A 1917 Christmas
by Ron Schrader
It was another cold night in the trenches as Jack huddled around a small fire with several other soldiers. The war had been long and hard, and had brought with it much pain and suffering, but right now, he was grateful for the heat that radiated from the glowing flames. He’d also made a lifelong friend in Martin, and was reminded of that as Martin handed him a piece of bread. Jack accepted with a smile and bit a piece off.
The two had met shortly after America entered the conflict, and had quickly become close like brothers, helping each other through every step of their journey together so far. And now, in these cold, muddy trenches, the two laughed with the other men who stood around the warm fire.
The irony that they were able to laugh at anything under these conditions wasn’t lost on Jack, but he pushed the thought aside. Even if it was only temporary, he wanted to forget the horrors of war, and the reality that lived just feet away from them, outside the trench.
Every so often a loud crack would pierce the crisp night air, reminding Jack and the others that a permanent slumber could be theirs at any moment, yet they continued, as best conditions allowed, enjoying the company and bond of friendship for however brief a time it would last.
Jack was from a small town in Montana where he and his wife Lillian, and their now 10-year-old son George, had a small ranch. It was a dream he and Lily had shared from the day they met. That was over twelve years ago, and Jack was now an ocean away from his home, his ranch and his family. Leaning his back against a dirt wall, he slid down and sat on the cold ground of the trench. His mind drifted as he reminisced, pulling up old memories, all of which reminded him of the short time he’d actually spent with them, Lily and George. He longed to be home, to hold and kiss his sweet wife whom he’d been in love with from the day he saw her. And George, what a fine young man he had grown into, always such a help to his mother.
He will make a fine man Jack thought to himself, grinning as feeling of pride swept over him. “Do hope to see them again soon” he muttered to himself.
“What was that?” Martin leaned in and asked. “You look a bit dazed,” he said in his normal boisterous tone, causing some laughter from the surrounding men.
“It’s nothing Martin. Just thinking about my family for a minute, wishing I could be home with them right now.”
His words extinguished all the laughter, and the sober looks on the men’s faces told Jack they were all thinking of home and family, while gunfire rang out in the distance.
Hypnotized by the flames, Jack let his thoughts wander, until Martin suddenly collapsed, followed by the sound of rapid fire from just outside the trench. Without hesitation, Jack dove to shield his friend from the bullets that were raining down around them. Then came a louder succession of gunfire from within the trench.
The noise stopped for just a second, and Jack turned his head back to see a lone enemy soldier, who’d somehow managed to sneak inside the trench. Then suddenly, a spray of bullets sent the enemy soldier backwards and to the ground, ending the threat in that moment. Jack collapsed in relief, and closed his eyes.
When the smoke finally cleared, two bodies remained motionless on the floor of the trench, where men had been talking and laughing just moments earlier.
“Jack? Martin?” a voice called out.
It was Christmas Eve as Lillian prepared dinner for two, a feast that could not be fully enjoyed this year without Jack. It had been weeks, perhaps months, since Lillian had heard any news from her husband and couldn’t help but think of the worst. Others in town had lost loved ones to the war, fathers and sons, so she knew that the odds of seeing her Jack again were not good, and yet she still tried to hold on to the hope that he would return. With these thoughts overwhelming her mind, she began to cry out loud, something she hadn’t done since Jack left.
George had been in his room and came rushing out. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” he probed.
She just motioned for him to come closer, then grabbed and hugged him tightly as her tears continued to flow.
George hugged her back in silence.
After several minutes, Lillian finally let go and smiled at her son. “You are a good man.” she said as she stood facing him with her hands on his shoulders. “Your father would be proud.”
George smiled back as he turned to go back to his room.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Lillian said as she watched him walk away. She waited until he’d vanished around the corner of the open door frame that lead to his small room, then closed her eyes and dropped to the floor again. The tears came quieter this time, and her thought’s remained on her little boy.
She loved George and was grateful to have him, so that she wasn’t alone. She’d lost both of her parents years ago, and with only one sister that lived a few days away, she would be lost without her strong boy, who had many of his fathers qualities. The thought gave her strength, and she quickly gathered herself together, wiped the tears away, and proceeded to finish preparing their meal for the night.
The snow outside fell thick and fierce as Lillian and George sat down to their evening meal. After a short blessing on the food from George, the two began to eat in silence, with Lillian’s thoughts on Jack, wondering how he was and when they would see him again. Suddenly a hard knock at the door startled her.
George stood abruptly and ran toward the door, and when he opened it, the light from inside cast a shadow on the figure standing outside. George stayed still at first, as though he didn’t recognize the visitor, but when the man stepped into the light of the entryway, George called out “Daddy,” and hugged him.
