Washington Co., WI – I was a six-year-old little girl at the time, and war was raging. I knew that, but not really. I overheard talk from grownups sitting around kitchen tables who discussed places with strange names on the other side of the world. I listened.
Conversations centered on family members drafted out. I didn’t know what kind of draft was being talked about, and I never thought to ask. The only draft I was familiar with was the kind that blew in the door behind me on cold Wisconsin days.
My brother paid closer attention to the soldier talk than I did. Maybe it was because he was older, I don’t know, or maybe it was because he was a son and wondered if his own name would one day be discussed around kitchen tables. Whatever his reason happened to be, he knew what it was, and I did not.
He kept a pile of small, plastic army men in his bedroom. You could buy a whole bag of those two-inch-tall green men, molded into many different positions, down at the Ben Franklin store back then for a dollar.
My brother would line up his soldiers all around his bedroom–some on a dresser, some on the floor, and some on a windowsill hidden behind a curtain. Those plastic toys were the only experience I had with soldiers until the night one of them came to life.
It happened at the West Bend Christmas parade in Wisconsin in 1969. My dad, my mom, my sisters and brothers, and I were standing on a curb while the parade marched by. Everything we hoped to see that night came down the street from around the corner–snowmen, elves, gingerbread men, nutcrackers, and bands.
Santa would be last, as he always was, and it was almost time to wave at the master toymaker. And that’s when it happened.
From around the corner, the same corner we were expecting to see the Santa float come rolling around, came a long, flat trailer. No lights decorated it. No costumed angels or shepherds were riding on top. Nothing. Streamers didn’t hang from its edges, and speakers weren’t playing pre-taped holiday music from its rear. It was simply a long, flat, stark trailer, empty in all ways except for a lone man who stood at its center, a man who looked exactly like the green, plastic soldiers back home. But this man was real.
Painted on the backdrop behind the solitary soldier, who stood at attention in his army fatigues, were the words “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
And then it started to rain. I will remember it for always.
It rained from the hearts of old men who saluted the soldier back, old men who knew of other Christmases and other wars, and I watched their memories run down their cheeks.
Tears fell from the faces of young women as they looked at the soldier, statue still, who, in that moment, represented every soldier. Would they see their loves again?
Perhaps so, perhaps not. The sign on the reverse side of the backdrop answered such a question.
It could be read as the plastic man who was real rolled past, headed down the street. Printed in simple black letters on the reverse side of the trailer were the words: “If only in my dreams.”
Mothers saw that sentence and set their jaws, squared their shoulders, and attempted to be brave. Were they thinking about their boys so far away, boys they prayed for as they marched into battle to protect the lives of their loved ones back home?
Something happened on that curbside. I was just a little girl, but I knew it, and I felt it, and I saw it. It would take me a long time to figure out exactly what that was and, in truth, I am still trying.
Looking back at the Christmas of the plastic man, as I’ve done most Christmases since, usually when I’m on my way to another parade, I remember the night I stood in my little fur-lined boots in the snow. What was the power in those moments that left its impression on my young life and is with me still?
Was it the contrast of two worlds meeting on that street corner, the contrast of a world where the bounty of freedom is enjoyed and a world where the price of that freedom is paid? Maybe. It’s hard to say.
Yet harder still is to remember that there are places where Christmas exists only in the hearts and minds of those who left it behind them, those who, like our soldiers, know all too well there are no Christmas trees in trenches or choirs on the front lines singing about Bethlehem, places where it might be another year before you taste one of your mother’s Christmas cookies because you are sitting in a fox hole instead of in your favorite chair beside the fireplace back home.
We kiss our loved ones goodbye and they kiss us back. Then we send them off to places we’d rather not, and they go willingly because freedom has a price and bravery must pay it.
America has never been short on bravery, never ever. It lies in the hearts of the ones who go, and it lies in the hearts of the loved ones who send them, those who must wave goodbye and wait and wonder about those places they’d rather not, for this too takes courage.
My husband and I will wander down to the Christmas parade again this year, as we do every year. The little ones we once towed along are now grown and have families of their own. Our oldest grandchild is nearly the same age as the nameless military man from long ago.
As the parade passes, I will think about my memory’s soldier and reflect on the price my own children and grandchildren may one day be called on to pay and, knowing that, I will keep my eye on the chair by the fireside come Christmas.
About the author: Rochelle Pennington is a historian and author of the book “An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” a Midwest Booksellers Choice Award nomination for outstanding nonfiction.
“An Old-Fashioned Christmas” includes more than a hundred images–vintage toy ads (from Lionel trains and Barbie dolls, to Howdy Doody and Mr. Potato Head), black-and-white photos, and Norman Rockwell paintings.
An entire chapter on Billie-the-Brownie is included, as well as a CD of an original Billie-the-Brownie radio broadcast. “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” is packed with Christmas history, fun facts, “I remember! I remember!” trivia, and so much happiness. $19.95