellers in the six-plex were new immigrants from Vietnam. Strange, to circulate among them every day as I limped around with nothing to do. One day I encountered an older man, who I knew to be the head of one of the families living there. His name was Huang Nguyen. Somehow, he had found out something of my service in his former country. He approached, shook my hand, and then apologized. I didn't get it. I tried to get to the bottom of things but his English was bad. Instead he invited me in to meet his wife and three young children. They treated me very nicely, and I was surprised. In country, the Vietnamese civilians I met had all been cold and remote. Huang took me into his bedroom/office. There he showed me two pictures on his walls. One was of him walking arm in arm with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the North Vietnamese Army. In the other, he was striding along, a huge smile on his face, with Robert McNamera. I asked Huang who he really was. He told me that he was the former Province Commander of the I Corps area. I was stunned. That was the area I fought all over and had been wounded in. I asked Huang who's side he had really been on. He said that he was on both. He had a family. He did not know who was going to win. He then asked me what I would have done in his place. I thought over that one, and then had to laugh. We shook hands again, both laughing. We would have become friends, I think, except the language barrier was just too great. And maybe, I was too soon from that awful war.
It was just before Christmas, when Huang and I met that year. On Christmas Eve, his oldest daughter, a pudgy cute little thing everyone called Hamburger, because of her proclivity for those things, knocked on my door. She handed me a bag and said Merry Christmas, then giggled and ran. I took the bat in and opened all the small packages wrapped inside. The Three Wise Men. The manger. The baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph. The dutiful cow, sheep and donkey. And a big camel. All the pieces are porcelain and gilded with gold that has not tarnished to this day. The sit this evening in my home-made stable atop a special table near the base of my tree.
I think often of Huang and Hamberger. I wonder what became of them. They were always wonderful to me and seemed to always act surprised that I was wonderful back to them. As much as I could be. I had nothing but limps, scars and painful memories back then. Why did Huang apologize? Why were they so nice? Why did they give me a Nativity Scene, of all things? Today, I don't know anymore than I knew back then, although I have had a lot of time to think and many more battles to grow more experienced. If there is a God. If there really is a Jesus. Then Huang and his family were sent to help me through. To help me understand, at that so very difficult a time, that the Vietnamese people were not to blame. That they were not much different than we are, and were. That my pain did not have to be translated into an eternal hatred. And so I have the set. And it means a lot to me. Christmas is special in so many ways to me, and I wish that the spirit evident in this season would seep through to the rest of the year for everyone.