From the title, you will probably recognize that this holiday story was inspired by “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. Growing up, I used to enjoy those classic short stories by the likes of O. Henry, H.H. Munro or Saki, Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), and Somerset Maugham. Most of them had a good twist at the end that made the story all the more rewarding. This story was sent out to those on the Book Squad mailing list during last year’s holiday season. In case you missed it, the story is shared here.
The Gift of the GI
“Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest.”
— O. Henry
By David Healey
December in the Ardennes Forest meant cold, snow, and frostbite. If you were lucky, you could warm up your hands on the hot barrel of your rifle. Back home, folks would be stringing up Christmas lights, baking good things to eat, and singing holiday carols. Here, the woods were dark and quiet, except for the occasional distant boom of a Panzer or the rattle of small arms fire. The war hadn’t stopped for Christmas.
More snow had fallen during the afternoon, giving the forest a fluffy white coating. To blend in, Caje Cole wore a white smock that he had taken off a captured German, and his Springfield rifle was wrapped in strips of cloth torn from a bedsheet. He’d even found a white scarf to cover his face. When Cole stepped into the trees, the only thing you saw were his cold eyes and sometimes, the glint off his rifle scope. That glint was generally the last thing that an enemy sniper saw.
Nearby, Vaccaro used binoculars to look for any movement in the trees. Cole seemed able to sit for hours without moving, but Vaccaro felt damn cold, shivering inside his own smock.
The snow reminded Vaccaro of fresh cotton candy on Coney Island back home and it was pretty in its own way.
“Looks like a Christmas card,” he said.
Cole grunted, not particularly impressed by the scenery. As for Christmas cards, he had never sent one, and he sure as hell never had gotten one.
The snow didn’t bother him much. In fact, the wintry hills reminded him of the mountains back home. But he didn’t let his thoughts or memories wander far. They could hear firing in the distance, the thump of heavy guns mixed with the crack of rifles echoing through the hills. None of it close, so that was something. But like a distant summer thunderstorm in the mountains, you never could tell when the storm would blow in your direction.
It was understandable if Christmas was on Vaccaro’s mind, he thought. It was Christmas Eve morning, after all. Not that the war was going to take a holiday.
They were supposed to be on leave, finally enjoying some R&R after fighting their way across Europe since the D-Day landing on June 6. On the calendar, that was just a few months, but you couldn’t really measure time by the usual days and weeks. Out here, time passed in long stretches of boredom and terrifying seconds that seemed to go on forever. Time on the battlefield was elastic and followed its own rules.
Finally, as night came on, they returned to the company command post, which consisted of a stone house with a working fireplace that was now pumping smoke out through the chimney, Germans be damned. The cold was an enemy in its own right, after all. Briefly, they welcomed the slight warmth as they reported the lack of German activity.
They both noticed that someone had put up a spindly Christmas tree in one corner of the room and decorated it with a few shiny brass shell casings, stuck onto the tips of the branches. A piece of tin had been formed into some approximation of a star at the top of the tree.
“I guess that’s the best we can do for a Christmas tree,” Vaccaro said. “Let me see if somebody will take our picture in front of it.”
“That ain’t necessary,” Cole said.
But Vaccaro found a company clerk who has willing to snap a photo of them standing side by side in front of the scraggly little tree. The two men posed with their sniper rifles and on a whim, Cole stuck his German Luger pistol in his belt. He had found it in the road a few days before and it had become one of his most prized possessions. He had even turned down several offers to trade it. If there was one souvenir of the war that every soldier in Europe dreamed of bringing home—aside from Hitler’s jackboots, maybe—it was a Luger pistol.
Cole had found the Luger in the middle of an icy road, presumably dropped by one of the Germans who had scattered into the woods after coming under fire. A few of them hadn’t made it and their bodies lay crumpled in the snow.
There hadn’t been time to look for the holster, not with more Germans on the way. There was a Panzer somewhere nearby—they had heard its engine like some hungry beast on the prowl. Nobody wanted to get caught out on the open road when that Panzer finally appeared.
Like lean wolves, the snipers slipped back into the forest, with Cole tucking his prize into his belt.
Lately, Vaccaro had gotten the bug for taking snapshots, thanks to the recent acquisition of an Argus C3 camera, nicknamed “the Brick” due to its size and weight. Cheaply mass produced, the camera was popular with enlisted men willing to carry the extra weight. In fact, the cameras were easier to come by than the rolls of 35 mm film that the Argus used.
With its Bakelite body and chrome finish, the camera was a nice-looking object, if not exactly an expensive one. The camera cost around $40 new—cheaper than a Kodak, but still the best part of a week’s salary for the average working man.
“Nice camera,” the clerk remarked.
