This will be my 78th Christmas, and as I think back over the unwinding years, I am aware that my greatest treasures are to be found in family, friends and an overflowing legacy of wonderful memories; that the fancily-wrapped and colorful packages ordinarily found beneath a Christmas tree count for relatively little in the long view of things. They are, of course, part of a set of traditions that should remind us that the acts of giving and receiving should be intrinsic to a life well lived. While it is difficult to remember specific gifts, there is one which touched my life so deeply that it remains resolutely unforgettable.
A cold Siberian wind blew snowflakes into my tent as our Squadron mail clerk knocked and entered, bearing in his gloved hands a sizeable brown paper-wrapped parcel. “You must have friends in high places Sergeant; I don’t know how someone managed to break all the shipping limitations with a box that weighs twenty-four pounds!”
It was December, 1952 and we were days away from the 20th Christmas of my life, my principal companions at this time the nine other G.I.s who were my tent mates, surrounded by the roar of non-stop gun fire and the intense cold of a Korean winter north of the 38th Parallel. The mysterious box proved to be loaded with every conceivable kind of gourmet food item, from smoked oysters and anchovy-wrapped capers to imported Italian sausages and tins of Russian caviar, along with more mundane but equally welcome biscuits, cakes, candies and cookies. And a beautiful Christmas card signed: “John Showalter, Rochester, Minnesota”. Tears still come to my eyes at the memory, more than 60 years afterward, not because of the caviar, but because of the story behind the unexpected gift.
With my orders to East Asia stuffed in a pocket of my B-4 bag along with leave papers, I was standing just outside the main gate of Sampson AFB in western New York State with my eyes facing north and my hopeful thumb extended. After 18 months of making this 250 mile journey, I was an experienced hitch-hiker with time-proven travel strategies. Even if lucky, the trip would take at least ten hours and require a dozen or more generous drivers to negotiate the numerous towns and cities through which I had to thread my way. Heading home for the last time from a U.S. base, I was surprised when a car traveling along NY Rte. 96A toward Geneva almost immediately stopped. It was a shiny newly-minted De Soto sedan with a well-dressed middle-age man behind the wheel. When asked about my destination, I mentioned the city of Auburn, knowing from long experience that it was best to use “leap frog” tactics in wending my way across the width of largely rural and suburban New York State before the age of Interstate thruways.
“That will work out fine for me”, the traveler said, “Auburn it is”.
It wasn’t long before I learned that my companion, whose name was John, owned a bottling company in Minnesota and was between sessions in a week-long business convention and was out to see the Finger Lakes Region. In time, he learned that my eventual destination was actually in Central Vermont and that I was on my way home for the last time before shipping out for Korea.
After an hour of warm and spirited conversation, and as we were approaching the town of Auburn, John asked me to pull out a folded road map from the car’s glove box, open it up and point out Randolph, Vermont – my home town. He thought for a few moments before speaking again.
“I have an idea. I’m on my own for two days with nothing in particular to do, and I’ve never seen New England. What would you think if instead of dropping you off in Auburn we just kept going?”
Thus began an eight-hour interlude which I could never have imagined, and an act of unmitigated kindness which blessed not one, but two lives. By the time we pulled up at the end of the farm driveway in Brookfield, Vermont, after 250 miles and a memorable steak dinner with all the trimmings in Albany, there was hardly a detail of either life which had not been warmly shared and heartily discussed. And a “greenhorn” of nineteen had been nourished by a brief friendship which would never be forgotten. That was the real gift, of which the unexpected Christmas box which somehow found me months later in faraway Korea was only a reminder. To this day I still don’t know how he tracked down my exact location. Sadly, and despite several attempts to reach him in later years, I was never able to say the personal thank you that still rings like a Christmas bell in my heart.