Lillian dropped her fork to the ground and began to weep, overcome with emotion. “Jack? Oh Jack!” She finally said as she stood up from her seat at the table and rushed to the door, embracing her husband who had not yet spoken a word. “I’ve been so worried about you.” she blurted out through her tears of joy.
“I’m here,” said Jack as he tightly held his family close.
Lillian pulled away just enough to look her husbands eyes, in disbelief that he was standing in front of her. Shaking her head slightly she asked “But…how? How are you here tonight?”
Jack ignored the question and motioned them all toward the kitchen. “Let’s just sit and enjoy this time together,” he responded.
Joyful noise filled the room as they sat at the table together, eating, talking and laughing, while Jack told them about his experiences, his friend Martin and the many good things he’d experienced, all in spite of the horror the war had brought into their lives. He told them how Martin and he had met, when they first arrived in basic training together, and how Jack had helped Martin improve his rifle skills.
Martin, on the other hand was a very outgoing fellow, well liked, and made friends easily. So he’d been able to help Jack fit in, and the two became fast friends, both playing well off one another’s strengths.
Jack told them about a time when Martin had saved a young soldier who’d been injured in ‘no man’s land’. Martin didn’t even hesitate as he rushed out into the open field, gun fire from the enemy flying all around him. By some miracle he was able to reach the young man and return unscathed to the safely of the trenches.
He talked about the comradery between Martin and several other men in his unit, how they’d become a big family, always watching out for one another. It made life as a soldier just a little more bearable, and had helped him get through the hardship.
This went on until late into the night, Jack mesmerizing his captive audience of two with the adventures he’d had, until finally he interrupted himself and said “George, it’s Christmas Eve, so you best be getting to bed or St. Nick won’t be visiting tonight.” He grinned and watched as George’s eyes opened wide.
George rushed to hug his mother, then his father, pausing for a moment to whisper something in his ear, then he hurried to his room.
Lillian smiled at Jack. “Help me clean up and we can sit by the fire for a bit before bed.”
Jack nodded, smiling back.
The wind blew hard outside that night, moving the snow fiercely about as it gathered around the home, but the fireplace helped ease the chill in the home, and Lillian enjoyed the silence as she sat with her husband, grateful to be holding him again.
Exhausted from the weeks of worry and fear, she held Jack close that night as they lay by the fire. The two only talked briefly before sleep overtook her, dreams replacing the thought’s of this long awaited reunion.
Lillian drifted off into a war-torn France, where she watched a scene from above, as though she were a bird gliding over the men and trenches below. It was a clear, crisp morning in her dream, and she could see several soldiers gathered around a man lying motionless on the ground. His face seemed to be covered by a haze that blurred any telling features, making it impossible for her to see who it might be.
The soldiers standing around him appeared to be paying their respects to a fallen brother, standing silently with their helmets in hand, heads slightly bowed. One man knelt beside the lifeless body, huddled over with tears streaming down his face.
She glided down to see the face of the man who wept, but the moment she got her first glimpse of his face, the early rays of sunlight ushering in the new day arrived and she awoke abruptly from her dream to an empty bed.
For a brief moment she felt a panic come over her, worrying that the previous night with Jack home safe had been nothing more than a dream. She threw the covers off and immediately jumped out of bed, then slipping her robe and slippers on, she rushed out into the main room of the house. She almost started crying when she saw George and Jack sitting on the couch together, talking and patiently waiting for her.
“Merry Christmas,” Jack said when he saw her. “Care to join us?”
Lillian smiled and walked to the couch.
They spent the morning together, enjoying the beautiful scene of glistening snow outside the front window, while the fireplace kept the room cozy and warm.
Lillian cuddled on the couch with Jack, watching George play with a toy airplane that Santa had brought for him. As his small hands moved the plane about, she was reminded of her dream the night before, and began to tense up a little.
“Is everything alright?” Jack asked.
She cuddled in closer. “I had the strangest dream last night,” she quietly said. She then proceeded to relay the dream she’d had, making sure to share all of the details her mind could remember, and when she finished her tale, she paused briefly, waiting for a response from Jack.
A few minutes passed by, but Jack just stared blankly out the window.
Lillian finally interrupted, and softly said “Jack?”
He turned his gaze toward her with a half smile and looked her straight in the eyes. “It was just a dream dear, just a dream.” Then he pulled her in close and held her tighter than he’d ever held her before.
