The Christmas of ’42

Jeremiah opened his window and looked out toward the sea. It was a dead calm night; the stars were brilliant in the black December sky. He listened to the stillness until he could just make out the sound of the deadly German sub offshore. Surfacing under cover of darkness, it was recharging its batteries and a low humming sound made its way across the water. Jeremiah had heard this sound many times in the past year and it had become, to him, a herald of death. The war was real to Jeremiah and very close. Shivering, he closed his window and went back to bed.

The sun shone brightly the next day but its warmth couldn’t penetrate the cold that was wrapped around the village. Jeremiah came down to breakfast just as his father was leaving the room.

“Good mornin’, man. Remember, the Christmas order should be coming in today!” Bennie Gray knew his son loved to help open the crates full of toys and gifts for his store to sell.

“Great! I’ll get Bill, and we’ll go down to the landing. Mornin’, Miz Annie.”

“Good mornin’, Jeremiah. Now eat your breakfast so I can get this kitchen cleaned up. Just because you’re off for Christmas doesn’t mean you can sleep all day.” Miz Annie came every day to cook and clean for them. Jeremiah’s mother had died when he was very young.

That afternoon, the landing was crowded with children who had heard about the special delivery. The freight boat anchored out in the sound as the water was too shallow to come in to shore. A horse-drawn cart went out to meet it and the crates were all unloaded. Jeremiah ran beside the cart as it went to his father’s store, eager to see the treasures inside.

The store had already been decorated with garland and red paper bells, but to Jeremiah it looked empty until the toys were on display. Jeremiah was 15 now, and he was hoping for an air-rifle, so as he helped open each crate, he hoped to see a rifle packed inside.

The toys were mostly made of wood, as metal was one of the things rationed during the war; there were wooden trucks and rocking horses. Villagers were coming in already to see the display and to buy flour and sugar for their Christmas pies with the war-ration coupons they had saved for weeks.

“Dad, look at all this stuff, have you ever seen anything like it?” Bennie smiled indulgently at his son, remembering that Jeremiah said this every year. Opening the crates was almost as exciting as Christmas itself.

“Looks like there’s enough toys for everybody this year, don’t it? Are you boys going hollerin’ for Christmas tonight?”

“I think so, me and Bill have some good sized lids to bang on.”

The boys of the village welcomed Christmas each year by what they called “hollerin’ for Christmas”. About a week before the holiday, they’d run through the village at night, banging on any kind of noisy thing they could get a hold of, and yelling out “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat!” This tradition had been going on as long as they could remember. The boys didn’t know it, but the tradition had originated in England, where “humming for Christmas” had been practiced.

That night, Jeremiah and Bill went outside and listened. Sure enough, they could hear the calls from the other side of the village. They ran and each got a cattail, dipped it in kerosene and lit it up. Somehow holding a lard can lid, the cattail and a stick, they were ready to go. The sound got louder as the group of boys approached and Jeremiah and his friend ran to meet them. They ran up and down the sandy roads of the village as people peered out their windows, laughing at the racket. Fathers remembered their own days of hollerin’ for Christmas. In their day, they had dressed in old military uniforms or hats and played on fifes and drums.

The next day was windy as a northeaster threatened the island. Bennie told his son, “Jeremiah, I hear there’s a ship offshore, keeping close by. It must be waiting for a convoy to escort it past that German sub. I hope it weathers this storm all right.”

“There is? I think me and Bill will go down to the beach and see it today.”

The boys walked over to the ocean side and sure enough saw the ship. They later learned it was the S.S. Louise, a small Panamanian cargo ship bound for North Africa with a shipment of military truck tires. The ship was never to make its destination.

The next morning Jeremiah heard the news that the ship had wrecked on a sand bar and it was rumored that bodies were being held in the boathouse of Little Kinnakeet lifesaving station. Jeremiah ran to Bill’s house and the two boys made the long walk to see the wreckage. The previous night’s howling wind had brought rain and then snow and the sky still looked threatening. The boys dug their hands deeply into their pockets and walked quickly into the wind. The beach was strewn with tires, and some of the men from the village were looking at them and wondering if they could possibly use the tires in their cars. The boys decided to walk over to the lifesaving station. As they approached the station their steps slowed. Jeremiah wasn’t sure he wanted to see what the boathouse contained but knew he could not go back now. So he and Bill went in. There were nine men laid out side by side, their faces covered. Their hands were stiff in death. The silence of the room was colder than the air as Jeremiah slowly walked closer. Bill held back and, for once, was quiet.

Jeremiah had never seen a dead person before. He had wondered about it often as he listened to the radio reports of the far away war. And as he had heard the subs blast away cargo ships that year, he knew that men had met fiery deaths just offshore from his home. Jeremiah’s father and the teacher at school had explained what the war was all about, but the cost seemed so great to him as he looked at these nameless casualties. Their ship had not been a victim of submarine fire, but because of the danger, had been caught in the storm. There were two survivors and no other bodies were found.

On Christmas Eve, the villagers crowded into the church to watch the Christmas program. This tradition had been practiced since the settlement of the village with very little change. The small children went to the front of the church one by one and said their “speech,” with their Sunday school teacher close by to help if they forgot the words. The older children sang a hymn and the older boys usually made themselves scarce to the back of the church. This year, there was a solemnity to the service. The war had brought tragedy to their peaceful lives. Many local men were away serving their country and though they had been safe thus far, the wreck of the S.S. Louise had affected each of the villagers. They grieved for these men who had died so far from home, whose names they would never know.

The preacher had asked Jeremiah to read a passage from the Bible this year. He nervously made his way to the front of the church and read from Isaiah 9 verses 2 and 6 through 7:

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.

And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”

As the minister closed the service in prayer, all heads were bowed quietly. Jeremiah knew that his small world had been invaded by the darkness, but that the Light he had been taught about all of his life would see them though.

(This short fictional story is based on interviews of Avon residents, in particular Gibb Gray, who was a young boy in Avon in 1942.)

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