This happened the same year that I wrote that awful poem.
Ever hear the old joke about what happens when you let a soldier guard a room with three bowling balls in it?
Well, when you get back and open up the door (the door that is the only way into the room), you find one of them's been stolen, one's broken, and one's pregnant.
While I'd love to discuss the anecdote related to the metaphorical breaking of a bowling ball, the story about the stolen one is a little more in keeping with the season. Well, this particular story is.
If this story were a film, it would open with a montage of stunningly vivid cuts of local fauna that would give Terrence Malick a sixteen inch cinematography-induced boner. Unfortunately, it is not a film, and the local fauna is busted as hell anyways, so we are limited to a brief description that includes dust; rocks; plastic bag tumbleweeds; and the occasional land mine, unexploded cluster munition, and/or gross, mummified turd.
Despite the best attempts of nature, God, and our fellow men to crush it out, some still made desperate attempts to foster the holiday spirit. It was a horrific tempest of despair raging all around us, and some of us were little more than bitter old sailors who never learned to swim jeering weakly at the desperate attempts of the still motivated to bail the lifeboat out with cupped hands.
All up and down the endless row of Alaska tents, plywood shacks, and poorly converted shipping containers, a hodgepodge of colored lights, banners, and legions of handmade cards from the bright young faces at Cob Elementary in Corntown, Iowa were beginning to sprout up like patches of clover blossoms in a hog wallow.
The chow halls and public spaces were overwrought and intensely garish displays of forced cheer. Santa would be making nightly appearances for photo opportunities. Both channels of television were non-stop Christmas.
"Do you think," my bro asked, "That if we hooked up a couple of magnets to Jesus Christ we could generate enough electricity to keep this place running? He's got to be looking at all of this Christmas shit in horror."
Ignoring the obvious theological issues with this line of questioning, I supposed we could.
"What do you think would happen if you hooked up some of those Buddhist prayer wheels to Him instead of generator cables? With a sprocket and a bike chain?"
This, incidentally, is the kind of stuff that gets talked about when you're too wired and bored and disgusted to even want to lever your ass up off the broken couch to go get real food (and hot even) at the chow hall. A glance at my watch confirms that the asshole Chief with nothing better to do on his career defining 90-day combat tour will be checking for uniform discrepancies in front of the chow hall.
Coffee is poured. Cigarettes are rolled. Watches are consulted again. In approximately 12 days we will be headed back to the mountains, away from this fucking place. Away from reflective belts and uniform standards and fucking asshole Chiefs and Colonels who have nothing better to do than play Sherlock Holmes and launch brilliant lines of deductive reasoning based on questions like "Why is your uniform missing a button?" and "Where is your reflective belt?"
The standard answer to both is "They got shot off in the war." They don't like that very much, but I guess the counterargument to that is that I didn't like them very much either. But you can't argue with a pogue bastard, at least not on their own turf. The best you can do is be flippant about it and make yourself out to be a hardass later when you're telling the story to someone who wasn't there.
Mostly, you can be safe in the reasoning that there are about 10,000 assholes running around on this base and surely you can't be the only one with no name tapes and a shitty haircut.
I'm sure some of you are screeching, "But what about the fucking bowling ball, man?"
And I assure you, we're getting there. But you need to understand something about stealing, first. Obviously, stealing is wrong and don't do it. And if you do it, it had better be for a really good reason.
In the stale quiet of the hooch, stomachs growl.
After a silence, my bro said, "I had a dream that that Chief was wearing a Santa hat. He got me for a missing button on my uniform so I got him for unauthorized headgear."
"That would be cool."
On the television, Ralphie is about to shoot his eye out for the 15th or 16th time that day.
"See what's on the other channel," my bro says just as my finger is twitching toward the appropriate button. The tired, ghosted-out television crashes abruptly to the Grinch shoving an entire Christmas tree into his big red bag.
As if on cue, we looked at each other and knew what had to be done.
