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Author’s Note: I would like to thank my beta readers, especially katbybee of ff.net, who while reading an early draft of this story realized that her Hogan’s Heroes characters and my version of Roy might easily encounter one another in Vietnam. She lent me her original character, Taffy Matthews, to make an appearance here, and we will be collaborating on a story later that will be a true crossover. Thanks are due as well to my son, my husband, and to my faithful readers. I love hearing from you all!
In this story, I bring you a little bit of my version of Roy’s backstory. More is coming after I finish Stirring the Ashes of Memory. I have had a story focused on Roy growing in my mind for a couple of years now, and I have finally begun writing it. For those who might take issue with the timeline, I realize that the US was not officially involved in the Vietnam War until 1965. However, we were there in an advisory capacity earlier, and my research indicated it was reasonable to bring Roy in early to help train South Vietnamese medics. It also allows for that awesome collaboration I mentioned above.
Christmas Eve Gift got its start about two years ago, as we came up to Christmas 2015. I wrote the first several pages, having fun writing in bits and pieces of my own childhood (the patched leather recliner in front of a fireplace… sitting in my daddy’s lap listening to music on the record player). The biggest piece of my childhood in the story is the tradition of “Christmas Eve Gift.” My sisters and I learned it from our dad, who learned it from his dad, who learned it from his mom. I don’t know how far back it goes, but I have read it is common in Oklahoma, where my dad comes from and where I envision John Gage spending the latter part of his childhood. Whoever would wake up first on Christmas Eve morning would attempt to beat my dad at saying “Christmas Eve Gift!” The person who managed it would get to open a present a day early. To this day, I still call him as early as I can on Christmas Eve, but he’s hard to get!
I hope you enjoy this story. I had originally planned to hold on to it until Christmas Eve, but have been itching to share it ever since I finished it just before Thanksgiving. Consider it my early Christmas gift to you all!
December 23, 1976
Roy DeSoto sat in the small family room in the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, a mug of hot chocolate in one hand while a Christmas record on the turntable played “Little Drummer Boy.” Gus, the DeSoto family mutt, dozed at his feet. Behind his patched black leather recliner, the kids’ stockings hung over the fireplace — they had added one this year for little DJ’s first Christmas. In previous years on a cool night like this, Roy would have lit the fire in the fireplace, but tonight the hearth was cold, a stark contrast to the warm Christmas glow that had settled over the rest of the room. Fitting, Roy thought, given the icy sorrow he felt seeping into his bones and wrapping around his heart.
Setting his mug down, he adjusted the sling on his left arm. Tomorrow the splint on his fractured wrist would be replaced with a cast, just in time for Christmas. I’ve said it before, God — I’m not a religious man, he thought. No doubt JoAnne could figure out what you’re doin’, but I just don’t see it.
The stairs creaked, and Roy looked up in time to see Megan poke her head into the room. “Daddy?” she asked. “Mama said not to come in ‘less you said it’s ok. Is it ok?” By the time she finished her question, she had already padded halfway across the room in her slippers and last year’s Christmas jammies, which were her favorites even though they were now a size too small. Tomorrow she would get brand new ones and JoAnne would slip these inconspicuously into the donation bag.
“Of course it’s ok, Swee’pea,” he croaked, and then coughed. He held out his good arm to gather her into his lap. “Daddy could use a bit of your sugar.” He kissed her red curls and made exaggerated chewing noises, a bit of silliness that always made the little girl giggle.
She leaned her head against his chest, just as the needle advanced to the Hallelujah Chorus, and her small hand reached up to pat his cheek. “Mama was talkin’ to Aunt Eileen and she said you’re real sad ‘cause you had a rescue go shower. I don’t know why your voice sounds so funny if there was a shower ‘cause Mama always runs a shower when I get a bad cough… she says humidy’ll help it. Maybe you need more humidy, Daddy.”
“Humidity, Swee’pea,” he corrected. In spite of himself, Roy smiled. Given a chance, Megan would go on and on, a lot like Johnny. Roy knew he should scold the little girl for listening in on her mother’s phone call, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. A rescue last shift had indeed gone sour, and it had left him feeling very sad. At the moment, all he wanted to do was hold on to his family and never let go. He pressed his face into Megan’s freshly washed hair and inhaled the sweet scent of strawberries, his soul welling up with thankfulness for her. “I’ll be fine, Darlin’,” he promised. “Hey, isn’t your favorite Christmas song next?”
“The Night Afore Chrissmas?!” she asked, sitting up straight, her worries forgotten.
“That’s right,” he said, relieved that his distraction tactic had worked. “Why don’t we listen together, and then you scoot back to Mama. The sooner you get to bed, the sooner it’ll be Christmas Eve.”
