This is an old but goodie from my book, “Whitley County Kid,” (available on Amazon). The time and some descriptions have been changed to protect identity, but the gist of the story from my childhood is true. And bears retelling every year.
In the 1960s, I was an elementary school student. My primary concern each December was what presents Santa Claus would bring for Christmas. From the moment the Sears Wish Book arrived, I leafed through the slick pages, highlighting the toys I wanted.
Before big box stores, our rural village had a bustling business district. Farmers came from the country to visit the Farmer’s Elevator. Wives bought flour, sugar, and necessities at the G & G Market. People gardened and canned, so few bought vegetables or fruit, except in December when the high school’s Sunshine Society sold Florida oranges to benefit Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
Citizens visited the brick post office to see Postmaster Clarence Pook, pick up mail, and catch up on local news. Across the street, a comfortable white house served as the town’s busy library with a real-life Marian the Librarian, Marian Bollinger. Edna Michels, the Story Lady, donned a bonnet and old-fashioned long dress to host weekly story hours for children.
The day after Thanksgiving, the volunteer firefighters hung giant red and white plastic candy canes from the lamps on State Street and displayed a life-sized manger scene near the three-way stop on the south end of town. Snow came early and blanketed the ground until after the IHSAA boys’ basketball tournament at the beginning of spring.
My father bought our real Christmas tree every year from a local tree farm. Our ranch-style home lacked a fireplace, so my brother and I hung our red and white flannel stockings on the windowsills. Mom used Elmer’s glue and green glitter to paint our first names on the white furry part of the red flannel Christmas stockings.
My father taught high school science and agriculture and advised the Future Farmers of America chapter. Each year the FFA chapter raised money, bought the high school a real Christmas tree, and decorated it with blue, green, and red bulbs and fragile, sparkling glass ornaments. The school community enjoyed the tree until the semester ended.
Tradition dictated that the FFA boys and my father take the tree, decorations and all, to a needy family chosen by the other teachers. Our 1965 Chevy Biscayne station wagon was inadequate to cart the nearly nine-foot tree to this family, so Dad borrowed the school’s World War II-era Army truck from Willie Sims, the maintenance man.
School was out for the semester a few days before Christmas. Dad let the chosen family know they would be receiving a large, fully decorated Christmas tree. Dad and several of the FFA boys would bring the tree to their home.
The children ranged in age from an infant to an eighteen-year-old, with ten other children in between. The father was out of work, a rarity in Middle America then, when manufacturing and farming jobs were readily available. There were no subsidized school lunches, free books, or heating assistance.
Dad had his students put the decorated tree in the back of the old truck. The three of them—the thirty-something schoolteacher and the two teenage boys in blue corduroy Future Farmer jackets—were in a festive mood, congratulating themselves on the good deed they were about to do.
They traveled east on the state highway past well-manicured farms, bright, freshly painted red barns and white fences. As the old truck turned onto a county road, pieces of packed ice and gravel spit up from the vehicle’s worn tires.
Nearing the family’s home, Dad turned around and looked in the truck bed to check on the gift.
No green and red metal tree stand.
Nothing but an empty and scratched truck bed.
Dad turned the truck around. He and the students retraced their steps to town where the shops were closing for the night. The twinkle of holiday bulbs and the lights from the Evangelical United Brethren Church signaled evening.
Nothing could be found. Now past five o’clock, stores were already closing, if not already closed, on State Street. It was two days before Christmas.
Dad thought about it. “What should I do? Should I go home and get our tree?”
He did not believe that was a reasonable choice, with his two small children enjoying the tree, but he steeled himself for that option. If need be, he thought, his children could learn about sharing.
With darkness coming, the gray truck and three not-so-wise men arrived in town. A tree lot at the used car place was closing for the night. Dad reached for his wallet and bought the healthiest tree that remained on the lot. Then, off to Huffman and Deaton’s Hardware for lights and ornaments and a new metal tree stand. Joe Huffman was closing his register for the day but recognized my father and let him in.
With a new tree in the bed of the beat-up gray truck, the group headed east again. As they tentatively approached the family’s large farmhouse, they could spy children watching them from each window. The family’s older children greeted the group and set up the tree in their living room. Dad noticed a stack of presents and bags of candy and fruit donated by the Lions Club and other community groups.
The scent of anticipation and cinnamon apples hung in the air. The teacher and the teenagers left the family with happiness and wonder.
Our family had our usual Christmas celebration. I am confident we went to our German Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, and my brother and I sang in the children’s program.
I am certain nervous children in Sears’ plaid robes re-created the manger scene.
I am certain we sang carols about a needy couple two thousand years ago who had their child in poor surroundings.
I am certain my brother and I ran from our bedrooms early the next morning to see what treasures lay wrapped and waiting under our tree.
I am certain my brother and I balked when our mother made us eat breakfast before unwrapping our numerous gifts and toys.
I am certain Christmas was delightful though I cannot remember one specific gift I received or what we ate at our holiday meal.
I don’t know what happened to the large family. I haven’t lived in my hometown for more than thirty years.
What I do know is this: my father spent much more on the family’s tree and decorations than he did on ours. Dad and those long-forgotten high school students received a huge blessing when they saw the lights in the eyes of those children.
My family receives a blessing in the annual retelling of this tale, with its message of the power in giving.
Several weeks later, Dad went into the brick post office to pick up the mail and chat with Clarence Pook, the postmaster. A man Dad did not know began talking to Clarence in a loud voice.
“Clarence,” the stranger said. “It’s the oddest thing. You know, I was driving out east of town a few nights before Christmas, and you would not believe it, I found a completely decorated, beautiful nine-foot Christmas tree that someone had thrown in a ditch!”