By Ernie McCray
On the ninth Christmas Day of my life back in 1947 I spent the morning feeling both happy and sad.
Happy that I had gotten the usual things boys pestered Santa and their parents for in those days, a cowboy hat and some chaps, perhaps, or a soldier outfit, or a pistol and some caps, maybe some skates. A book and a puzzle or two.
Sad, in the selfishness of my youth, that I hadn’t got what I wanted most, expecting for some reason, to get it based on a conversation I had overheard.
So, what the hay, as they say, I went outdoors to play, any old way, boasting with my pals about the goodies I found under the tree that day, struggling mightily to show gratitude for all that I had in life, trying to follow lessons I had learned from my mom and granddad and my Sunday School teachers.
But as the morning progressed I began feeling betrayed, lied to, cast aside, forgotten, mistreated, disrespected, misled, unloved, jerked around by both Saint Nicholas and the Lord up above…
Before the morning was over my mother called me into the house and announced that we were going to Sgt. Hudson’s house and I remember thinking, “What the hell.” The last thing I needed in life this Noel was to hear stories of World War I that I had heard so many times, sitting listening to him in the shade of his chinaberry tree for protection from the sun.
Actually I loved his stories because they were colorful and fun and well done but, come on, “What’s this all about?”
I wanted to strangle my mom. I sulked and pouted and moaned and she dipped into her bag of tricks which usually meant ice cream was involved. Or her super-delicious pound cake. Either one of those desserts usually got me over myself like nothing else.
But after that little bribe I semi-lapsed back into my funk, not eager at all to hear about: soldier’s freezing to death in fox holes and trenches, trying to avoid mortar shells, snipers, machine guns and marching and singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary” to soothe their bones and entertain their souls; hungry GI’s chewing on rations that were so outclassed by mama’s cooking back home; grown men suffering homesickness that made them cry in their sleep; frightened human beings evolving into heroes overnight, so many of them mere children who had lied about their age in order to enlist; troops hunkered down, partially protected by corpses that surrounded them; bayonetting; prison escapes…
It was Christmas for goodness sake. “I don’t want to go see Sgt. Hudson!” I cried. “Well, you’re going to! Move it!” she replied like an officer in one of the man’s stories.
So, off we strode, past the chicken coop in our backyard and I would just as soon have hung out with the residents inside, and we cut across the street just in front of my buddy Jimmy Smith’s house, to the Hudson abode. I could see Jimmy, through his front door, enjoying some prize gift he had received which didn’t help my “Woe is me, I never get anything good” mood.
We get to the house. My mom knocks on the door which Sgt. Hudson opened wide and there to my surprise, on his little living room floor, was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my life: a shiny new blue and white Schwinn bike.
I can still feel the smile on my face and see the smile on my mother’s face and the tears in her teary eyes, tears generated I’m sure from seeing me so happy and because of the overtime she must have had to work to be able to buy such a gift for her skinny nine-year-old boy. The good Sgt. wore a smile, too, one of having taken part in doing something special for me, like a black Santa Claus, obligating me to his war stories practically until the day he died. I loved that guy.
Boy, talking about Christmas joy. That’s a Christmas Day that has lived in my memory all these many years.