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Uncle Charlie’s Gifts

A holiday Scrooge learns a lesson about Christmas spirit from a wartime letter

Bah, humbug. Here come the holidays. Again.

Grudgingly, I hang another pink globe on our vintage aluminum tree. Then I toss on some stringy silver icicles and sigh.

Just hurry up and be done!

OK, I confess. Christmas is not my favorite time of the year. I know I’m not alone. Like many people, I have relatives who’ve cut me out of their lives with no chance of reconciliation. I’ve lost precious loved ones and watched divorces wound family bonds. The memories make me ache.

With bittersweet nostalgia, I recall tucking tiny gifts in Christmas stockings for my two children and snapping photos of them by the tree. Now adults, they must choose where to celebrate. Mom’s house? Dad’s? Or maybe neither because that’s easier.

Then I remember my Uncle Charlie, who had no way out of the horrors he faced as an Army Air Corps captain during World War II. Charles G. Smith, stationed thousands of miles away from family and friends, awoke Christmas day, 1944, alone on a rickety cot inside a muggy canvas tent. Memories of past Christmases washed over him. Dreamily, he visualized his family’s tree, shining with tinsel, stars and bells, and surrounded by festively wrapped packages. Rich aromas of roasted turkey, cornbread dressing and spice-laden fruitcake wafted from his mother’s kitchen.

Oh, to be home again!

“I try not to feel too sorry for myself, but covering this march through Burma seems unending,” Charles wrote to his parents December 25, 1944. “I’m alone in a fighter plane every day, carrying a 500-pound bomb in each wing. Yesterday I discovered an enemy ammunition dump, dropped a bomb, and made a direct hit. You don’t linger even a second. A pilot could be a victim of his own bomb.”

Restless, Charles turned over on his cot just as someone outside rapped softly on one of the tent’s wooden beams. “Shine, captain?” Jylah, an Indian man he’d hired as a bearer, peeked through the tent’s flap. Charles grunted, stood up and reached for his mud-caked boots. Silently, he handed them to Jylah, who stood ready with a cutter and brush. Clean boots meant that Charles could run faster to his plane whenever a red alert blasted to warn of a possible enemy attack.

For both work and loyalty, Charles paid Jylah, who had a wife and four small children. Several times Charles had seen the post’s cook angrily chase Jylah’s kids when he found them rifling through garbage cans for food. “Sergeant, have you ever been really hungry?” Charles asked the cook once. But the man just turned and walked away.

Charles stretched and then opened the tent flap. For several long moments, he simply stood and stared, mesmerized by what he saw in the distance.

“The sun had just begun to peep over the highest peak of the snow-capped Himalaya Mountains. To me, she looked like the queen of the world, wearing a golden crown. As I watched the changing colors, a miracle of God’s handiwork, I felt infinitesimally small in a boundless universe. I wanted to give thanks for not only all this beauty, but even more for God’s gift to all mankind.”

Then he remembered again—it was Christmas! Suddenly, he had an idea. A glorious idea!

“Jylah, does your wife have a pretty sari?” Startled, the man paused from scrubbing a boot. Then he shook his head. Charles knew Jylah wasn’t lying. He’d seen Indian women on the streets, draped from head to toe in the traditional flowing gowns. Most, though, were dirty and torn.

“Let’s go to the village and buy one for her!” Charles said.

In a flash, Jylah set his work aside and raced out of the tent. Charles pulled on his trousers, shirt and boots, grabbed his billfold and ran after him.

In the quiet market, Charles found Jylah browsing through saris. Finally, the Indian bearer presented his boss with the sari he’d chosen. It seemed flimsy and drab compared to the others.

“No, not this one!” Charles tossed the gown aside. “We will find the most beautiful one here.” Charles examined the saris until he came across a richly colored one, fashioned from real silk and delicately embroidered with flowers. Satisfied, he handed the sari to the surprised merchant and paid his asking price, 20 American dollars. The merchant wrapped the sari in brown paper and tied the package with twine.

Jylah bowed as Charles handed him the gift. He tried to speak, but no words came. Instead, his lips quivered, and his eyes grew moist. With the package under one arm, Jylah bowed once more and then took off running.

“As I watched him disappear, I thought to myself that I would never see the look of joy and happiness on his wife’s face when she saw the sari and wrapped it around her body. Boy, do I feel good!”

Feeling good doesn’t quite describe my mood, which has gone from bah humbug to complete guilt after recalling Uncle Charlie’s story. Even though I don’t have war zones in my neighborhood, I’ve hit some tough bumps in my life. But, I quickly realize, my outlook’s up to me. I can be miserable during the holidays. Or, like Uncle Charlie, I can spread love and happiness to those around me.

Picking up another pink globe, I smile and hang it on our beautiful Christmas tree.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, a member of Pedernales EC, lives in Blanco.