Memories Make the Best Gifts

The cool, crisp December breeze hinted of a cold winter around the corner, but it would never slow down high adrenaline children like us. With Christmas less than two weeks away, there was plenty to do during this break from school. My itinerary was full.

Halfway through the third grade, all I had on my mind was snowball fights, building igloos, and riding toboggans and trash can lids down our neighbors’ snow-covered hill. Though we never seemed to have enough snow to finish that igloo (it melted too quick), we always had enough for the fights and the sliding.

Today was a special day. Today we were going to find our Christmas tree. By we, I mean, my Mom, my nine-year-old, older brother Billy, my four-year-old, younger sister Shirleen, me, and Nicki, our Husky. This was our annual tradition.

“Tracy, hurry up!” Mom said.

“I’m coming. I can’t get my boot on. I think I have too many socks on,” I replied from within the house. Sitting on the floor, tugging on my boot, I was losing the struggle to get dressed.

“Then take one off!” She turned to Billy who was standing near her in the front yard. “See if you can help your brother. I don’t want Nicki taking off with the sled with your sister on it.”

“Ok, Mom.”

Billy ran into the house to help me or so was the pretense.

“What are you doing you, big baby? We’re waiting outside. Can’t you do anything right? Give me your foot?”

Billy took my foot and pulled off my half applied boot. He rolled his eyes when he saw I had four socks on that foot alone.

“Why do you have so many socks?”

“I didn’t want to get cold.”

“Take two of them off. Then put your boot on.”

“Will you help me?”

“For Pete’s sake. Do I have to do everything for you? You’re in the third grade.”

I poked out my bottom lip and fought back the tears.

“Give me your foot.” Billy peeled off two socks and shoved the boot onto my foot.

“Ouch! That hurt! You scrunched my toe!”

“C’mon. Mom’s waiting. Better put that lip in before you trip over it.”

I sniffed. Billy pulled me toward the door. I pulled back against him.

“Just stop. Okay? Listen, today we get to ride the sled with Nicki pulling it. Remember how we did that last year? How we went into the woods and got our Christmas tree? Remember how fun it was?”

“Boys?” Mom’s voice came, muffled through the door.

“Coming!” Billy shouted. He turned to me. “C’mon. I’m sorry. Okay? Let’s have fun. I’ll let you ride first with Shirleen.”

I rubbed my eye.

“Fine. Okay.” I said.

Billy pulled the jacket hood over my head and tied the drawstring.  He opened the door to let me through. I had so many layers of clothes on, I waddled out into the yard. Mom smiled at me, looked past me to Billy who shrugged his shoulders.

“Okay. Who’s riding first? You both have gotten so big, Nicki can’t pull all of you.”

“Billy said I could,” I said.

“Okay. Get on the sled behind your sister and hold onto her for me. I don’t want her falling off. Billy, thank you for letting your brother ride first.”

Billy smiled.

I hopped up onto the homemade, wooden sled, sat and grabbed my sister. Nicki licked my hand, and Shirleen squealed with delight.

adorable animal breed canine

Nicki, our blue-eyed, Siberian, fluffy, husky dog was our best friend. If mom had asked him to pull all three of us, he would have until he fell exhausted. He was attached to the sled with a rigged rope harness. Crude, but effective enough to pull the sled, given enough snow.

“Billy,” Mom said, “Would you like to lead Nicki?”

“Sure, Mom.” Billy picked up the rope and pulled on it. Nicki needed no more urging. The sled lunged forward. Shirleen and I lunged backward and almost rolled off the sled. Mom grabbed my arm and sat us upright. I think she anticipated this happening, because she was quick with the one-handed recovery, while she held the handsaw in the other.

Our movement was slow, but it was meant to be. Mom wanted us to enjoy the time and the beauty of our surroundings. Even through my eight-year-old eyes, I could see the beauty God displayed in those Cascade Mountains. The green firs and pines laden with snow, dotted the landscape as we searched for the right tree. In the distance, Mount Rainier covered in white, sported a cloud halo and seemed to smile its approval on our endeavor. A green carpet of evergreens lined its base.

Something caught my eye as I looked around in amazement at this winter wonderland. It scampered toward the wood line.

“Look! A rabbit!” I said. Nicki stopped and perked up at my exclamation. The little creature was in no hurry as he lopped along and disappeared into the brush.

“Easy, Nicki.” Mom said. “Not today buddy.” He wagged his tail in acknowledgment.

treesBilly tugged on the rope, and we plodded forward again, the snow crunched under the sled and his boots. We stopped a short distance away from a grove of Douglas firs of various sizes. The blue-green needles sparkled in the sunlight as the afternoon warmth had melted some of their frosty adornment.

“How about one of these?” Mom asked.

“Wow,” I said. “Which one should we get?”

“Billy, why don’t you and your brother see if you can find us one?”

Mom picked up Shirleen and stood her in the snow to play. She waddled up to Nicki to pet him. He licked her face in welcome. She pushed him away with her mittened hands.

