A Christmas for Mother


soldierIt was Christmas Eve in 1952 -- sixty-seven years ago -- and was awaiting orders to ship out to my next assignment.

The fighting in Korea would continue for another six months and a lot of us were betting on a one-way ticket to Seoul, the capital of war-torn South Korea. We were told to expect the news about where we were going right after Christmas.

For those of us not on the KP duty roster, a two-day pass beginning at noon on Christmas eve was offered. My home was in Newport, in northern Vermont, hard up against the Canadian border, and it would take about 10 hours of solid driving if I had a car, which I didn't.

My first thoughts were (1) not to attempt 24 or more road hours on a 48-hour pass, (2) try to be invisible those three days before Christmas, thus avoiding any of the nasty duty assignments that many were surprised they had "volunteered"for, and (3) hope for a decent Christmas meal in the mess hall, followed by a non-war movie at the Post theater.

But on Christmas Eve morning I was in a far different mood as a bout of homesickness hit me along with a strong dose of Christmas spirit. The weather was fair, though gray, and there was no snow on the ground. At that moment the distance home did not seem to be impossible.

So, with a pass obtained 90-minutes early (what CQ, faced with this kind of ambition on Christmas Eve, could refuse?) I raced to the Post bus station to catch a ride to the Port Authority terminal in New York City. There, dashing to the underground level, I followed the green lights to Grand Central Station and, within the hour, boarded a north-bound train for White River Junction.

White River was still more than 100 miles short of home but it was the end of the line. I just knew that I could make the last leg of the trip on my thumb. Who would turn down a hitchhiking GI on Christmas eve?

I arrived at the train's last stop at about 8:30 p.m., the only passenger. The railroad station was deserted, and the lonely, skimpily decorated fir tree gave little cheer to the bleak waiting room. I knew the direction to the highway and moved out in that direction at a half-trot.

It was dark. The streets were dismal, wet with slush, the snow dirty and mounded at the curbs. I knew that the rest of the journey would be dull and boring, but I was buoyed by the season and the idea of surprising my parents.

If you ever drove a car in Vermont before the coming of interstate highways, you know that the volume of cars wasn't quite that of the Garden State Parkway. Thumb outstretched, I smiled brightly at the occasional car heading north on Route 5, and tried to show my olive-drab uniform to best advantage under a street lamp.

I was still confident that I could get home in time for Midnight Mass at St. Mary's. Soon a cheerful civilian stopped and brought me some 10 miles closer. Now, at nine o'clock, it still seemed likely that the final 100 miles by midnight was possible.

This time, outside city limits, it was a half-hour before my next offer. However, this one was well worth the wait -- almost 35 miles. But now it had started to snow and the driving was slower. Then, after another 15 minutes in the wet, snowy cold a happy young couple with a small child took me another 20 miles north, to St. Johnsbury.

My Timex now read 11 o'clock and, with only 46 miles to go, I felt I might not even be very late. I waited for another lift. And waited. My spirits sagged as it neared 11:30.

Then a convivial chap stopped. His joviality may have been caused by some Christmas spirits of the bubbly kind -- he drove slowly with good reason. At midnight, wishing me the best of luck, he dropped me in the middle of nowhere, still some 20 miles from home.

And there I waited, watching it snow. Waiting...watching it snow some more... waiting. No cars came from either direction.

Do you know how eerie it is on a snowy night when you can almost hear the flakes land?

The snow continued to fall and the conditions were what most people pray for at this time of year. Why should any cars be on the road at this hour? Anyone with any sense would have been snuggled up in a warm bed.

Then, at half after midnight -- it was now Christmas Day -- I saw a pair of headlights piercing through falling snowflakes the size of quarters. At first I wondered if my eyes were tricking me, as my mind whirred in anticipation of reaching my goal, the pleasure of being in familiar territory, the hope of still arriving in time for part of Midnight Mass.

The lights came closer and closer, then stopped. With a cheerful "Merry Christmas," two young men explained they were "just out for a ride in the fresh snow." When they heard my story, they didn't hesitate -- they drove me the rest of the way and dropped me at the front door of the church. Midnight Mass was still in progress.

Who were these pleasant and generous lads? Were they angels who came out of the night to assist me and deliver me safely to my destination?

It was 1:15 a.m. as I entered the packed church. Holy Communion was still being taken. For the sake of order, with such a large crowd, people went from their pew to the altar rail, received communion, and returned by continuing in a circle around the church and back to their pew.

I joined the line at the rear of the church. As I slowly moved with the parishioners down the center aisle, I saw my parents. My mother half turned as I looked her way. She looked away and then quickly took a second glance when she realized she had seen her baby boy, in uniform. She then smiled to herself the way only a mother can smile when she is very happy, content, and at peace with the world.

How long had she been worried about me being in the service during wartime? Did she think she might never see me alive again? What does a mother pray for at Christmas? How long had she been praying for my safety? Are prayers ever answered quite like this?

There are those who say Christmas is for children and, yes, that may be true much of the time, but I remember one time when Christmas was mostly for my mother.

Raymond Goyette is a retired insurance company executive. He lives in Budd Lake, New Jersey, and has three sons and seven grandchildren.

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