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The Message
Evansville, Indiana
December 20, 1996     The Message
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December 20, 1996
 

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A dark, cold night on the way to East Berlin :twas late in December, 1956. windows, we attempted to catch one Spirit. a happy group of Amer- ' glimpses of this "foreboding cap- As we finished the carol, the and women at Command, traveling on a headed for to spend the Christ- s time, East Germany by the Soviets, sector of West apportioned to them. one rail route from France, the route we were Soviet-con. trains were per- route at orders, in Russian, were conduct, and dis- without autho ng L your arrest." 11 p.m. We military the East German "and-one.half proceeded out of the train tive country." It was dark, freez- ing cold, and the bleak, snow- covered terrain made us think of Siberia. (It was at this very time that the Russians invaded Hungary.) The train stopped twice along the way, the last stop at an iso- lated rural depot, about half-way through East Germany. There was one dim light on the outside of the building. The inside was dark. Beneath the light stood an elderly woman clothed in a heavy coat and head scarf. Something indescribable came over us. With- out a word, we lowered the win- dows of the car, then with rehearsed-like precision, divided ourselves into two groups, one to sing alto, the other soprano. Since many of us were famil- iar with German, enough to make ourselves understood, we began to sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." Softly, then with increased volume and feeling, the strains of this Austrian carol floated over the man-made bar- riers to international friendship, joining singers and sung to in train began pulling away from the station, our lone spectator waving gently and smiling as tears glistened on her cheeks in the dim light. Little did we know at that moment what the conse- quence of our "fraternizing" would cause. It was one hour later, still within the Soviet Sector, that the Russians halted our train, delay- ing it for two hours while (as the newspapers put it the next day) the Soviet military "carefully examined all travel documents." This was to be the first in a series of "harassments" by the Soviets, eventually requiring secret talks between Russia and the three Western Powers to set- tle the problem. We reached West Berlin, reflecting on our experience with our lone German friend -- that the Spirit of Christmas, which is Christ's love, is alive and vibrant in hearts everywhere, and is immune to those who would seek to extinguish it. Connie Shafer Washington SGT. CONNIE SHAFER Stories OCcur in begins in And nStmas sto. events of a sin- Season, this a SUmmer out- a quiet fall ses later. 1949, our and dad, my brother and sas, With sever- and with our YOUngest of Was two lnny's id Were good ).enjoy an mg and oldest of the h:'tan:g boat, I was See that my :1 as often as sister Sue, Weren't the boat thought Danny inle the in it. relent. my n just a led nyone l't eone ng the A Christmas story that it was dangerous for swim- mers to swim in the boating area. Soon it was obvious that something was wrong because more swimmers were crossing the lake. Somehow, we learned later, the boat had capsized. Accord- ing to Mr. Beck, my dad grabbed the two Beck girls and swam to the shore about 50 feet away. Mr. Beck, who was not a strong swimmer, tried to make it to the shore with Danny, but Danny slipped out of his grip and dis- appeared beneath the water. As he struggled ashore, Mr. Beck saw my dad returning for Danny. Then he saw dad disap- pear too. Standing on the shore with his two daughters, Mr. Beck directed the first swimmers on the scene to the spot where he saw Danny and my dad disap- pear. In less than 15 minutes, they had my dad on shore, but they could not resuscitate him. They didn't find Danny until the next morning. But before we could begin opening our gifts, which we had always done on Christmas eve in the past, there was the sound of bells and a knock on the front door. My uncle went to the door, opened it, and in walked Santa with a big bag of packages. Santa sat down, called each of us by name, asked whether we had been good, then had the five of us line up along the wall across the room from him. "Can you say your prayers for me?" he asked. First me, then my sister Car- olyn, and finally my sister Betty -- each of us recited a prayer for him. Phil and Sue were still too young to pray alone. Then he asked us all to sing for him. Singing was something we loved to do, so we sang sev- eral song for him. Finally, he opened his bag and began dis- tributing gifts to us. After a little Christmas eve in 1949 was memorable. Not only was it our first Christmas without our dad; it was the first Christmas that Santa Claus visited our , home. After supper , on Christmas Eve,  Morn and my aunt and uncle took us to our grandfather's farm out in the country, just as Morn and Dad had always done. Like he had every Christmas I could remember, grandpa e, " gave the five of us each a silver dollar. We visited a while and then returned home to see that, just like in Christmases past, gdfls had appeared under the Christmas tIvce in our living )m while we were away. more chit chat with us and with the adults, he said he needed to be on his way and left. He came again the next year, and the next, and for at least five more years after that. And every year the routine was the same: Call us each by name, ask us to say out prayers for him; and sing as a group for him. I don't remember whether it was that first year or the next year that I asked my sister Car- olyn, who was only a year younger than me, whether she knew who Santa was. I knew he was someone we knew because of some of the things he said each year, but I couldn't figure out who. Neither could Carolyn, For several years we would ask one another after Christmas who we though Santa was. We never could fig- ure it out, and eventually we quit trying. On October 3, 1994, mother died after a five-year bout with liver cancer. She had raised her five children alone, working at two jobs for almost 40 years to see each of them through 12 years of Catholic schools. And she, who had never attended high school, lived to see all five of her children graduate r from college. ( I had traveled to Little Rock to see her in the hospital and say goodbye two days before she died. Cecelia and I and our children returned to Little Rock for the rosary and the funeral, arriving just a couple of hours before the rosary service began. My sisters asked me to begin the ser- vice by welcoming our family's friends and reminding them of Mom's reliance on her faith throughout her life, so I did. Then we all prayed mother's favorite prayer -- the prayer that she gathered the five of ua around her bed to pray each evening from the time dad died until we left home. She believed with all her heart that The family that prays together, stays together." After the rosary, many people came up to offer their condo- lences, as people always do. Many of them I recognized immediately. Some I barely knew. I had left Little Rock for good more than 30 years earlier, returning only for visits with family and a few close friends. Consequently, many of my encounters, particularly with the older visitors, began with them asking, "Do you remember me?" Sometimes that was fol- lowed with "I worked with your mother," or "I was your mother's postman," or "I belonged to St. Edwards with your mother," or "I was your mother's neighbor." Sometimes I would remember them and sometimes I wouldn't, but as we always are at times like this, I was impressed by the many people my mother's life had touched. Then, suddenly, an elderly man was there, my sister Car- olyn by his side. "Do you remem- ber me?" he said. I looked, but had to say, .:No, I'm sorry. I don't." I looked at Carolyn. She didn't say a word, but I saw the beginning of a smile shining in her eyes. "You used to pray for me, and you used to sing for me," he said. And after a brief pause he con- tinued, "I'm Santa Claus." "Jay," Carolyn said, "this is ttubert Beck." I laughed and said hello, and then, before I had a chance to think, I felt tears trickling down my cheeks. Jay Fredrich Evansville