While serving with the UN in South Lebanon during 1982/83 Israeli Invasion, Christmas was a most unusual experience for Irish soldiers who were not used to being away from home for long periods of time, two things stand out. Eating my Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings, dressed in shorts with a rifle on my back in sweltering heat whilst living in the mountains above the Bekaa Valley. Remember this was the time before Budget Holidays, Sun cream and Air Conditioning, most Irish people just went to the Airport to watch a plane land or take off and that might be only every hour so you had to wait, binoculars at the ready. The second was my unenviable job as Canteen Manager, that’s what happens when you stupidly put up your hand when the question is asked who doesn’t drink; of course I was the only idiot who put his hand up. There were two types of Artillery Ammunition in operation with the UN; one was an illumination or illum. bomb, which was used to light up the night sky but was harmless unless it fell on you or the phosphorus burnt you by accident, the other was a High Explosive or H.E. bomb, which was extremely dangerous. There were two types of alcoholic drink sold in the Canteen, the local brew called Almaza, which was nicknamed. Illum. by the Battalion because no matter what you did you couldn’t get drunk on it, especially if you were Irish and an export Heineken nicknamed H.E. by the Battalion because a can or two would leave you in an awful state. Obviously having soldiers drunk in a Theatre of Operation was a ‘No No’ so the Canteen Manager was the last line of defence. And so it to pass that on Christmas Night 1982 after a feast of Christmas Carols and Christmas Dinner, this fool had to announce to a room full of homesick soldiers that they could have either “Two cans of Illum or one can of H.E. and when you come up to the fridge (which I and I alone had the key) I will take your number, rank and name so you can’t come back again”. I never forget the look on their faces as I gave them their rations as their focal cords begrudgingly pushed the words out of their mouths “Thanks, Sarge”, Charles Dickens Scrooge would have been proud of me. New Year was no better; I think it was February before they forgave me.
Having had the blessing of three children and watching them go through those magical years of Santa and toys, I have to say that they are my most cherished and memorable Christmases, each and every one of them. To have the opportunity to be part of a child’s fantasies and dreams by bringing them to life through the magic that is Christmas, words cannot express. Even now, every time I sit down for Christmas Dinner with my wife, our three sons and our extended family, I still see those three little boys with those excited faces on them delighted that Santa has came and brought them exactly what they wanted. When I look over at my wife I can tell that she feels the same. This Christmas will be no different. I know the day will come when they won’t all be able to make it home for Christmas, I hope that on those occasions that they will remember us. I know they will.
Tom Cullen © The Source Writers Group 13/12/2011