Just down the way from our combination recreation/morale/overflow bunking hooch was the hooch used by a rival unit for recreation/morale/overflow bunking. Some of you are probably familiar with the friendly rivalry between the different branches of the military; a Marine calling a sailor a "squid" (because a squid is a lower form of marine life - get it?), or a soldier calling an airman a "zoomie" (because soldiers are too dumb to come up with anything as clever as "squid"). So, when I call them a rival unit, I don't mean it in that sense at all.
What I really mean is they were a bunch of irritating pricks who constantly stirred up huge pots of shit without having any idea what they were doing, chiefly due to the fact that the majority of them were on 3 to 6 month rotations and so nobody ever really learned what the hell they were supposed to be doing other than slobbing around in a heavily fortified major air base that might as well have been in the middle of the American Southwest for all the difference it made to their day to day living, all the while complaining about austerity, the trials of combat, the stress and pain of leaving family for extended periods of up to 90 days.
They were in fact the body pool from whence emerged nearly the entire population of little fuck goblins that stood around with nothing better to do than quote regulations in shrill voices and say things like "OPS tempo doesn't excuse failure to adhere to regulations" or "Excuse me, but why is your cargo pocket missing a button?" or "Were you not issued a reflective belt when you arrived here?".
These were the jokers who would say in absolute seriousness that "It's always been this way" and not see the hilarity in my always being approximately 14 times longer than their always.
In other words, typical weekend warrior reservist bullshit.
I am of the firm belief that human psychology and dog psychology are not particularly different things in the realm of application. If you take a high strung dog, perhaps a working breed or one of those little trembling overbred apple-skulled chihuahuas, and coop them up somewhere, they're going to find something to do with all that energy even if that means chewing the legs off of your Louis XIV end table and then shitting French polished sawdust all over the kitchen. Similarly, if you take a couple of high strung blood-bathing mountain ghosts and hamstring them in a bullshit R&R at a rear base, don't leave them unattended. And if you do, you had better secure those end tables.
Or in this case, you know, all that Christmas shit you've been stacking up in front of your little fuck goblin nest into some kind of hideous dirigible talisman against the dark lord Krampus.
I'm ashamed to say it, but it ended up being much easier than we'd anticipated. We may also have made the operation much more elaborate than necessary out of boredom or perhaps the need to give ourselves a self-imposed challenge, like when you play Goldeneye with your little brother and swear to use only the Klobb.
Our first choice was obviously the fuck goblins, although in terms of booty there were other choices. Not even 30 feet away, diagonally from the goblins' hooch was a sleep shack owned by a unit we'll call the space cadets. Looking back, I think it was probably some sort of stupid unspoken competition between the two. They really did have displays that would have put many suburban houses to shame, and in truth the space cadets had a more solid theme going as opposed to the opposing haphazard amalgam thrown together like the nest of a sex-crazed magpie. I think the real deciding factor was the addition of musical bullshit to the magpie nest.
You see, at one point the space cadets had stepped up their game with a plug-in, light-up, nylon fabric inflatable snowman, kept inflated by a blower fan in the base. The fuck goblins responded with a truly enormous plug-in, light-up, nylon fabric inflatable motion-sensing music-playing ho ho ho-jollying Santa Claus.
After weeks of drowning in tinsel, cardboard candy canes, sappy cards, television programming set to Maximum Yule, and friendly reminders that killing yourself is not only illegal, but very sad for your family especially during the Holidays, I think the musical Santa was the last kick in the nuts.
The operation went off without incident. Following a night insertion under optimum illumination, we infiltrated the enemy position and took matériel and high value targets into custody, then transported them to a secure facility for interrogation and analysis.
In other words, while the fuck goblins were sleeping, we did a quick lap to make sure we weren't being watched, then stole all their Christmas shit and stashed it. The Santa Claus was installed in our detachment commander's office while he slept the doleful slumber of the just but inevitably damned.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast of yellow slime, brown solids, and bacon, we arrived into the work/admin hooch, expecting to hear a lot of laughing about the eight foot tall dancing and singing inflatable bastard in the old man's office. Actually what we heard was nothing at all, and the old man's door was closed.
