My Favorite Christmas
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it's a small event or fleeting moment that sticks with us. I was in the eighth grade the year of my most memorable Christmas. Dad had a delivery business in the town where I now live. It was Christmas Eve and I was off from school, so Dad asked me to go to work with him. I had done this only a couple of times before. A snowstorm was expected.
As a kid, I loved when it snowed, but snow was my father's worst enemy. In those days the roads were often left uncleared and barely passable. Cars were rear-wheel drive and snow tires weren't very effective. If the snow was deep enough, you could use tire chains, but putting them on was a major pain-in-the-butt, especially in the kind of weather that required them. Driving in the snow was only part of the problem. You had to maneuver around many stranded cars.
The snow came down lightly, but steadily, as we made deliveries in the morning. Dad took me to lunch at "Pasetti's", a luncheonette in Oceanside. This was a big deal for me as we didn't eat out much. I could remember only a couple of occasions when we didn't eat home or at a relative's house. Fast food joints had not yet become ubiquitous. People all over the country ate lunch at Mom and Pop places like Pasetti's. The fare consisted of homemade pies, burgers, malted milks, and blue plate specials. Dad was a regular there, and was greeted heartily by the proprietors. It was a revelation to me that Dad had a life outside the family.
We made our deliveries as the snow continued to fall. There was now nearly two feet of snow on the ground and the sun had long since set. In the darkness, the light from our headlamps bounced off the densely falling flakes, reducing our visibility to nearly zero. We made our last stop of the day at a butcher shop to settle up with the owner. The butcher, a man named Bill, beckoned Dad and me to the back of the shop through a thick plastic curtain. The room was dim and dank, and smelled of raw meat, blood, and sawdust. Animal carcasses, in various states of disassembly, hung nearby on hooks. Bill brought out a bottle of whiskey and a couple of shot glasses. They toasted to a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, but Bill didn't seem very merry at all.
Bill was a highly-decorated veteran of World War II, a former POW, and a tormented soul. With the snow continuing to mount outside and the smell of blood hanging in the air, Bill told us of his encounter with a German soldier in the Ardennes Forest. Bill's buddy had been badly wounded and couldn't walk. Bill laid down his weapon so he could carry his fallen friend. At a clearing in the woods, they came face to face with a German infantryman. Unarmed, Bill stopped in his tracks, waiting to be shot. The German raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. "Click". The gun had jammed. He lowered his bayoneted weapon and charged. Bill dropped his wounded friend in the snow and grabbed the rifle as the enemy moved in for the kill. They fought furiously and the German fell to the ground as Bill wrestled the rifle from him.
Each night afterward, Bill re-fought that hand-to-hand battle in his dreams, vividly recalling every insignia, badge, and button on the soldier's uniform. Indelibly etched in Bill's memory was the vision of the man's eyes opening wildly then glazing over as the bayonet ended his life. While that story brings up entirely different emotions for me now, as a kid I thought it was really cool.
We got back into Dad's station wagon and headed home. The way back was silent but for the clanking of tire chains and the continuous beat of the windshield wipers. There were no other souls on the road by that time and the wind had blown the snow into great drifts across parts of the parkway. Dad deftly navigated around them and kept the car moving forward. We finally pulled into our driveway, a bit weary and happy to be home.The warm glow from inside the house cut through the frigid darkness and cast a welcoming light on the snow. As Dad and I made our way to the front door, I looked through the window and could see Aunt Helen, Uncle Pete, Aunt Florence, and Uncle Jim, all gone now, enjoying Christmas Eve. I don't know whether I paused as I took it all in, but that moment is frozen in my mind. It's an image I hope I never lose.