“I got it from my cousin Tony.” Vaccaro’s cousin was a soldier in the 83rd Infantry Division, also located somewhere in this frozen hell, the poor bastard. When he wasn’t fighting, Cousin Tony was taking pictures. He’d had a spare camera that he had traded to Vaccaro for some dry socks.
If the Springfield rifle that Cole carried was his wife, then the Luger pistol had become his mistress. The other weapon that he was never without was a Bowie knife made for him at a mountain forge by Hollis Bailey and mailed to Cole—the one time that Vaccaro could ever recall Cole getting a package from home. Rifle, pistol, Bowie knife—it made Cole into one formidable soldier. But the way Vaccaro figured it, you could take away all of Cole’s gear and he’d still be a mean, dangerous son of a bitch. Good thing he’s on our side. For some reason, Cole not only tolerated Vaccaro’s smart mouth, but seemed to like him. They weren’t friends, exactly. Cole wasn’t one to let people get that close. But they were definitely buddies.
“Smile,” the clerk said.
Vaccaro grinned, but Cole wore a serious expression, like those Civil War soldiers seen in old photos. Both men were in their early twenties, but the war had etched lines in their faces that made them appear much older.
The shutter clicked.
“Thanks, buddy,” Vaccaro said to the clerk, taking the camera back. He wound the lever to advance the roll. “That was the last picture. That’s all the film I’ve got. Hope it turns out.”
“Aww, I’ll bet you had your eyes closed,” Cole said in a rare show of humor.
The clerk found them some hot coffee, which they accepted gratefully. They tried to linger in the relative warmth for as long as they could, but an officer came by and kicked them out, meaning that they had to return to the December cold.
Maybe it was the sight of that Christmas tree that prompted something sentimental in Vaccaro. He suddenly had the idea that he wanted to give Cole a present. If he was really being honest with himself, maybe it wasn’t Cole, so much as he was giving himself a present in a way, the present being a sense of celebrating Christmas here in the Ardennes Forest. Besides, who the hell else would he have given a present to, if not to Cole?
“Hillbilly, what do you want Santa to bring you?”
“Santa?” He looked at Vaccaro as if he’d just asked Cole the meaning of some word in a foreign language.
“Come on, even you have heard of Santa Claus.”
The truth was, Santa had not been a visitor to the shack on Gashey’s Creek where Cole had grown up. Christmas usually meant his ma scraped together a pie, maybe there was a stick of penny candy for his younger brothers and sisters if it had been a good year, and Pa getting drunk on moonshine. “Sure, I’ve heard of Santa. Big fat feller with a white beard.”
“That’s the one. Well, what would you ask him for?”
“I reckon I’d ask him for some gun oil that works in this damn cold. Why, what do you want that fat man to bring you?”
Vaccaro thought a moment, then grinned. “Something warm and blonde and female would be good right about now. Preferably with nothing on but a bathing suit.”
Cole snorted. “It’s gonna take more than Santa to help you with that. Besides, the poor girl would freeze to death out here. How about a nice new bayonet?”
“Aw, you spoil all the fun, you dumb hillbilly.”
They reached their foxhole and ate a cold dinner out of their ration cans. They had to carry those close to their bodies to keep the cans from freezing. Vaccaro didn’t have much to say, for a change. All the talk about Christmas seemed to have made him thoughtful.
In the dusky twilight, Vaccaro crawled out of the hole and made an excuse about needing to find some cigarettes. Cole wasn’t any help because he was one of those rare soldiers who didn’t smoke.
“All right, don’t get shot,” Cole said.
* * *
Back at company headquarters, Vaccaro found the clerk who had taken the picture in front of the Christmas tree and admired his camera. The soldier didn’t have what Vaccaro wanted, but he knew someone who did, over in the motor pool. It took some asking around, but Vaccaro eventually found a group of truck drivers who stood doing a little dance in the snow, trying to stay warm. Men like these were always eager for souvenirs, some proof that they’d been at least near the front lines if not actually fighting, and sure enough, one of the truck drivers had just what Vaccaro was looking for—a holster that would fit a Luger.
The problem was that the soldier wasn’t eager to trade.
“What do you need a holster for?” Vaccaro prompted him. “You don’t have a pistol for it. That seems like the important part.”
“If I do find a Luger, I’ve already got the holster.”
“So you’re carrying around an empty holster? Buddy, that’s like buying a wedding ring before you’ve even got a girl. Look, let me take it off your hands so you don’t look like such an idiot.”
“Hey—” the soldier’s face clouded, but he seemed to get over it in the next instant. A soldier at the front knew that it was best to be pragmatic. “What have you got?”
“I’ve got ten bucks.”
“Money? Nah. What would I do with ten bucks? I might get killed before I ever get to spend it.”
“Says the guy carrying around an empty holster.”
The soldier shrugged. They both knew he was right—money was meaningless in the cold and snow. “Got any dry socks?”
Vaccaro laughed. “Hell, I don’t even think General Patton has got any spare socks.”
