A Christmas miracle
I arrived early in the morning at the San Diego railroad station and joined throngs of anxious holiday travelers who were heavily laden with baggage and Christmas gifts. We all slowly climbed aboard the long, crowded, overbooked holiday train. Lines of military in civilian passengers pushed and shoved each other, scrambling for the last remaining seats.
The long trip
The giant train engine, smoking and puffing steam, was ready to pull the lengthy train across the United States. It would take an eternity — four days and four nights — to reach New York City. Still weak from malaria and hurting from my recent battle wounds, I was not looking forward to this long, boring trip.
Awkwardly, I struggled down the long coach aisle, carrying my U.S. Marine Corps sea bag. Panic set in as I neared the end of this car. It was the last car, and all the seats looked occupied. My anxiety was interrupted by a loud voice: “Over here, Marine, and hurry up; I have a seat for you.” I hurried over and sat down next to a U.S. Navy sailor, and thanked him for the seat. “Hi, Mate! They call me ‘Ski,’ because of my long Polish last name.”
I replied, “Hi, Mate. They call me ‘Eddy Lee,’ because of my long Polish name.” We both grinned and clumsily shook left hands. My wounded right hand was in a sling; and his right arm was amputated, with his empty jumper sleeve pinned up at the shoulder.
When I saw the many Navy men and women struggling through the narrow aisle, I asked Ski why he, a Navy man, gave me, a Marine, this seat. Ski said, “Well, I saw your shoulder patch, your combat ribbons and battle status, and I knew that you and I fought in the same campaigns. You were on the land, and I was on the sea.” He added, “I served aboard USS Chicago, a cruiser named after my hometown. I lost my arm when we were torpe-doed off the island you were fighting on.”
The coach door opened abruptly, and the train conductor called out, “Last call for Salt Lake-Denver-Chicago and New York City — all aboard!” The locomotive’s loud steam whistle blew; then with the clang of its large bell we started to move very slowly. In a few rumbling minutes we picked up speed. Soon, with a resounding roar, we were crossing Southern California — headed east.
Ski and I were both proud of the Navy and Marine Corps, but were bitter toward the military hospital we had just left. This hospital had an inefficient administrative system, and their medical staff was overworked and burned out. Four years of war and the continuous flow of casualties rotating through this facility had created a callous attitude. We were disenchanted with the negative treatment we had received from the military personnel and the apathetic civilian world since our return to the United States. It was this type of poor man-agement that put us rehabilitating servicemen on this crowded train rather than on an airplane.
This would be my fourth Christmas away from home, and the season always made me sad because of the many friends who died in battle during this holiday.
Passing the time
Our iron horse was traveling at maximum speed, but across the great American desert it seemed like we were not moving fast enough. We passengers had too much time on our hands. We could sleep sitting up in our seats, stand in line for meals and the washroom, or reminisce bittersweet battle memories with our train mates. Ski and I agreed that we both became near atheists and cynics after three years of war. We all tried to sleep the time away.
The train stopped at Salt Lake City. The scenery was fabulous, but the cold, snow-capped mountains had us all putting on our overcoats. Our coach car never did get warm, and most of us were coming from the tropics via California, so we would not warm up for weeks.
En route to Denver, our train wound ever so slowly through many tunnels, around picturesque snow-covered mountains and valleys. I consoled myself that time was no longer important. What was my hurry? I would miss Christmas at home by a day. My parents had split up, and I had no home to go to. My girlfriend of four years had sent me a “Dear John” letter, saying she had waited too long for me to return and had found some-one else. And worst of all, when I was well enough for duty, I could be sent overseas to battle again.
We left Denver early in the morning in a snowstorm. Our train’s whistle blew often as we charged across the prairie states through a howling blizzard. It was nightfall somewhere in Illinois. Our train slowed to a crawl due to the poor visibility. The train’s mournful whistle wailed continuously, as we passed many small towns. It was very cold outside and getting colder inside our passenger coach. “Lord, will my luck ever change?”
It was Christmas Eve. The train conductor entered our car and called out, “It’s ten o’clock, two hours to Chicago, next stop Chicago!” He dimmed the lights and left. Most passengers became quiet or had fallen asleep.
Ski turned to me and said, “Eddy Lee, I’m worried about my family meeting me at the Chicago station and seeing me like this. I asked my girl not to come. What should I do or say to them?”
“Act natural. They know about your arm; try to be yourself. You all love each other, and I’ll bet they will thank God that you made it home alive. It will all work out fine; you’ll see. Now let’s try to get some sleep.”