“An’ Uncle Johnny promised me th’ Chrissmas Eve gift!” she crowed. “Chris won’t beat me to it this year!”
Roy chuckled, glad to have a moment with his daughter to lift his spirits. “Well, he promised that if you called him first and beat him saying the words, you would get the present.” With no children of his own, Johnny had initiated the DeSoto offspring into a Gage family tradition. The first DeSoto child awake the morning of Christmas Eve would call Uncle Johnny and try to beat him at saying “Christmas Eve Gift.” If successful, that child would be allowed to open a special gift a day early. Megan, not quite five years old, had never yet beaten Chris to the punch, but she was convinced that this would be her year.
Determined not to let his emotions dampen Megan’s Christmas joy, Roy held her close until the song ended, then kissed her forehead, accepted her kiss on his cheek, and sent her upstairs for JoAnne to tuck in bed. Alone again, he reached for the extension cord beside his chair and unplugged the Christmas lights. He leaned back in his recliner and pulled the lever to raise the footrest, then closed his eyes to listen to “What Child Is This?”, his thoughts returning to the failed rescue early the previous day.
The klaxons sounded in the middle of the night, ripping through the dreams of the men at Station 51 and yanking them into immediate wakefulness. “Station 36, Station 51, house fire, fully involved. 403 E. 238th St. 4-0-3 East 238th St. Cross street, Panama. Time out, 01:18.” Before Sam finished repeating the address, the men had scrambled into their boots and turnouts, and were rushing to the engine and the squad. Roy climbed in the driver’s seat and accepted the address slip from Captain Stanley, while Johnny settled himself in the passenger seat and strapped on his helmet. Barely a minute after the call had come in, both vehicles were rolling out of the engine bay and turning west on E. 223rd, sirens blaring through the night.
Station 36 was marginally closer to the address and Roy expected they would arrive before 51’s did, but 51’s reached the scene first. A young woman dressed in a long cotton nightgown stood sobbing on the front lawn of a corner lot, firmly held in place by a grey-headed man. Roy could tell from the way she strained toward the house that she wanted to run back in. Someone was trapped inside. He and Johnny jumped out of the squad and pulled on their SCBA while Captain Stanley directed Chet and Marco to pull an inch and a half. The two linemen moved quickly to obey while the captain approached the woman.
Roy could hear her repeating over and over, “My babies, my babies,” occasionally interspersed with “Gerald.”
A few seconds later, Stanley headed over to his paramedics. “Her two small children, Tommy and Lisa, are trapped inside. They were in their beds. Second and third doors on the northeast end of the house. Her husband Gerald got her out and went back for them. Make it quick, men. In and out.”
Together, Gage and DeSoto ran toward the house. A glance and a gesture was enough for the partners to communicate in the chaos of smoke and flame. They walked through the entry, then turned right down the hall toward the bedrooms.
The smoke was so thick, they had to get down on hands and knees and feel their way along the corridor. Roy’s hand landed on Gerald’s arm about halfway along. Debris had fallen from the ceiling, knocking the father down and pinning him to the ground. A quick look was enough to ascertain that this victim was already gone. Underneath his still form was a small boy, no more than a year old. Roy breathed a sigh of relief when he felt Tommy’s wrist and found a strong pulse. He pulled the child out from under his father and handed him to Johnny. “Get him out!” he shouted over the roar of the flames. “I’m goin’ on to find the girl!” Johnny nodded, then turned and made his way back down the hall and to the door. Maneuvering cautiously around the debris, Roy continued crawling.
He had barely passed the father when he found her, lying still in the hall, one hand grasping at Gerald’s bathrobe. Her pulse was barely discernible. Roy pulled off his SCBA mask and placed it over her face. As he gathered her into his arms, a loud cracking sound drew his attention. He bent protectively over Lisa’s little body as the ceiling caved in behind him, effectively blocking their path to the front door. Now that he had given up his mask, his lungs felt as if they were blistering in the heat. He knew they had to get out of there fast, but he took just a second to pat Gerald’s arm and make him a promise. “I’ll take good care of her.”
