One: Bad Back
The Christmas I was ten, I wanted a new bike like life itself. It was 1954. Ike was president, the NFL was in its infancy, and Elvis was in the future.The two-wheeler was my freedom machine in our old St. Louis neighborhood. A few blocks away was as exotic as the backside of the moon.
But my mom and dad had almost convinced me there would be no bike this year, things were just too tight. A nosy kid, I scouted our whole house, basement, garage, everywhere, right up to Christmas Eve, and sure enough -- nothing. It didn't occur to me they would hide the darn thing with our neighbors next door. Dad lugged it up our front steps very late on the 24th, setting me up perfectly for the happy surprise next mornIng.
He paid for it, though, by throwing his back out with the heavy midnight carry. That's how Christmas '54 became the unforgettable one when our father presided over the family's turkey dinner from a couch in the adjoining parlor, laid out flat and grimacing cheerfully through the pain. The things we do for love!
Fast forward to 1967, the Christmas I was 23. Donna and I had only been back from our honeymoon for a few weeks. Now I was an ocean away from her, and another half-continent away from my parents, serving on the USS Bonefish in port at Yokosuka, Japan. As the most junior among eight officers in our wardroom, I naturally drew the least desirable watch times. December 25 would find me on duty aboard ship all day.
It was a drab prospect until someone in our watch section thought of approaching a local orphanage. Would their kids be interested in joining us for an American-style Christmas party on a submarine? Would they ever, came the answer. Somewhere I have a faded snapshot of those beaming little faces as the Bonefish crew lavished them with gifts, treats, streamers and balloons.
Whatever celebrations our shipmates were having ashore, or our loved ones were having stateside, suddenly mattered a lot less to us. We'd found a way to make the season of giving real in others' lives. No beribboned present under the tree could have given us nearly as much joy.
Three: Waves of B-52s
If you say "Christmas bombing" to my grandson and his junior-high friends, you'll get a blank stare. But if you say it to politically-aware members of my generation, the Baby Boomers, you may get a flicker of remembrance for the bad old days of December 1972, when America's struggle for an honorable exit from Vietnam was culminating
As a young speechwriter on President Nixon's staff, I felt the anguish of his massive year-end bombing campaign over Hanoi in a more personal way than the millions of Americans for whom its was just another grim headline. The season of joy was darkened for me by questions about what kind of president this was, anyway.
Nixon’s potential complicity in the Watergate scandal was troubling enough to the boyish Midwest idealist I still was. Now on top of that we had his imperious call for all appointees’ resignations after the landslide reelection win, soon followed by the renewed aerial pounding of North Vietnam by daily waves of B-52s, even on the very day of Christmas.
I experienced not a bit of hardship from all this personally, of course. The year had brought electoral vindication for my boss and, with it, a promotion for me. We were snug and happy at home with our two little girls. We would soon bid on our first house.
But the jarring contrast of homefront celebrations with faraway devastation — and cruelty, some charged, though what is war itself but cruelty — forced me to confront the tragedy of our fallen world as never before. It was exactly this world of “sin and sorrow,” as a Christmas carol has it, that the baby Jesus was born to save, I realized.
Another decade rolled off the calendar, and our kids were entering their teens. With prayers and tears, Donna and I had weathered 1982 as the stormiest year in our marriage. It looked for a time as if we weren’t going to make it. Then it looked as if we might have to move to Michigan. Instead, by God’s grace, as the holidays approached everything was brighter, and we were concluding an autumn sojourn at Hillsdale College with the whole family reunited.
Next up, a two-car caravan (with U-Haul trailer) westward across the heartland on I-80, to be home in Denver by the night before Christmas. A blizzard was forecast, but we hoped to beat it. Wrong: it beat us. In the late-afternoon dusk of December 23, as drifts began to choke the interstate, we took refuge in a cheap motel in North Platte, Nebraska.
The storm worsened overnight, and in the morning there was snow seeping around our door. No driving today — and better lodging to be found if at all possible. Although the nearby Holiday Inn with domed swimming pool was well outside our budget, old dad was outvoted and we quickly decamped there.
The “Holidome” seemed as elegant as the Taj Mahal to our travel-worn gang. Our young son tapped me once an hour for quarters to feed the video-game arcade. Our daughter played touch football at poolside with a stranded airline crew. The day surreally glided by.
We awoke to sunshine on Christmas morning and rolled out for a slow but uneventful final day of driving. Stockings and gifts around our own fireside on the 26th proved as meaningful (or more so) as they would have been on the “proper” day before. It reminded us the best gift we could ever hope for, by far, was each other.
True it is that part of the magic this season holds is our annual revival of happy traditions and memories — Christmas unchanging through the years and through the generations. But these four brushes with adversity (trivial as they were in comparison with the way billions of our global neighbors must live) taught me something important.
I learned how an occasional encounter with “Christmas different” can dispel the dullness that comes with sameness, thus renewing our childlike wonder at what the Nativity really means. May that meaning shine as bright as the Bethlehem star for you and yours on this Christmas of 2016.