The tree that would grow in Brooklyn

... How Fish Deseo preserved the the memory of Christmas 1952

by Joe Sullivan

It was late November 1952 and they had been in Kumwah, North Korea for
about a couple of weeks. The occasion of their move was that the 25th
Division had gone back on line after being in reserve for a couple of months
or so.

Joe’s  unit the 8th Field Artillery Battalion was now in direct support of  the
27th Infantry Regiment, the “Wolfhounds” had taken up their dug-in
positions on what was known as the “MLR” the term for main line of
resistance. Out in front of the MLR was no-man’s land where some elements
of the Wolfhounds were dug in there in what were called Observation Posts
or in the words of the trade “OPs”

The Wolfhounds occupying  the OP’s were not only looking down Joe Chink’s
throat like the rest of the Wolfhounds,  but in position to check out his
tonsils. If anybody started messing with them they would call in fire from the
8th Field whose gunners would show the perpetrators what a very bad idea
this was.

Joe’s Headquarters Battery, of which he was a part, had inherited a wonderful
set of bunkers from the guys they replaced who were part of the 3rd Infantry
Division. Their slogan was “Rock of the Marne”. It reflected a heroic action
against the Germans in World War I of which they were so proud that they
kept the slogan to this day.

Doing the job.

Joe was sitting in one of these bunkers in front of an “Angry Nine “ Signal
Corps Radio. Its preferred means of communication was Morse Code where
messages were  tapped out letter by letter to the recipient who translated the
code into the letters it represented until the message was complete.

A complication was that the message itself was in a code. To get it decoded
the  radio operator had to call a kid named Sobizynski who would come up
to the radio bunker. To decode the message he would have to feed each of
its  letters one by one,  into a little box decoder.  He did it by twisting a dial
until a letter in the coded message would show  up in a little window on the
decoder, doing so  would produce the decoded letter into another little
window. He kept doing this until the message came together. Joe wouldn’t
know until then whether he had copied the incoming code correctly.

This procedure on one occasion happened about two in the morning. Joe had
taken down the message and called Sobizynski on the land line who then
had to haul hiss ass out of the rack and don the considerable amount of
clothing that would keep him from freezing during his trek in sub-zero
weather  to the radio bunker which was at the top of a relatively steep hill.
To Ski’s misfortune, his bunker was at the very bottom.

Translation to follow.

He was in a foul mood when he shoved open the radio bunker door. He
didn’t even say hello to Joe. Instead he held out his hand and Joe, after
getting up from the chair so Ski would have a place to sit while he was doing
his stuff, handed him the coded message.  

Everybody else in the bunker was gently snoring away in his sleeping bag
while Ski decoded, click after click, the message Joe had taken down. Joe
knew the process was finished when Ski went into a screaming rage waking
everybody else in the bunker. Ski never even slowed down when the troopers
started yelling for him to shut up.

Ski kept on screaming every foul-mouth obscenity that Joe had ever heard
and some he had never heard which was because Ski was probably  including
a few Polish ones. Sill in a rage, he grabbed up his decoder and burst out the
door into the freezing blackness.

Still puzzled by the cause of the outburst Joe noticed that Ski had left his
decoded message on the little counter-top that held the radio. He picked it
up and practically collapsed in his effort to keep from bursting into
hysterical laughter that would wake up the now settled down sleepers all
over again.

Wrapping his arms around himself to hold his sides, he rocked back and
forth to suppress  his laughter. Tears were in his eyes that he had squinted
shut,  his sides ached from the restraint. Finally he was able to control
himself. He took a deep breath and looked over again to see the message Ski
had decoded, “Keep your pencils sharpened.”

Moving on to greater things.

Joe was sitting in the same seat a couple of days later pulling radio duty. His
job was due to change soon. He would be going to work in the Fire Direction
Center as a radio operator. No more Morse Code, this job would be all voice
communication. He would be the go-between the forward observers and
spotter planes and the guys who would be working the firing charts in Fire
Direction . The chart guys calculated the adjustments the howitzers would
have to make, the kind of shell, size powder charge and fuse that would
need to be used to hit the target the observer was calling in.