He pulled Lisa into the first bedroom and closed the door. It was smoky, but not as bad as in the hall. Still, a prickling sensation on his neck warned him that the fire was about to flash. He wasted no time in moving to the window and breaking out the glass with his helmet. The window was set about four feet off the ground, above a child’s dresser, so he couldn’t just climb through it with the girl. Thankfully, Captain O’Donnell from 36’s stood nearby. Roy got his attention with a shout, then passed Lisa into his arms. Once she was out, he clambered atop the dresser and propelled himself through the window just as the fire flashed over into the room. 36’s linemen were nearby to help him to his feet. He pulled away, ignoring his dizziness and the pain in his wrist, and jogged over to the squad. Johnny and Nick Dees from 36’s were already working on Lisa, but Roy could tell it was more for the sake of her mother standing nearby than because she had a chance. She lay there on the ground, her brunette hair splayed out around her, looking just like the porcelain doll JoAnne’s mother had given Megan for her fourth birthday, except instead of cherry red lips, Lisa’s were blue. Roy could only stand there, useless, wheezing as he cradled his broken wrist against his chest and cursing himself for not keeping his promise to Gerald.
Roy shuddered, forcing his mind back to the present. He couldn’t remember much of what happened next, but the image of that little girl was seared into his mind. While 36’s guys had continued working on Lisa, Johnny had gotten his partner on oxygen and splinted his wrist. Next thing Roy knew, he was at Rampart being treated for smoke inhalation, with only a vague memory of Lisa coding in the ambulance. Several hours passed before Dixie gently broke the news that the child hadn’t made it.
“Honey?” JoAnne called as she came down the stairs. “D.J.’s finally down and Megan is all tucked in. You still in there?”
“Yeah. Just thinkin’,” he answered, noticing suddenly that the music had ended and now the needle scraped at the end of the record as the turntable continued to spin.
JoAnne poked her head into the room. “You turned off the lights already?”
“Yeah.” Roy caught the concern and disappointment in her voice. During the holiday season, once the kids were in bed, he and Jo would usually sit for an hour or so in the family room, where they would listen to Christmas music and enjoy the lights and just talk while drinking hot cocoa and munching on caramel corn or peppermint bark. But tonight, his heart wasn’t in it. The fire that had stolen the lives of Lisa and her father began with a short in the Christmas tree lights, which had been left on when the family went to bed. The first thing Roy had done when Dr. Early released him earlier this morning was to come home and carefully check the string of lights on the tree his family had decorated on Chris’s sixth birthday a week before. Even though he knew the wiring was sound, Roy now felt safest with the lights unplugged.
Why am I so torn up over this rescue? he wondered. Unwelcome as it is, death is part of the job — we knew from day one we wouldn’t be able to save everybody. It always hits hardest when kids die, especially this time of year, but I’ve seen it before and have managed not to bring it home with me. This time, though, I just can’t shake it.
He was only barely aware of his wife changing the record. Soon Tennessee Ernie Ford’s rich baritone crooned out one of JoAnne’s favorite carols. The Christmas lights blinked back on and JoAnne gently tugged him out of his armchair and over to the sofa. “It’s not going to happen here,” she said softly as she handed him a chocolate chip cookie. “Your favorite. I can’t believe you didn’t smell them baking. Usually you’re hovering in the kitchen ready to snag a few fresh out of the oven.” She chuckled.
“Sorry, honey,” he said, unable to suppress a wry grin. “Guess I’m distracted.”
“I know,” she said with a soft sigh as she squeezed under his arm and nestled against his side. “This one hit close to home, didn’t it?”
He rested his chin on the top of her head. “Yeah. I can’t get that poor mom out of my mind. She lost half her family, along with her house and just about everything they owned.” He gestured at the tree and the pile of presents surrounding it. “How can I enjoy this, knowing what that mother is going through right now?”
JoAnne squeezed his fingers tight and craned her neck to brush her lips against his. “I know, honey. I know.”
They sat side by side, and Roy appreciated the depth of JoAnne’s love for him, her understanding of what he needed. She didn’t talk and didn’t expect him to — she seemed to know he didn’t know how to put what he was feeling into words. And so, she just let him hold her. Roy wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes tight. He felt the need to cry, but he couldn’t even do that — the tears just wouldn’t come.
“Jo?” he finally asked. She had relaxed against him, but he could tell from her breathing that she was still awake.
She sat up a bit and turned so that they could talk face-to-face. “Yes, love?”
“Why did God let it happen? I mean… he could have stopped it, right? And… this close to Christmas. It just… it all seems so cruel.” He felt awkward as he fumbled for the right words. They had always had an understanding — JoAnne would be in charge of the spiritual development of their children and Roy could just go to church for baptisms and at Christmas and Easter, at least when he wasn’t on duty; otherwise, they left the subject of religion alone. “You… well… you always seem to understand that kind of thing… better than I do.”