It was nearing afternoon when George finally interrupted the tranquility, wanting something to eat. His hunger had finally outgrown his desire to play with the new toys from Santa.
While Lillian prepared a late breakfast, George and Jack sat on the floor, playing together. But playtime was soon interrupted by the call for breakfast, and the two boys quickly found their seats at the table for a tasty meal of pancakes and eggs smothered in butter and maple syrup.
The day went on, and breakfast soon turned to lunch, which in turn became supper. Although Lillian had cherished the day with her family, an uneasy feeling brought on by her dream the night before had lingered. And yet, she did her best to focus on the more powerful reality, that Jack was here with her and George now, and she needed to soak in every second she could with the two men she loved most in this world.
After supper, they sat on the couch as a family, talking until late into the evening, until Lillian and George both struggled to stay awake.
“We should all go to bed,” Jack suggested.
It had been a long, exhausting day, and Lillian nodded in agreement. “Shall we pray first?” she asked.
The family knelt in prayer, thanking the Lord for wonderful day they’d each had, happy to have been reunited for Christmas. When the prayer ended, George hugged his parents and ran off to bed.
“I’m so glad you could be home for Christmas,” Lillian said as she and Jack climbed into bed. Then she yawned and shut her eyes.
Before she drifted off to sleep, she felt Jack pull her close, and in a soft, quiet voice, he told her he loved her, and that he was proud the fine young man George was growing up to be. He told her that no matter what happens, she needed to be happy and know that everything would be alright. The last words she remembered before sleep overtook her was Jack telling her one last time that he loved her, and that he’d always be with her.
In her dreams that night, she found herself back on the battlefield once again, hovering over the same lifeless man from the night before. Only now, there were other bodies lined up next to his, and the soldiers from the night before were gone. She wondered if she might be able to see the face of the man this time, and as the thought entered her mind, she began drifting closer and closer. Finally, she haze faded and she could clearly see that it was Jack, lying there in the snow, still, yet peacefully.
At first, she felt pain and anguish, and she wanted to cry out, but a powerful feeling of love seemed to surround her and hold her close—much like a father would hold and comfort a troubled child. The feeling grew, and she knew everything would be alright.
Lillian awoke the next morning, alone in her bed. She pushed the blankets off, put her feet on the cold wooden floor, and reached for her robe and slippers. She walked into George’s room where she found him in tears, sitting on his bed.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Daddy had to leave,” he said with a tear stained face. “I asked him where he was going and when he’d be back, but he just said it was time to go. He said it might be a long time, but that I would see him again someday.”
Lillian held her son tight, and the two cried.
Later that day, while sitting together and talking on the couch about the wonderful Christmas they’d had, Lillian was startled by a knock at the door. George started to get up, but Lillian grabbed his arm. “Let me,” she said softly.
She stood and calmly walked toward the door, and when she opened it, a man in uniform stood before her, with a letter in his hand. She’d been expecting this visit, and before the soldier had said a word, she knew that he was there to inform her of the death of her Jack, which he confirmed as he relayed the message and his condolences.
She quietly thanked him for his kindness, accepted the letter he offered, and shut the door. Then she dropped to her knees wept. After several minutes, she sat up straight again, and told her son that everything would be alright.
George came and sat beside her, and on the floor, in front of the front door, Lillian began to pray, giving thanks through her sobs and tears, for the gift of the day before, to have been able to spend just one more day with Jack.
The days went by, and soon a week had passed. Then a month went by, then a year, until it Christmas Eve had come again.
It was getting dark outside, and Lillian and George sat on the couch in front of the warm fire. They reminisced about the previous year, about the special gift they had been given, to spend one more Christmas with Jack.
As the final rays of sunlight disappeared behind the snowy hills outside, there was a knock at the door. Lillian froze for a moment, and stared at George, who seemed to be in the same state of shock she was. Finally, she took a deep breath, slowly stood up, and walked toward the door. She reached for the doorknob, turned it, and slowly pulled the door open.
Standing on the porch was a man that looked to be about Jacks age, wearing an old, worn army coat. He took a small step into the light and said “Are you Lillian?”
“Yes, I’m Lillian.” She replied in a shaky voice.
“Hello, uh, my name is Martin.
He paused and Lillian could see the tears in his eyes as they glistened in the light.
“I promised Jack that I’d check in on you if anything were to ever happen to him. I’m sorry it took so long. May I come in?”
Lillian stood in silence for a moment, almost in disbelief before finally responding. “Hello Martin, Jack told us so much about you. Yes, please come in and get out of the cold.”
Martin entered the warmth of the home, and the three spent the evening remembering Jack, on a cold Christmas Eve.