Joe would be replacing Gooch Fallela who had been working as a teletype
operator for Western Union before he was drafted. When the Orderly Room
found out about his background they pulled a Switcheroo . Gooch could
blaze through a pile of documents  without error in no time flat. This meant
he would no longer work in Fire Direction. After a little training the new Fire
Direction radio operator would be Joe Rattigan.

A real crazy thing was that Gooch Fallela had a close pal in the Radio Section,
Fish Deseo. Brooklyn New York is a big place and it would not be unusual for
two guys from Brooklyn to be in the same outfit. But Gooch and Fish lived on
the same street in the same neighborhood, They had gone to school
together from the first grade. They had been pals since childhood. There
wasn’t a person in the world who could explain how they both ended up in
the 8th Field and in the same battery.

Another surprise for Joe was the way they talked. He thought it was only in
the movies that Brooklyn guys talked like the Dead End Kids. Wrong, the
language of Fish and Gootch was filled with dese, dems and doze. Foist,
thoid, and hoit. Just to listen to them was an adventure. Hoit? Hoit means

The street kids come together.

When Joe was the Radio Section rookie Fish and Gooch had teamed up to
work him over. He had every gopher job. Fetch and haul the water back to
the bunker.Pull the lousiest watches on guard duty. Work the midnite to 4AM
shift for radio watch.

Joe never acted victimized. He did the crap jobs without a word of protest.
He stayed nice to everybody. He even would say things every one in awhile
that made everybody laugh. After awhile the Fish and Gooch began to back
off. They had stuck him with the nickname “Moiphy” and, because there were
two of them they could make it stick.

Something else happened, too. They could see Moiphy was a street kid.
Through all their differences they began to realize he was like them. They
were all street kids. Their culture was based on their being brought  up in a
city neighborhood. The only real difference was that Moiphy lived on a
different street.

They would become pals. Moiph and the Fish became especially close. They
shared confidences, who they liked, who they didn’t, suspicions, hopes. In a
supreme irony Fish would rag on Joe’s Boston accent that would provoke Joe  
into a shaking giggle.

A funny-looking package.

It was during the transition when Joe was waiting to move to Fire direction in
early December. Joe was pulling radio watch in the Radio Bunker when Fished
pushed the door open. He was holding a long skinny-looking package. It was
maybe three feet or so long and eight, maybe nine inches wide.

Getting packages from home wasn’t unusual. Joe frequently would get an
S.S.Pierce package from his mother. Fancy crackers, cheese, jams, jellies and
candy were the usual contents. Joe had never seen a package like the one
Fish was holding. "What is it," he said to Fish, “ski’s? “

Fish ignored the wise crack. He took out his jackknife and sliced the tape the
entire length of the package. He then did the same thing with the tape on
the bottom and top of the box. He was being very careful.
He lifted out of the now open box  a  pudgy cylindrical looking thing. It had a
piece of brown paper that had been wrapped around it.  Again, with his jack
knife, Fish slit the tape that was holding the paper closed. He unfolded the
paper that had been wrapped around what was inside.

With the paper gone Fish held a green looking thing that appeared to be
covered with green paper strips. Joe thought it was one of those Mexican
things that the kids break with sticks so that the presents would fall out. It
looked like a long brush that you would use to clean out a pipe .

Holding it up straight Fish began in to pull away what looked to be green
sticks that were attached to this cylindrical looking thing. One end of each
stick was attached to the cylinder and Fish would fold out the other end until
it was sticking out.. He did the same thing with another one and then with

Joe finally picked up on what was happening..  “It’s a tree!” he said out loud.
“No, “Fish said as he kept folding out the green sticks, “it's a Christmas tree.”