JoAnne’s eyes welled up as she gazed into his, and he felt guilty for burdening her with his own troubles. “I’m sorry, honey,” he said, and he wiped away a tear that had escaped to trickle down her cheek. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, no,” she said, shaking her head for emphasis. “I’m not upset at you, Roy.” Her fingers stroked the side of his face and he leaned in to it, craving her touch. “Listen, Roy… when we got married, I promised ‘for better or for worse.’ When the worst hits, like it did at that fire, I want to help you carry that burden, just like you’ve done for me over and over again.”
He just nodded… at the moment, all his words seemed to catch in his throat.
“As for your question… why did God let it happen… I don’t understand it either, but I do trust Him, and I believe he’s grieving right along with you and with that mother. This world is broken, Roy… hard things happen. You know that better than anyone, because you see it every time you go to work. But God… He can make something beautiful, even from ashes.” She hesitated a moment before adding, “Every day, I look at our family, our life together, and I know this is true.”
Roy’s brow wrinkled. Before he could ask JoAnne what ‘ashes’ she was talking about, D.J. squawked over the baby monitor. Within a matter of seconds, his complaints had morphed into a full-blown wail. JoAnne sighed heavily, kissed her husband’s cheek, and then sat up straight. “I’d better go get him,” she said, raising her eyebrows and offering an apologetic smile.
When she returned, the baby fussing in her arms, she had a small leather-bound volume in one hand. At first glance, Roy thought it was her dad’s old Bible, but when she handed it to him, he read the word “Journal” stamped on the front cover. Under that, in small gold letters, was the name JoAnne Frazier. “I need to change him, but I wanted to give you this first.” She kissed Roy on the forehead, then hurried back toward the stairs. “The bookmarked page,” she tossed over her shoulder before she disappeared around the corner.
Roy moved back to his armchair and turned on the reading lamp, then opened the journal and began to read.
October 8, 1963.
He blinked and rubbed a hand over his face. Just from the date, he knew what JoAnne would be writing about. It was a time he didn’t like to think about. He had never really talked with her about it either, never heard what it was like from her side. But she wanted him to know now… for some reason, she thought it was important that he know, so he turned his eyes back to the page and forced himself to read on.
I haven’t had a letter from Roy for two weeks now. Usually I get two a week. Tomorrow I’m going to visit Mrs. DeSoto! I’ll ask if she’s had any word. I’ll admit, part of me wonders if maybe he found another girl… one of the nurses, maybe. But I know Roy too well to worry about that for long.
A ghost of a smile flitted across Roy’s lips. “None of ‘em could hold a candle to you, Jo,” he whispered.
October 9, 1963
Had to postpone visiting Roy’s mom because Mother said she was ‘feeling poorly’ and couldn’t do without me. She absolutely infuriates me! She was just fine by suppertime, of course. Still no word from Roy — and of course today Mother had to inform me that she’d read a medic in Vietnam has a life expectancy of about seven days. I know she’s unhappy about my engagement, but did she have to say that? It’s like pouring salt on a wound — except salt kills germs and mother’s words just spread heartache. Dad says to be patient with her, and I try, but sometimes she just makes me want to scream. I don’t know how Roy puts up with her the way he does.
October 12, 1963
“Corporal Royal Christopher DeSoto… missing in action.” The telegram arrived at Mrs. DeSoto’s house while I was there today. I’m glad she wasn’t alone. We held each other and we cried together and after a while she called Dad to come and get me. I’ve been feeling numb all evening. Can’t write anything more just now.
October 13, 1963
When Dad brought me home last night and we told Mother the news, she didn’t say a word. She just retreated upstairs to her room without even looking me in the eyes. I know she loves me, but this bitterness of hers toward Roy is just driving us further and further apart. It hurts more than she can know. The moment I needed her most, she was upstairs hiding. Dad got me settled in bed and brought me a cup of peppermint tea and then just sat and held me. He didn’t say a word when I cried. Just having him there helped, though… Dad always makes me feel like I can get through anything.
Please, God… let them find him. Let him be safe. Bring him home to me, please.
Anger flared in Roy as he read about the anguished 18-year-old JoAnne and how Carolyn Frazier could not manage to set aside her own anger long enough to offer her daughter a mother’s comfort and love. Thank goodness for Jim.
November 3, 1963
Roy is still missing. Every day after I’m done at the library, I visit Mama DeSoto and we spend time together. I hate for her to be alone these days. She was already lonely without Roy home, and him going missing has just made things that much harder.
Mother is talking to me again. This morning she informed me that her friend Mildred Burgess is coming over for dinner this evening and she is bringing her son. Frederick Burgess is 21 years old and a pre-med student at UCLA. Mother says he has ambition and is certain to be rich one day, and that he will be able to support me the way I deserve.
