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A Christmas Story : On a Holiday of Peace, Pair Recall Another One--When War Hung Heavy Over Their Lives

December 24, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

God rest you, merry Innocents,

While innocence endures.

A sweeter Christmas than we to ours

May you bequeath to yours.

--Ogden Nash

On this eve of a sweeter Christmas, Steve Patterson and Linda Giese do not forget their legacy and lost innocence of Christmas, 1968.

They were in Vietnam.

She was a civilian, a nervous ambassador from San Mateo visiting an airborne company adopted by that city.

He was a lieutenant, a decorated, young, gung-ho platoon commander brought in from jungle operations to play reluctant escort.

Linda, raw from losing her brother to this war, faced rain-soaked, unshaven, drained, bloodied grunts. They stood in deference. They knew she was there with Christmas greetings and gratitude from at least one portion of the nation they could only presume they were fighting for.

"Their faces were younger than I'd imagined," Linda said. Her moment remains fragile, something not easily offered a stranger. "But I caught a feeling of relationship with them, a sense of family. Then I saw that look in their eyes, the look of love, some shyness, loneliness and fear. I saw my brother. All of them looked like my brother."

Steve remembers another moment later in Linda's visit. His company held a Christmas Day memorial service for her dead brother. An upturned M-16 was crowned by a steel helmet. An empty pair of boots. Taps.

"Then the company, 130 men, these kids and Linda stood en masse and began singing 'Silent Night,' " Steve said. He, too, dug delicately before sharing the memory. "It was a beautiful remembrance, but an enigma. Camp Eagle was no more than eight clicks (kilometers) from the fighting, and there we were singing 'Silent Night.' "

Such a beginning, of course, is ripe for only one ending.

For Linda came home and Steve survived and he called when he landed in Oakland. The lady married her lieutenant. Linda and Steve Patterson have a young son . . . and they are indeed living happily ever after in Pacific Palisades.

Yet their time in Vietnam--even after almost two decades, despite the distractions of later years--will not go away.

The Christmas cards have been arriving, as they do every year, from former troopers of A Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne. There have been telephone calls and a Thanksgiving meeting with Steve's former platoon sergeant . . . and now a movie may be in the making, as yet uncast, but with its script written and financing being sought by independent producer Joseph Brazan.

This Christmas, the Pattersons must again remember that Christmas.

It all began in the heart and fears of Linda's brother, Joe Artavia, then 19, who enlisted in the Army and volunteered for airborne training and for the war in Vietnam. He was sent there, to Phu Bai and the 101st Airborne.

In January, 1968, Joe, then a sergeant, wrote his sister. He spoke of the morale of the unit. It was being weakened, he said, by news of anti-war protests in the United States. But what if there was support from one community? What if his company could be adopted by San Mateo?

"It would bring the morale of the guys up as high as the clouds," Artavia wrote. "Then, on special occasions like Christmas, they (could) send things to the company. It would be really great."

Linda thought so. So did the San Mateo City Council.

On March 4, 1968, the council formally resolved to adopt the company.

On March 15, Artavia wrote his thanks to his mother and sister and enclosed a roster of A Company members.

On March 24, Artavia's platoon was ambushed and a caring young man died.

Coincidentally, ironically, Lt. Patterson led the counterattack that rescued the remnants of Artavia's unit. Patterson was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. Artavia was given a posthumous Purple Heart and burial in Golden Gate National Cemetery.

"Joe's death shook the city," Linda said. "Their first adopted son, their Joe, was dead. It brought the war home to the entire city, but to a city that now saw itself as one family."

United, strengthened, the people of San Mateo began giving fully. Letters and cards to their soldiers. Food parcels to their Screaming Eagles. Pen friendships to their adopted sons, one of which would eventually produce a marriage.

"I was putting a yearbook together for the men, speaking to the Lions, Elks and Kiwanis, organizing mail and packages from churches and schools," Linda said. "It was like running a business . . . and taking up so much time it almost cost me my real job."

Sometimes it was a sad business: "When packages would come back stamped 'Deceased' or 'KIA' (Killed in Action) or readdressed to some hospital."

Mostly it was glad: "Especially when a little old lady, someone all alone in the world, would call and I could create a relationship for her until she would refer to the soldier as 'my son.' "

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