“If you want this holster, you got to trade me something good for it.”
Vaccaro thought a moment, then thrust out his left wrist. He had no less than three wristwatches on it. One was an army-issue Waltham watch, but the other two had been confiscated from German prisoners. “How about one of these babies?”
The soldier flicked back his sleeve to exhibit his own wrist, which had not two, not three, but four watches on it. “No thanks. What else have you got?”
Vaccaro thought about it, then reached deep into his coat and pulled out the Argus camera.
The other soldier nodded appreciatively. “Now we’re talking. I’ve been wanting one of those.”
“I’ve got to tell you, I don’t have any film left for it.” Vaccaro had already removed the spent roll and put it in his pocket.
“Aww, I can find film for it.” The soldier looked over the camera and nodded. “All right, you talked me into it.”
With a pang, Vaccaro handed over the camera and received the holster in return. It was what was called a Swiss holster, with a slot in the front for a spare magazine. From the weight of it in his hands, he could tell that it was a substantial item, well made of heavy leather. It was the sort of holster that befitted something as prized as a German Luger.
With the holster in hand, Vaccaro returned to the foxhole and burrowed into his blanket, trying to get as warm as he could. He still shivered. Some Christmas Eve, he thought, but the thought of the holster hidden in his coat pocket did give him a warm glow inside.
* * *
He trudged back through the snow to the foxhole. Cole wasn’t there, but he slipped into the foxhole a few minutes later, just as Vaccaro was falling asleep. “Where you been?”
“I’ve been out looking for Santa.”
“Yeah? What were you gonna do if you found him?”
“Kick his ass and barbecue his reindeer.”
“Sounds about right,” Vaccaro said, and still shivering, he drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Christmas dawn arrived cold and cheerless, even gloomy. More snow had fallen during the night, a dusting that both GIs shook off their blankets.
“Merry Christmas,” Cole said. “I’ll get the bacon and eggs going. You want buckwheat pancakes with that, too?”
“Very funny, Hillbilly.” Vaccaro stretched, hoping to get some feeling back into his toes. “Listen, I got you something for Christmas.”
Cole grinned. “That’s funny, because I got you something, too.”
“How did you know I wanted a present?”
“Hell, B-17s have dropped smaller bombs than that hint of yours.”
Vaccaro laughed. “I guess I wasn’t very subtle. I’ll go first.”
He reached into his deepest coat pocket and pulled out the beautifully made holster.
“Look at that,” Cole said. A look crossed his face that was hard to read. He turned the holster in his hands, inspecting it. “That’s real nice of you.”
“Go on and make sure it fits that Luger,” Vaccaro urged.
“Oh, it’s buried in my pack. But I know it will work out great. You’re all right, Vaccaro.”
“So, what did you get me?”
Cole reached into his pocket. “Sorry that there ain’t no wrapping paper. There wasn’t exactly a lot of that around.”
He opened his hand to reveal three rolls of 35 mm film.
Vaccaro’s mouth fell open.
“For that fancy camera of yours,” Cole explained. “I know you took the last picture yesterday. Go on and put one of these rolls in your camera and I’ll take a picture of you in this foxhole, so you can prove to your grandchildren someday that you didn’t spend the war at some bar in Paris.” He pronounced it Pair-ee.
“Let’s have something to eat first. You got anything that’s not frozen?”
“Aw, go on and take a picture. Breakfast can wait.”
Vaccaro shook his head, but he was smiling.
“I don’t have that camera anymore, Hillbilly. The truth is, I traded it to get you that holster.”
Cole stared at him, then started laughing. Vaccaro was a little hurt, thinking that maybe Cole saw him as having made a foolish trade. However, he was surprised by what Cole said next.
“City Boy, I don’t have that Luger no more. I traded it last night to get you that film.”
Vaccaro smiled and put the film in his pocket. “I’m sure I’ll come across another camera one of these days.”
“I reckon you will. And I’ll just hang onto this holster until I find another Luger.”
Shaking their heads and laughing from time to time at the irony of it all, both men sat back against the frozen dirt of their foxhole and spooned half frozen food out of their tinned cans, which was what passed for breakfast this Christmas morning.
Both GIs felt wistful over the prized possessions that were no longer theirs, but what were material things on a cold morning in the Ardennes forest as the Battle of the Bulge raged around them? In the middle of war, Christmas had somehow come all the same to two battle-hardened soldiers. They both had received gifts that they could not use, but what did it matter? It felt like the best Christmas morning either one of them had ever had, because some gifts cannot be valued by anything but the heart.
~ End ~
You probably recognize that this story was inspired by “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. Growing up, I used to enjoy those classic short stories by the likes of O. Henry, H.H. Munro or Saki, Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), and Somerset Maugham. Most of them had a good twist at the end that made the story all the more rewarding. Thank you for reading and Merry Christmas!