I’m sorry to disappoint Mrs. Burgess, but I will not be there for dinner tonight. I’ve packed a bag and Dad is driving me over to spend the night with Mama DeSoto. He never stands up to Mother’s bullying, but he tells me over and over that he’s sorry she does this to me and someday she’ll come around.
The news out of Vietnam worries me more each day. I never used to watch news, but with Roy missing, I feel a need to know as much as I can. Vietnam’s president and his brother are dead — some say by suicide, others say they were tortured and killed. Where is Roy now? What is he going through? If only my wishes could carry him home.
Roy felt JoAnne’s hand on his arm. She had returned from changing the baby and tucking him in again, and he hadn’t even noticed. He looked up at her with a rueful smile. “I’m sorry I never asked what it was like for you.”
She shrugged. “It was worse for you. Your mom and I… we got each other through it.” She peered down at the pages and then flipped them a few. “Read that one, and on through Christmas. I’m going to go make some more hot chocolate.” She picked up the plate of cookie crumbs and the empty mugs and carried them toward the kitchen. Roy resumed reading.
November 22, 1963
President Kennedy was killed today. No word yet about Roy. I’m scared.
Roy remembered that day… or maybe it was the day after. His sense of the passage of time in the camp had been skewed. The commandant had assembled the men in the muddy prison yard and railed at them. “Your great leader is dead!” he had proclaimed with a sneer. “You are nothing. Your country is nothing.” After the announcement, he forced them to stand in place for several hours.
When the ordeal was over, Roy dared a sideways glance at the men languishing in the tiger cages as he and his fellow prisoners filed out of the yard. His medic’s eye evaluated their appearance — the recently captured were distinguishable by the fact that they were not yet emaciated. Their clothing, though dirty, did not hang in rags. Not long ago, he had been one of them, saved only because his medical skills were needed. Near the end of the row was a ginger-haired captive whose dark eyes watched the procession. He was thin, but looked relatively healthy, and he was holding something in his hand, scraping it back and forth against the metal bars of his cage. The fool kid is trying to escape! Roy thought. He’ll get himself killed!
As if he sensed Roy’s eyes on him, the kid looked up and their gazes locked. Roy narrowed his eyes and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, and he knew from the spark in the kid’s eyes that his advice would most likely be ignored. A sharp jab in the ribs from a guard’s rifle reminded Roy that he had no business troubling himself with the caged men. Knocked off balance, he went to his knees. Everyone else just kept moving toward the huts — no one dared stop to help him up. He scrambled to his feet before the jab could be punctuated with a beating, and followed the rest of the men out of the yard.
Later that evening, as he lay on his pallet in the hot, steamy hut, Roy wondered whether he should believe the commandant’s account of JFK’s assassination. Only later did they get confirmation from Taffy that it was true. The men were demoralized for a time, but they could not dwell on it. All their energy had to be focused on survival.
December 11, 1963
Mama set up the guest room for me. Mother keeps trying to find me a new beau. I told Daddy I just can’t stay at home right now, and he gave his blessing. Mama invited me to church tonight, to a special prayer service for Roy. I didn’t want to go at first — my only experience of church is the one Mother attends, with its ice-cold reverend and constant disapproving stares if anyone dares smile — but Mama insisted. She said her church was different… and she was right. Mama’s pastor smiles, and the people welcomed me warmly. Mama told them all that when Roy came back, he was going to marry me, but that in her heart, I was already her daughter. In Mother’s church, I always feel as if joy is a dreadful sin and I never dare speak above a whisper.
At Mama’s church, joy is contagious; so is hope. Even when the pastor stood up behind the pulpit and gave his sermon, I felt as if he were having a personal conversation with me. I’m glad I went. All my life, I’ve had the fear of God seared into my heart and my mind and I hated it. Once I turned 18, I told Mother I was never going to church again.
Mama says she’s only been attending here since shortly after Roy shipped out. A church member walking past her house saw the blue star in her window and left an invitation to a prayer meeting on her door. Everyone was so kind to her, she kept going back and soon was attending regularly on Sundays. She found a whole new family ready to embrace her, and now I’ve found them too.
Roy felt guilty. All these years, he had held himself aloof from the very people who supported his mother and fiancée through the worst days of their lives. Throughout his life — especially since Vietnam — he had allowed only a few religious people to penetrate the walls he erected to protect himself from the painful memories — Sister Barbara… Taffy… Carter. Loving his family and doing his job consumed all his energy, and he had none left for God.
December 18, 1963
A new telegram arrived today. “We regret to inform you that Corporal Royal Christopher DeSoto, listed missing in action 18 September 1963, now presumed dead.” Mama and I held each other and cried.