Before we could ask anybody if we'd missed a grand reaction, the old man himself poked his head out the door, saw us, did a double take, and then gave us the "get the fuck over here right now" gesture that only those with true authority, such as Mom and a municipal police officer, can perform convincingly.
As we got up to the doorway, we could see that he had his left hand wrapped around the mouthpiece of his secure telephone in a deathgrip. His clenched fist was bloodless, and shaking with the intensity of his grip. He pointed to the chairs in front of his desk, and shut the door behind us. The motion triggered a round of tinny, sterile music and a HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO HO HO HOOOOOOOOO from the fat glowing bastard. This caused the commander's eyes to widen as he pointed with his free hand at the deathgrip.
When the music stopped, he sat down and continued his conversation.
"Yeah, Jim, sorry about that, I'm back now. Yeah. You uh, say it went missing last night?"
A quick look at the LCD on the top of the telephone read "CDR/FUCK GOBLINS". An abbreviation that decoded to mean that the commanding officer of the fuck goblins was on the other end of the phone. Or at least, his desk phone was.
"Well what exactly all was it, then?" our commander continued, scribbling circles on a piece of paper and letting out the occasional "mmhmm" or "yeah" or "I see" as Santa's waving arm periodically bopped him in the face or mussed his hair.
I tried not to breathe any louder than strictly necessary. The occasional deep rumble in the Earth from something, somewhere, blowing up or taking off was the only noise other than the commander's grunts of assent and the low drone of Santa's blower fan.
"Well Jim, that's a damn shame. It was really very nice and I will put the word out to my people. I'll let you know if I find anything out. Yeah, right away. Sure thing."
That blower fan was the loudest thing I'd ever heard in my life. How can he not be hearing that on the other end of that phone? That thing is the Telltale Heart incarnate. Dear lord, one stray horsefly or dropped sheet of paper and that motion sensor is going to trip. The whole jig will be up. We were, as they say, living in the moment before the bullet hits the bone.
It'll be the firing squad for us, and the old man too for being a collaborator.
The old man sighed heavily, then looked up at us after hanging up the phone.
The grin that slowly spread on his face reminded us of nothing more than the sly, curly mouth-corners of the Grinch himself.
"You do know," he said, "That you're going to have to give him back eventually. And all the other stuff too. The uh, tinsel and lights and whatever other stupid crap they had out there. They have an inventory sheet for God's sake."
"Yes sir. As soon as possible sir."
"Well maybe not as soon as possible. Just make sure it's back in time for Christmas. Just put it all back and nobody will ever know. It will be a Christmas miracle. Hey, you know what though, get some pictures with Santa at least. Nothing too terrible, just something funny we can send them later, or at least keep in here if they don't see the humor in it."
So we've got pictures of Santa as a suicide bomber. Santa in the armory. Santa in the shitters. Santa taking up every cubic centimeter of volume in a coffin/bunk cubby hole.
Somewhere along the way, though, Santa got hold of some bad 'trons. Specifically, a power surge in the definitely not to any sort of code electrical system fused Santa's blower motor into a solid slug of copper and aluminum and injection molded plastic.
It was bound to have happened eventually. In fact, since all the hooches were on the same circuits, it would have happened had he still been plugged in right where he belonged. But the fact that it happened while he was in our custody meant that we were in deep shit.
"Well," my bro said, after attempting to re-wind the fan motor and short the crude fusing, "I think we're basically fucked."
The only thing to do was turn ourselves in, throwing ourselves on the mercy of the old man.
How far could his mercy take us, though? When they inevitably sentenced us to death, would it be the firing squad or the electric chair? Hell, out here they would probably just strip us naked and dump us out of a helicopter somewhere out in Spin Buldak and let the locals have us.
