Our family Christmas tree ritual was the same every year when I was growing up.
My dad, Bill Henry, and I shopped in the lot beside the grocery store. Searching for the perfect pine was always better if a light snow fell, which was highly likely in Ohio. My dad shook it to see if the needles held tight or fell. He twirled it around to discover bare spots. It had to be taller than he was. He brushed the branches downward to check for symmetry. When he finally asked, “What do you think?” I knew he’d found the winner. All I had to do was agree.
My mother always said it was too tall. He never agreed. When the angel was placed on top, it missed the ceiling by an inch or less every year.
My dad knew what he knew.
Attaching the lights was tedious. Because 1950s bulbs were large, they got hot, making it necessary to place the strings turned off. When they were lighted, invariably, too many burned in some places and none burned in others. My mother’s eagle eye spotted each error. Patiently he unclipped and relocated until she was satisfied.
He sat in his rocker and called out the blank spots as she and I hung glass ornaments dusted with frosty glitter. Then she added the icicles. Because my dad and I had haphazardly tossed them onto a tree once, we were never allowed to try again. She meticulously draped each one, resulting in tiered hula skirts of shimmering tinsel.
Each year my dad announced, “That’s the prettiest one yet, Betty.” She assured him it was because we’d found the perfect tree.
“Karen and I just got lucky,” he’d answer and wink at me.
But my dad wasn’t always lucky. Fate dealt him some bad cards.
He was an amazing high school athlete, scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals to join their farm team. Playing professional baseball was his childhood dream, and just as it was in sight, a tragic accident, as he slid into second base in his senior year, left him with a broken ankle. Pieced back together with metal pins and bands, he never ran again.
But our backyard bordered a school playground where he’d take me to play baseball, hoping I’d learn to throw and catch. If a ball didn’t fall into my glove, I wasn’t motivated to run for it. But the neighborhood boys did. My dad drew them like flies to honey. A powerhouse hitter, each crack of his bat sent them running like rabbits. And he could pitch every kind of ball, too, making them drop and spin and loop as the hapless boys swung at thin air. And they loved him.
During World War II, he had a second chance at recognition. Because that old injury kept him off the battlefield, he was a crackerjack at running the office where he was stationed in Chicago. He knew how to manage people. He was easy-going, charming and had an endearing sense of humor. He saw nothing but the best in his staff. And they loved him. So the army scheduled him for their London office to work as an aide to General Eisenhower. My mother always said it was the honor of his life.
But the war ended before he went overseas. Another chance gone.
Instead he was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, IL, to oversee German POWs. He never talked about it, but my mother said he had a grand time with his assigned prisoners. He didn’t bark orders and stand aside as they worked on camp projects. He rolled up his sleeves and worked with them. On Saturday nights he slipped in beer and played cards in the bunkhouse with them. When he was criticized by his superiors for being too easy on them, my dad insisted they’d been through enough already and would return to very little. He knew the reality of their ravaged hometowns and scattered families. When his squad was shipped back to Germany, the men gave my dad gifts–a handkerchief and a carved wooden soldier. He kept them in his top dresser drawer all of his life.
The war had been over many years before I learned what else they gave him.
After our tree was decorated each holiday and my mother and I had gone to the kitchen to bake or wrap gifts, my father turned off the living room lamps and stood alone at the tree and sang “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”) in German, the way his men taught him at Camp Grant.
I don’t know what he was thinking, but I’d guess it had nothing to do with winning or losing a war. It had everything to do with a band of men who just happened to start out as the enemy and ended up being his friends. My dad saw them for the heroes they were. And they loved him.
Somewhere across the sea, I believe they remembered him, the kind American soldier, for the rest of their lives. And they sang “O Tannenbaum” for him.
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