“No!” she said in her tiny voice. “Bad dog. No.” Nicki licked her again. She stumbled and fell backward, landing face up in the snow. She, like us, had so many layers of clothes on that she couldn’t right herself. Mom pulled her back to her feet, and she headed for Nicki again.

“Okay. C’com let’s see what we can find.” Billy said to me, and we took off into the grove. The air was thick with the smell of the trees.

 

“Don’t go too far.” Came Mom’s voice.

“There’s so many, and they all look cool,” Billy shouted back.

“Can you find one near the edge that we can get?” Mom asked.

“Yeah, I think we can. C’mom, Tracy, let’s show mom the first one we looked at.”

We plodded out of the grove and stopped at a tree we passed on our way in. Mom led Nicki and the shed, while she carried Shirleen. She plopped Shirleen down and picked up the saw.

“Billy, you and Tracy think you can cut it down?”

Our eyes got wide. This was an honor. It would be our first time to cut down the Christmas tree.

“Sure!” We answered proudly. Mom handed Billy the saw and showed him where on the trunk to make the cut. With the first pass across the bark, I breathed in deeply the smell of the fresh cut wood. Billy cut at the tree until the saw became sticky with the sap. The fragrance of fir strengthened. I traded out with him. We took turns sawing between stripping off layers of clothes.

An eternity later, the tree swayed from the cutting. Mom held onto it and tilted it back so we could finish the cut. With the next to last cut, the tree fell over. Billy separated the last of the bark from the stump with a swipe from the saw.

“Tracy, watch your sister so Billy and I can tie the tree to the sled.”

I chased Shirleen through the snow, as she played a game of tag with Nicki. Mom and Billy lashed the treasured tree to the sled. Once secured, Mom grabbed a giggling Shirleen on one of her passes by Nicki and plopped her down next to the tree. She instructed her to hang on.

Billy took the rope and led Nicki and his cargo toward home. I triumphantly carried the saw as I pulled up the end of the parade. We were triumphant in our mission.

Mom led us in Christmas carols as we proceeded. Good thing. It kept my mind off my wobbly legs and rubbery arms. It’s tough work for a third grader to cut down his first tree. I am sure we were a sight as we marched victoriously into our yard.

Mom untied Nicki from the sled and removed his makeshift harness. He shook his coat with the freedom. He ran around the house and shot back to us. He didn’t seem too tired. We went in the back door and shed our boots, mittens, and layers of clothes and headed for the kitchen.

We all sat at the kitchen table and recounted our glorious adventure over hot cocoa while Mom stoked the fire in our Franklin wood stove in the living room. We laughed. We giggled and sang more Christmas carols. Mom rejoined us and joined in the merriment.

When we finished our cocoa, Mom and Billy attached a stand to the tree and brought it in the house while I watched Shirleen. They stood it up in the living room in front of the picture window. As I warmed myself at the Franklin stove, I breathed in the fresh fragrance of Douglas fir. I thought of what a fine looking tree we had obtained. I also noticed, past the tree, out the window, in the distance, haloed Mount Rainier smiled in agreement.

Even today, when I happen to smell the wonderful fragrance of fir, I think back to delightful memories of Christmas and thank the Lord for them. I also thank him for my Mom, who has shown me over the years that memories make the best gifts

I Wonder

It was a hot, humid day in early July. July 2nd, to be exact, 1862, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The intense summer sun reminded me of my boyhood days in Alabama. For a moment, I longed to be home, sitting on the porch or skipping rocks down at the creek.

I was crouched down between two large rocks when Tom slid next to me. He looked up the hill that lay before us. His sandy hair stuck out from under his cap like straw from a scarecrow. He turned and fixed his pale blue eyes on me. In his slow Southern drawl, he spoke.

“Jeb? What’s wrong with you? You haven’t fired a shot.”

I bowed my head.

Tom shook me.

“Jeb!” He growled in a hushed whisper. “What’s goin’ on?”

He shook me again.

I cleared my throat.

“I can’t – I just can’t.”

Tom looked around like he was looking to see who might be watching or listening.

“Can’t what?” He grabbed me by my arm. His voice cracked. “Jeb, don’t go squirrely on me. Ya, hear me.”

His whiskey and tobacco laden breath made me shudder. I blinked and looked into his wild eyes as they searched mine.

“Tom. I don’t know what’s goin’ on. You know me. I ain’t never had a moment’s hesitation to pull the trigger, but I just can’t.”

Tom looked down at my shaking hands, and then searched my face again.

“Whatcha mean, Jeb? Whatcha mean?” He let me go and then looked up the hill. He squinted, and then looked at me again.

“You mean – up there? Isn’t that a Yank officer up on that hill? Standing there, plain as day?”

“Yeah.”

He half-smiled.

“Since when can’t you shoot a Yank? You getting soft on us?”

I didn’t answer.

His smile faded. He got in my face again.