God bless his blackened heart, though. His first and only line of questioning was, "Well, will the blower off the space cadets' snowman fit? Can you just swap them?"
The sad answer was no, of course, and all he had left to say was that we had better find a way to replace it in time, or it would be our asses, and probably dicks as well.
By some miracle and the power of freight forwarding, we managed to secure a replacement in time for Christmas. It was very almost exactly identical, right down to the same UPC code. We put it up the night of the 23rd in another successful night operation, believing that Christmas Eve the enemy would be carrying out extended hours of operation.
Christmas Eve morning.
I was rousted out of my bed at 0530 hours with the urgent message that the commander wanted me in his office immediately, forget showering and shaving.
I stumbled into some clothes and was not at all surprised to see my bro waiting for me. He looked sick but couldn't stop laughing.
"It's incredible. They refuse to say it. We're so fucked. They're so pissed but they can't do anything about it."
When the old man came into the office we stood up as is the custom and he waved us back down.
"The Fuck Goblin first sergeant sent me an email at 0500 this morning asking if I would be able to take a phonecall at 0600. I thought you boys had fucked up really bad. I just got done taking a look at it for myself and was pleasantly surprised, so we'll have to see what the problem is, because he didn't seem exactly happy in the email."
Suddenly, it was phone. "1SGT/FUCK GOBLINS" said the LCD display.
After a careful sideways glance, the commander stabbed the button labeled SPKR and said, "First Sergeant, what can I do for you this morning?"
"Good morning sir. I was hoping you might have a moment to talk about some resolution on our holiday decorations."
"Well sergeant, it's my understanding that everything was replaced."
Silence on the line as we clench our eyes shut and bite our fists. The commander, with about 400 years of military service under his belt, is solid as a rock.
"Well sir, it's uh." Hesitation. The hesitation in his voice was brutal. "Not exactly resolved, sir. The original Santa is still missing."
"Yes, it's my understanding that the inflatable Santa was inadvertently damaged due to a power surge, and was not able to be repaired. I understand it has been replaced with a brand new one that is exactly like the old one, and I've also been told that there are extra fuses inside the base in case there should be another issue with the power again. A sort of goodwill gesture."
It may be important to note that the replacement Santa was identical in every way, right down to the UPC, save for the replacement Santa was... of an ethnic persuasion.
They were pissed, obviously. Very pissed. But the beauty of it was that they weren't allowed to be. They were trapped like rats in a bucket and with no way to chew their way out. They were stuck with African-American Santa and there was no way around it.
Sure, they might make a case to the military justice system about the theft of white Santa, but do they really want it on paper that they objected so strongly to black Santa that they made a legal issue out of it?
Could these informal and circumscribed complaints about black Santa really go any further with a Colonel whose last name was Ngembe?
Will our intrepid heroes make it out of this situation alive?
The answer is of course yes.
As a sort of epilogue, I suppose it would be appropriate to mention that the Fuck Goblins first sergeant and XO both sent out cultural and diversity sensitivity emails shortly after the incident transpired, probably for the same reasons that so many prominently public homophobes end up getting caught cruising gay bars and airport restrooms. The fact that the fuck goblins were later nominated for a diversity award by the base's EEO office was of special delight to the few who knew the story behind their multicultural display of inclusive holiday cheer.
We weren't around to see the award presented though I'm sure they choked on it. Colonel Ngembe (his real name was not Ngembe; I've changed his name for obvious reasons, but it was a close equivalent in terms of comically blunt ethnic identification) told us we were treading very dangerous waters and that it was probably a good thing that we were due to leave shortly, and he was right.
It was back to the mountains just in time to get snowed in for three weeks. If we hadn't made it out when we did, it would have been too tempting to steal the enormous ball they dropped on New Years. It weighed about 100 lbs, being made of angle iron, but we figured that as long as we didn't break any of the lightbulbs...