Our train suddenly made an unscheduled, metal-screeching stop. A few waking passengers muttered, “What’s going on? Must be a mail or milk supply stop. This sure as hell isn’t Chicago!” Others looked out of their frosty windows and said, “This is nowhere.” Most of the passengers went back to sleep.
I looked out the window and could see only a small, dimly lit railroad station surrounded by large snowdrifts and darkness. The door at the other end of the car opened, and, in the darkened car light, I could barely see a small boy and a mature woman coming into our coach. They walked slowly up the aisle, looking at the passengers — or apparently looking for a seat. The two strangers cautiously headed toward my end of the car. I closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep, wondering why the train was not moving. It just sat there at this lonely, dark railroad station. I fell asleep for a few minutes, until I heard a noise in front of me. I slowly opened my eyes and saw a young boy about eight or nine years old standing in front of me, staring.
The boy smiled and said, “Welcome home and a Merry Christmas, Marine. My grandmother and I would like to give you a gift and thank you for serving our country.” The boy handed me a dollar bill and then shook my hand. The grandmother put her arm around me and said, “God bless you.” Then they both smiled and said, “Merry Christmas and goodbye.”
I was surprised and emotionally very moved. I said, “Thank you, thank you very much.” I searched in my sea bag for some sort of Christmas gift for the boy to reciprocate. When I looked up, I was puzzled that they were gone.
Our train whistle blew; we lunged forward and were rolling again. I quickly looked out my frosty window and saw the boy and his grandmother leaving the dismal railroad station. I waved goodbye as they slipped into the darkness. They did not see me.
I sat back in my seat bewildered, wondering what had just happened. Was it real? I queried Ski and the two soldiers sitting across from me if they too had seen the little boy and his grandmother. They said, “No, we were sleeping.” Ski added, “You must have been dreaming.”
My mind raced with questions. Who were they? Why did they pass by all those other servicemen including other Marines, and then stop in front of me? Maybe I was sleeping, and with all the medication I was taking for pain and malaria, it just could have been a strange, nice dream.
It was two more hours to Chicago, and I decided to try to get some sleep. But before closing my eyes, I looked down at my left hand and tightly closed fist. I slowly opened my hand and there was a crumpled-up dollar bill! My hand held the gift the young boy had given me proving it really did happen! I contentedly fell asleep with my pre-cious gift tucked safely away in my pocket and a pleasant feeling in my heart — the nicest feeling I had in a very long time.
The conductor came into the car and yelled, “Next stop Chicago, five minutes!” Passengers were taking down their baggage from the overhead compartments. I helped Ski with his sea bag. He was getting off. He was home. People were anxiously lining up in the aisles to disembark.
The train slowed down as we pulled into Chicago’s Union Station. Ski and I said our emotional goodbyes as the train came to a complete stop. The crowd of passengers left through both exit doors. I sat back, waiting to continue my odyssey of another thousand miles to New York City.
It was twelve o’clock and Christmas. As I looked out the train window, I was surprised to see hundreds of people, young and old, on the station platform, all holding candles, sheet music and singing Christmas carols. The people and the station were all decked out with the holiday spirit and decorations. It was a bitterly cold, snowy Christmas night in Chicago, but the holiday spirit was cheerful and warmed all our hearts. As I was enjoying the joyful singing, our train car doors opened, and the singing choirs of young people paraded in. Each singer carried a tray of food and drinks. Each tray held a complete Christmas dinner with a small gift on it. There were enough trays for everyone on the train. We were no longer strangers on the train. We all sang, ate and celebrated together. It was the most beautiful, festive Christmas I had ever had. Our generous Chicago holiday hosts all cheerfully wished us a “Very Merry Christmas and a Welcome Home!”
This train odyssey and these unbelievably beautiful events changed my bitter, emotional and spiritual feel-ings; I really felt I did make it home for Christmas!
Many years later I was telling this story to my family at Christmas time. I pondered out loud, “Who was that little boy on the train, and why did he and his grandmother choose me? Why me?”
Our visiting young niece was playing on the floor with her Christmas toy. She had quietly and attentively listened to my sentimental wartime train story and replied, “I know.”
We all looked at her, and I asked, “You know what?”
“I know who the little boy on the train was, and why he picked you. The little boy was God, and He chose you because you were very, very sad and disappointed with everyone and everything, and He wanted to make you happy again and welcome you home — and He did!”
Throughout the years I knew a Christmas miracle had happened to me when I needed it most, during the war, on that train, and in Chicago.