Roy squeezed his eyes shut, but the tears seeped through and spilled down his cheeks. He had never understood the bond that had grown between his mother and his wife while he was away. Only now did he see it — it was not only the faith they shared, but their shared grief as they faced the loss of him that had created a bond as strong as blood.
He turned the page and read on.
Mama wants me to go to church again this morning, but I don’t think I can. How can I believe in a God who would give me a love like Roy and then snatch him away from me? All those prayers — they meant nothing! Mama says have faith, trust God… but I can’t! Mother got her doctor to prescribe a tranquilizer for me. She sent the bottle of pills over with Daddy. I sat in my room and stared at it and thought about taking them all at once. Those thoughts frighten me. I flushed the pills down the toilet, but that doesn’t change what I am feeling. Living without Roy hurts too much. I just want to curl up in bed and fall asleep and never wake up.
The emotions Roy had held in check for the last 13 years came gushing out in a flood of tears, and he stopped trying to hold them back. When JoAnne returned and wrapped him in her arms, he clung to her and wept without shame, his shoulders heaving as each sob wrenched its way through him. “I’m sorry, Jo,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She let him cry until the sobs subsided, and then she held his face in both hands and looked him square in the eye. “Royal Christopher DeSoto, you don’t have anything to be sorry for. When we found out you were alive and coming home, Mama and I agreed that we would let you deal with what you had been through however you needed to. We would let you lead the way. I kept that journal hidden away, waiting and praying for the right time to share it with you… well, tonight I just felt that it was the right time.” She took the journal, which had fallen to the floor, still open where he’d left it. “You need to read just a little more. Please?”
“I think… I need to take a break first,” Roy told her. He felt raw inside, exhausted, not sure his heart could take another emotional hit. “I will read it… soon.”
JoAnne replaced the bookmark where he had left off and set the book on the coffee table. “How about some more music?” She flipped through their Christmas records and found one of German Christmas carols. Soon “Stille Nacht” came through the speakers, and JoAnne took her spot next to Roy again. They ate cookies and drank hot chocolate and talked about the kids. Megan was excited because tomorrow, she would get to try to stay up and attend the late service at church with her mommy and Chris. Roy could tell JoAnne was hoping he would offer to go as well, but he said nothing. He had already attended his requisite Advent service, last week, when the Sunday School performed their Christmas program. If he hadn’t broken his wrist, he would be on duty Christmas morning, and he was pretty sure JoAnne would try to rope him in to attending church then, too.
Just as the clock chimed midnight, a subdued Roy finally reached for the book. He was grateful JoAnne stayed tucked under his arm, indulging his need to keep her close, to feel her warm and alive right next to him, to try to forget that he ever caused her such deep sadness.
Pastor Jordan came to visit me today. He brought a gift… a hand-carved Nativity scene from Germany. “I’m not here to tell you what to feel, JoAnne,” he said. “You’ve probably had enough of that.” He was absolutely right! I know Mama is just using what helps her to try to help me, but it’s not working. And Mother… she just wants me back under her control again. Daddy has been better, but even he keeps telling me to be strong and have courage and that I can get through this. But I’m not strong! I don’t have courage! I’m falling apart and I’m terrified and I feel like I’m wandering in the dark.
I’m getting off track… Pastor Jordan had more to say. “God knows what you are feeling, JoAnne. His heart breaks with yours. He is big enough to handle your anger and your pain, so whatever you are feeling… tell Him. And when you are ready, let Him draw you into His arms and give the comfort only He can give. We live in a dark world, JoAnne Frazier, but this Child…” And here he picked up the Baby Jesus figurine and showed it to me. “He came to light up that darkness, to shine hope and healing and peace through the ashes of our sin and our sorrow. When you are ready to give Him your ashes, He will make something beautiful from them.”
How did he know that was what I needed so much to hear? I needed to know that it was all right to be angry… to hurt so deeply… Pastor Jordan’s words were the balm my heart had been longing for.
There was one more entry on the facing page… a simple poem, dated Christmas Eve, 1963. With JoAnne pressed close against him, Roy read, and his sorrowing spirit soaked in every word:
Where is my joy?
Its seed lies dormant
Under the snows of my sorrow
Frozen and pale.
I yearn for spring,
Long for the seed to crack,
To send out tendrils of hope,
Curling around my heart,
Warm blossoms to melt away
The bleak winter of my soul.
A baby cries.
Before the rough feed trough, I kneel,
And gaze awestruck into his eyes.
Spring drives the winter frost away,
And Joy flowers within me.
