words and image: Chad Colley
However, for most of us, it is hard to recall what happened to that special gift. The “one gift” that must be received for Christmas to be, well, Christmas. Truth be told, just a few of these treasures made it beyond a season or two. Like most Christmas offerings, they soon rusted, fell apart or became outdated or tiresome.
Such it is with tangible gifts. But there are other gifts that can’t be wrapped in bright paper, colorful ribbons and placed under the Christmas tree. Their true value may not even be noted or appreciated at the time, but their worth is sufficient to last a lifetime.
The Christmas of 1956, my eleventh, was just such an occasion and just such a gift. My father was a captain in the Army, and the previous autumn the entire 10th Infantry Division had moved to Germany from Ft. Riley, Kansas. In the years immediately following the Korean Conflict, retention in the Army and morale were drivers of moves such as Operation Gyroscope, which reassigned the units together, thus sparing the soldiers from becoming the “new guy” and having to reacclimate. It proved to be highly efficient and most appreciated by the men and officers and their families.
In the context of this narrative, we need to picture the challenges of travel over six decades ago. Travel by air was limited, expensive and unfamiliar to all but a few men and women of the 10th Infantry. They had arrived by crossing the Atlantic in a troop ship with a train ride at each end. The idea of flying back to the United States for a wedding, funeral, or Christmas was beyond consideration. None had any expectation that their return home would be any sooner than the three-year tour to which they were assigned.
The first Christmas in 1955 passed with just a little angst, but the following year it was fraught with a sense of gloom and homesickness. Most of these young men had not traveled more than a few hundred miles from home until they went to work for Uncle Sam. Yet here they were, thousands of miles from home in the dark of winter, with scant indications of the holiday season to which they were accustomed.
Who wouldn’t be homesick and longing for a real Christmas? What they had experienced the first year away from home could best be described as institutional. The dining hall had contained the requisite decorated tree, ornaments, seasonal pictures and a four-foot plastic Santa Claus. The Christmas Day meal offered a menu appropriate for an occasion with delights not generally afforded in the mess hall. No reason to expect anything but the same the second year away from family.
My father was the Commander of a Heavy Weapons Company that was composed of 120 or so men divided into four platoons. And these men were the focus of a Christmas surprise! Mom and Dad had caring hearts and a willingness to be of help with no expectation of a reward, just the satisfaction of loving God’s children. They didn’t follow rigid propriety that typically kept officers from socializing with enlisted men. Not when it interfered with helping meet the needs of a weary soul.
We lived in a modest, at least by today’s standards, three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Probably between 800 and 900 square feet. The kitchen was quite small and therefore a challenge to undertake any serious entertaining. The dining table seated six and was at one end of an open living room.
On Tuesday and Friday of the second and third week of December respectively, my family hosted each of the four platoons to a down-home Christmas party. There were familiar homemade fixins, and some recipes required the men to jump in and lend a hand. They certainly got into the swing of things and spirits were high, the sounds joyful and a sense, I believe, of family was not unlike what they were accustomed to at home.
The meal was more like a Christmas picnic given that some sat on the floor with their plates while others rotated through the few seats at the table. Oh, but the desserts! They were epic. Six or eight pies of several flavors, cakes, cookies and homemade candies. We do like our sweets! Who could confine themselves to just one flavor? So, it was a little of this a little of that until a surfeit of such tasty fare was reached.
While this was going on, my brother Ken, four years younger than I, entertained and played with all comers, sharing a plethora of toys. An electric train, little wind-up cars, a trumpet and drums, three-dimensional wooden interlocking puzzles. The puzzles were a big hit because we timed our guests, pitting one three-man team against another. There was a lot of ragging the slow group (not what they called them) and boasting and disputes as young men are want to do. Just the kind of thing these guys would have been doing back home with siblings, cousins, and friends.
Rising above the din of these activities was the singing of Christmas carols around the piano in the living room. The sounds, smells, tasty desserts and the joy of every man and boy in the lot, were certainly in evidence that Christmas.
As the party neared the third hour with all the dishes cleaned, order restored and well wishes extended, the soldiers departed for the walk back to their barracks. A jovial, if not rowdy, group of young men celebrated the coming Christmas with joy and a sense that there could be peace on Earth even if far afield.
Countless times over the years my mother has questioned my brother and me to see if we felt slighted because the gifts under the tree that year were affected by the significant expense for the party. She can stretch a dime further than the great majority of folks, but a captain’s pay in 1956 was still pretty miserly.
Of all of the Christmases I’ve celebrated and all the gifts I’ve ever received, which one is, without equal, the most loving, meaningful, instructional and lasting gift? Why it’s the one I celebrated with more than one hundred big brothers!
These are the six aspects of my best Christmas gift ever: the gift of empathy, the gift of joy, the gift of brotherhood, the gift of sharing, the gift of the possible and the gift of self. This gift has shaped the character of my brother Ken and me for our whole lifetimes.
Do you wonder how these young men felt toward this experience? Aside from the numerous men whose paths crossed with my dad’s until he retired, ten or more have come to my parents’ home with gratitude. Some came on numerous occasions. Often Dad would receive a phone call that started with, “You probably don’t remember me, Sir, but in 1956 …..”
It really doesn’t get any better than that.