My sister, Kathy, and I were just happy to be with our Dad again, having missed him through the summer months while he established a home for us in Madison. He selected a wonderful location on the shores of Lake Mendota about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Wisconsin. It was a marvelous home overlooking the lake. I now realize that the people who rented the house to our family must have considered our family plight because I doubt if we could have afforded the home on a Captain’s pay. It was truly exciting to go fishing off the pier or take a rowboat to the center of the lake and drop a line to catch perch.
We loved the gentle breezes of Mendota during the late summer and early fall months. When school began in September, we enjoyed the friendship of a whole new group of youngsters. That was one very positive thing to come out of the service. We made friends very quickly because we knew we would not be stationed in one place for very long.
As the weather changed, it became very cold. The snows were beginning to build and trudging to school meant detouring several blocks to avoid the strong winds off the lake. The short daylight hours were frigid and bleak. The realization of our first Christmas away began to settle in. We had become house-bound. There was no escaping the walls that seemed to capture our spirits and drain imaginations. We found things to amuse us, but nothing seemed to take the place of staring out of the windows and wondering what it would be like to slide down the hill to the lake on a sled. We did get outside, but it was so cold, we couldn’t take the chill for very long.
Kathy was almost two and a half years younger than I and was still very much in enthralled with Santa Claus. As her older brother, it was my job embellishing and perpetuating the story of the Jolly Old Elf, and carrying on as if the tradition would last forever. I know I didn’t do a very good job of pretending, but it was difficult for me to sit on Santa’s lap and smile at my sister while doing so.
In our family, Santa always put up the Christmas Tree about a week before the holiday while we were supposedly sound asleep. I had discovered the “Mom and Dad trick” a year or two before. I waited until my sis was old enough to appreciate my observation, and I alerted her to the charade going on downstairs in the living room. She bought that part of the story, but Santa maintained a prized position in her memory for years still to come.
As kids, we had sensed Christmas would never be the same during the war. Away from family and friends; no more decorating the outdoor trees; rationing on many of the basics that created candies, cakes and cookies. For my sister, how would Santa find our new address? I know these images must have entered the minds of our Mom and Dad because Kathy and I observed they were going above normal to prepare us for a Christmas in a slightly different way.
There weren’t as many holiday cards that first war year. My Dad received a number of greetings from his civilian patients. Most of them included a message of spirited patriotism and thankfulness for his service. I do remember getting some cards from classmates, but none from my friends at home. As December 25th drew near, the Christmas carols took on a different meaning than before. The words to “I’ll be home for Christmas,” had significance to me because it stressed the difference our present war time home life was to peace time. Even Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” could bring a choked-up feeling when it was played.
I’m not sure what my sister asked for from Santa that year. My requests were for “Lincoln Logs” ® and “Tinker Toys” ®. These were modest choices considering the seriousness of the war news. Those gifts had a lasting value because they didn’t break easily. I knew that Christmas might never be the same again.
Then, a few days before Christmas, my parents announced a surprise that put us all in the holiday spirit. My Dad’s parents, along with our Aunt Suzie and cousin Ronnie, would be in our home during the holiday. It was instantly like old times. Once again the joy of Christmas seemed to spring forth through our household. The decorations that had seemed bland became beautiful. Even the traditional carols took on a magical luster.
Though our tour of duty kept us away from our home in Indianapolis, from that Christmas on I knew we would make it back and everything would return to normal.
Merry Christmas…and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to one and all…and “May all your Christmases be white!”