JoAnne’s words left Roy speechless. Awestruck, he gazed into his wife’s eyes, then dropped the journal and pulled her close and let the tears flow. “I never knew…” His voice trailed off… damn, but he wished he could find the right words.
“Roy… I think you need to talk with God about all of this… about Vietnam, about D.J., this rescue… about everything you’ve been bottling up all these years. Yell at Him if you need to. Like Pastor Jordan said — He’s big enough to take it.” JoAnne stroked his face and smiled at him through her tears. “And when you’re ready, give those ashes to Him. He’s already given you so much beauty… our love, the kids, our friends.”
Roy rubbed the sleeve of his sweater across his face. When JoAnne giggled and handed him a box of tissues, he had to laugh too. “Thanks.” He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “I guess that’s been a long time coming,” he said quietly.
She nodded, and they sat together silently for a while, watching the Christmas lights twinkle. Roy still felt anxious about those lights, but instead of turning them off, he squeezed JoAnne’s hand tight. She took in a deep breath. “Roy?”
“Yeah?” He didn’t meet her eyes. He had a feeling he knew what she would say next. She’d been open and honest with him, and she had a right to ask the same from him, but he wasn’t sure he could do it.
“Do you want to tell me… what it was like? In the camp, I mean.”
Still squeezing her hand, he closed his eyes tight. He really didn’t want to remember any more of those awful days. Over time, he had learned to keep those memories tucked away so that they only bothered him occasionally, when a smell or a sound threatened to bring it all back.
“It was real bad,” he whispered. He opened his mouth to say something more, but no words would come. “I’m sorry, Jo… I… I can’t.” He avoided meeting her eyes because he knew what he would see there.
Her eyes would hold the promise that she would wait no matter how long he needed, and he would begin crying again. Damn, but he felt about three inches tall after that outburst. He rubbed at his runny nose with a tissue. When he looked up to toss it into the wastebasket, his gaze landed on the small Nativity set on top of the television cabinet.
He remembered JoAnne setting it up their first Christmas together, and for a few Christmases after that, but eventually he had stopped noticing it. Now it reminded him of the words she had written. “Is that the Nativity set Pastor Jordan gave you?”
“It is.” She crossed the room and picked up the Baby Jesus figurine, then returned to her spot next to her husband. She placed the figure in his good hand and curled his fingers around it. “Hope and healing and peace, Roy. Light in a dark world.” She stroked his hand, then stifled a yawn. “I’d better go do the dishes, and I think maybe you need a little time to yourself. The kids will be up early wanting to call their Uncle Johnny and get the Christmas Eve gift.”
Roy’s mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Don’t tell ‘em, but I think I already got the gift.” He held up the Baby Jesus, and his expression grew solemn. “I’ll talk to Him, JoAnne. I don’t know… what will happen beyond that, but… I’ll talk to Him.”
“Good,” she whispered, and she leaned in to kiss him. Then she unplugged the Christmas lights, picked up their empty mugs, and left him alone with his thoughts.
Roy watched JoAnne until she was out of sight. “What did I do to deserve her, God?” he asked, shaking his head in wonder. He examined the Baby Jesus carefully. The paint had chipped off the halo, and it looked like Gus might have gnawed at the leg of the manger; even so, it was a thing of beauty. Roy knew it was just a figurine; a chunk of wood carved with love and devotion, but a chunk of wood nonetheless. But as he held it, turning it over in his hand and rubbing at the smooth surface, he focused his thoughts above. “I don’t know how to do this, God. But I’m tryin’. I really need some of this light that Jo’s talkin’ about. Seems like, no matter how much good I try to do… that darkness inside me won’t go away. I fail and I fall and I can’t be good enough on my own. So here I am, God. I’m bringin’ You those ashes like JoAnne said. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long.”
The sadness he felt over Lisa and her daddy did not simply vanish, but in that moment Roy felt what JoAnne had written about in her journal — the seed cracked, tendrils of hope curled around his heart and began to push through the ice of his sorrow. And then, for the first time in years, he felt a sense of peace.
Hard things would still happen, he knew. Depression had dogged his steps for years, and he wasn’t fool enough to think it would never be a struggle for him again. But a light had come into his darkness, and it was enough for him to see how to move forward.
He eyed the telephone on the small table next to his recliner and then glanced at his watch. Nine hours difference between here and Paris, he thought. Taffy should be up and at ‘em. He picked up the handset and wedged it between his ear and shoulder. Hooking his pointer finger in the hole over the “0,” he rotated the finger wheel till his finger hit the metal bar. Then he let the disk rotate back to its place.
“Operator,” came a nasal voice over the line. “How may I assist you?”