Now Joe could see the reason the sticks had been covered with the green
paper strips. They were supposed to make the sticks look like they were
covered with  pine needles. With the sticks now looking like tree limbs Fish
set it up on the shelf in front of the radio. Joe was stunned by the transition.
“Okay,” Fish said, “Now we gotta decorate it ,”

The tree package  included ornaments. Little round, colored red, green,
silver, gold balls about the size of a quarter.. Fish hung  each one until they
were all hanging from the tree “limbs” After opening the package of tinsel
Fish carefully hung the strips. It was almost like he was in a reverie when he
turned to Joe and said, “The Star”

Joe puzzled peered at him and said, ” Whatta you mean,”
“Moiphy , “ Fish responded clearly agitated, “Ever see a Christmas tree that
din’t have a goddam star?” Joe, humbled, quickly rummaged through the
wrapping paper that was in the box. He saw a folded-over piece of
cardboard that was closed with a piece of tape.  Taking Fish’s jack knife he
cut through the tape, He opened up the cardboard and there it was, the
star.He held it up in front of his face and said to Fish in his best Boston
accent, “The staah.”  

The tree had some misgivings the most obvious being that almost all of the
boughs were the same size. The ones on the bottom were only a little bigger
than the ones on the top. You had to convince yourself  that you were
looking at a tree. Joe kept to himself that it was goofy looking but no matter
what, he felt good to know this was a Christmas tree.

They put the tree on the little counter in front of the radio. The radio
operator would have to use a clip board to copy incoming messages. But the
counter would be the most prominent spot for the tree. A small
inconvenience to display a Christmas tree.

Oh, Tannenbaum, oh, Tannenbaum.

The troops would gather in the bunker at the end of the day before evening
chow. They started teasing Fish about the tree.

“What the hell is it?” “Sick looking‘.” “Thing needs vitamins.” “Healthy dog ‘id
kill it.” “Undernourished” “Wonder if it’ll smell.” They kept on until Fish finally
exploded giving them some options that had nothing to do with Christmas.

His furious response made the group explode into loud belly laughs. Their
comments about the tree were only to provoke him into a furious outburst.
Even he sheepishly chuckled when he realized what the ragging was all

After a pause someone said. “The Christmas tree really looks nice, Fish.”
But everyone knew it didn’t. It was really a goofy-looking little thing. Joe
thought to himself that they weren’t talking  about a tree they were talking
about Christmas. It was impossible for Christmas not to look nice, And
wasn’t the goofy-looking, little Christmas tree  now in the middle of the  8th
Field’s 18 menacing howitzers there to  prove it?

Dealing with the contradictions.

The tree and the howitzers were a contradictory mix but not the only one.
For sure Father Nolan would be in to say Mass for the troopers on Christmas
Day. He always wore all his vestments. When the troopers looked at him they
saw s was the same thing they’d see if they were at Midnight Mass back
home. There was a contradiction here, too. During Mass when each trooper
went up to receive the most holy sacrament of his Church he did so with an
M-1 rifle slung over his shoulder.

New Year’s eve came and at midnight it was back to business. Battalion right
at 5-second intervals, 200 rounds. With every artillery piece in Korea
participating, the massive barrage would let Old Joe Chink know what he’d
be looking forward to for 1953.

Return of the Magi.

Joe had pushed open the door of the radio bunker. After finishing the
midnight-to-eight watch his every intention was sack time. Fish was there
and was writing an address with a black marker on a long thin package that
was held closed by twine that had been wrapped around it several times.

It occurred to Joe that this was the same package that held the Christmas
tree. Joe now understood why Fish was so careful when he unwrapped it. Joe
could see that the address was for a Desio on Hyde Park Avenue in Brooklyn,

Joe pointed to the package and said to Fish, “The tree?”
Tapping on the package with his forefinger like a lawyer presenting crucial
evidence Fish said, “Moiphy, dis is gonna be at home in my living room  on
Chrissmiss  day next year.”

Joe, mildly surprised, paused, raised up his thumb and said, “How to go,

Still here.

Over the years Joe would have many memories come to mind about his time
with the 8th Field. When he reached his eighty’s it dawned on him how
frequently he thought about Korea. It wasn’t like he was trying to recollect
things, instead these were memories that would just pop up. For all  the
things he remembered he knew that there must have been many things he
had forgotten.

There was one thing he knew he would never forget. Every Christmas for
sixty-three years later  he would remember, plain as day, Fish Desio’s goofy-
looking, little Christmas tree standing on the shelf in the radio bunker in
Kumwah. That was a great Christmas in some ways.

December 4, 2015  



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