“I’d like to place an international call, please. To Paris, France.”
“Number please.” He rattled off the number he had committed to memory, though he had never used it. Soon, he heard the phone ringing on the other end.
“Hello.” The voice hadn’t changed… Roy would always remember the small Welshman who had helped him escape the camp.
“Hi, Taffy,” he said. “It’s Roy DeSoto. Remember me?”
“Roy DeSoto… well… I’ll be. I didn’t recognize your voice.”
Roy smiled. “Breathed in some smoke at a fire… don’t much sound like myself right now. But I had to call you. Do you remember all those talks we had, back in ‘Nam? About God? You told me to call you if… if I ever changed my mind. I promised you’d be the first to know.”
Taffy was quiet for a moment, but Roy could see in his mind’s eye the smile that spread across the smaller man’s face. When he spoke again, Roy thought he heard a swallowed sob. “Well, I’ll be!” Taffy repeated. “Welcome Home, Son... It’s about time. I can cross you off my list!”
“You keep a list?” Roy shook his head in surprise.
“Well… just in my head. But I have been praying for you all these years, you know. I pray for all my boys.” Roy chuckled as Taffy added, “And yes, I even consider Colonel Hogan one of my boys. Just don’t tell him that.”
“Your secret’s safe with me, Taffy.” The pair chatted for a few more minutes, but after all they’d been through, small talk seemed empty, and the important words were best spoken face to face. “Merry Christmas, Taffy,” Roy said at last. “Give my best wishes to Mayor LeBeau.”
Taffy laughed. “I’ll be sure to tell His Honor Senator LeBeau you send your regards.”
“Louis… Senator?!” Roy should have known LeBeau would keep moving up.
“That’s right. He was elected last year in a landslide. He’s very popular.” “Figures. Well… goodbye, old friend.” And then he hung up the phone. Roy was happy for LeBeau. The little Frenchman had saved all their hides those many years ago, risking his political career to rescue them. It was nice to know good things were happening for him.
Roy and JoAnne stood in the doorway to Megan’s room, watching her sleep, her favorite teddy bear snuggled close. Downstairs, the old grandfather clock chimed four. JoAnne looked up at her husband and whispered, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
He grinned, and for the first time in days, the smile reached his eyes. “The best.” And together they tiptoed into the room. Roy knelt by the bed and gently shook Megan’s shoulder. “Meggy… honey… wake up,” he said.
The little girl blinked open her eyes and looked up at him for a moment; then her confusion cleared and she sat up straight. “It’s Chrissmas Eve! I gotta call Uncle Johnny!”
Her daddy lifted her in his good arm and kissed her on the nose. “Let’s go quietly… your big brother is still sawing logs, but if he wakes up, you know how fast he runs.”
She giggled, then raised a finger to her lips. “Shhhh. Tiptoe, Daddy!”
Roy tiptoed past JoAnne and through the door, down the hall to the master bedroom. JoAnne followed, closing the door behind them.
Roy set Megan on the bed, then handed her the phone. “You do the honors, Swee’pea.” Megan had learned Johnny’s number by heart last month and loved dialing it herself. She said each number aloud as she dialed it on the finger wheel, then held the handset to her ear.
Leaning close, Roy could hear it ring three times before Johnny’s sleepy voice mumbled, “Hello?”
“Chrissmas Eve Gift, Uncle Johnny!” Megan exclaimed, jumping up and down on the bed at the same time. Roy held the coiled cord so she wouldn’t get tangled up in it. “Uncle Johnny, I won! I beated Chris!”
On the other end, Johnny — now more awake — laughed. “You sure did, Princess! I’ll bring your special gift to breakfast when I come over. Is your daddy there?” Megan passed the handset to Roy.
“Yeah, Johnny… I’m here. I’ll admit she had a little help this year. Umm… sorry it was so early. She really wanted to beat Chris to the punch.” He yawned — he and JoAnne had only gotten a few hours of sleep before waking Megan. “We’re hopin’ she’ll go back to sleep for a while.”
Johnny laughed. “Good luck with that. And no trouble about the time — I once snuck into my Aunt Taloa’s room about this time and woke her up to say it.” His voice softened as he grew suddenly serious. “Hey… how’re you doin’, Pally? I know you were pretty down when I drove you home yesterday.”
Roy considered for a moment before answering. He looked up at JoAnne, who was now holding Megan, and met her eyes. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. “I’m good, Johnny, believe it or not. For the first time in a long time, I’m good.”
“That’s great, Pally. Really great.” Johnny chuckled. Unconsciously, he echoed Taffy’s words just before he hung up. “It’s about time.”
Posted to Site 12/3/17
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