“Jeb, you the best we got. Ain’t no one a better shot in the 15th Alabama than you, and ain’t no one been more willin’ to take down a Yank.”

He spit. Tobacco juice spittled down his chin. He wiped it with his sleeve.

“I know, Tom, but not this one. There’s somethin’ – different about this one. I can’t. When I first saw him, I thought it a mighty good thing to put him out of the way. Tom, I had him, perfectly certain, several times and I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I just couldn’t. I tried, but I can’t.”

Tom shook me – hard.

“Jeb! You gotta understand. We need to take that hill. We done hit it twice and was pushed back. Many of us done fell. You gotta kill as many Yanks from a distance as you can. One less Yank means one less of us that dies. If you kill an officer – if you cut the head off the snake, the body dies. You’ve got do it. It’s your duty.”

“I can’t. Don’t you understand? I tried. I did. Every time I take aim at him, my hands shake, and something comes over me. I’m ashamed. I can’t pull the trigger.”

“You should be ashamed that you can’t kill a Yank! He ain’t nothin’ but a flea on nanny’s dog’s hind end.”

He spit.

“No! I’m ashamed to pull the trigger. I can’t explain it. I go to pull the trigger, and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed to shoot him. He’s in plain sight. I’ve dropped deer further away than this without hesitation. But I’m ashamed to pull the trigger on this Yank.”

“Why? What is he? Something special? I heard Col. Oates talking to his brother earlier. He thinks that’s the 20th Maine up there. If that is true, then that could be Chamberlain, and he needs to be dropped like a Christmas turkey.”

“It is Chamberlain, and that is the 20th.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know. I can tell by the way he conducts his self with his men. I can also see his rank.”

“Listen to me, Jeb. We gotta take that hill. If we take that hill, then this could be our chance to end this God-forsaken war. We’ll be able to see the whole valley below, and we can rout the Yanks. We’ll split them in half and turn their own guns on them and then Lee can march into Washington and force Lincoln to stop this war. Jeb, are you hearing me? We gotta get up on top of Little Round Top.”

The steely look on Tom’s face faded. I could tell that he was convinced I couldn’t go through with shooting this Yankee officer. He shook me one more time and pushed me back against the boulder. He looked back up the hill, spit, looked at me, and then walked away, back to the remaining regiment.

I don’t know how long I sat there. It seemed like days. Ashamed that I was ashamed.

Before the sun went down that day, we were ordered up the hill one more time. As a sharpshooter, I maintained my position and supported my regiment. They fought valiantly, as they assaulted the hill with volley after volley. Men fell like swatted flies.

I took out several Yanks as they stood up to return fire. I felt redeemed. I had no problem now in the heat of battle to defend our cause and my fellow soldiers. I caught sight of Tom as he led his men over a little knoll right into a clod of Yanks. One had Tom dead to rights, but I made sure he didn’t fire.

Tom turned toward me. Our eyes locked. He nodded his thanks. I returned it.

I quickly reloaded my rifle to prepare for another shot. When I looked up, Tom was gone and so were his men. I’m not sure what happened next. I dropped one more Yank, and then they came over the breastworks with fixed bayonets. They were a wave of blue, yelling at the top of their lungs. Bugles blared the charge, and their flags flowed in the wind. They must have gotten reinforcements.

Our own buglers sounded retreat, and we fled. We weren’t taking Little Round Top, not today, not ever. It wasn’t meant to be. I grabbed my gear and headed out of there like the devil himself was after me. I heard later that Tom had fallen on that knoll. I stopped one Yank from killing him, but I couldn’t stop them all.

I’m still not sure why I could not shoot Col. Chamberlain. I heard that even one of our officers tried to shoot him during that bayonet attack and failed. He had a better chance than I. How could the officer’s revolver misfire just at the time it was aimed at Chamberlain’s head?

Chamberlain was hailed as a war hero. He even became governor of Maine. I wrote him a letter telling him how I had him in my sights twice, but could not pull the trigger. I recounted to him how each time some peculiar notion shut me right down, so I gave up his life to him. I also told him that I was glad of it and hoped he was as well.

I learned that he wrote me back, and invited me to visit him in Maine to see if I had made a good choice. I never received the letter, nor did I answer him. How could I? It was revealed to us that at that critical moment, on that critical mountain, he and his men had insufficient ammunition to defend another attempt by our forces. If we had pressed the moment, and taken that hill, Tom’s words may very well have rung true.

Looking back now, I gotta wonder. If I could have brought myself to drop Col. Chamberlain that day, on that hill, would have things been different? Would we have taken that hill? Would Tom have died as he did with my secret? Would we have split the Yanks, and taken Washington, like Tom said? Would Lee have ordered Pickett’s Charge the very next day in an all-out, last-ditch effort to win this battle and maybe the war? Would have fewer men, on both sides, have died?

I wonder if God Almighty had his hand on me to shame me not to kill Chamberlain because there was a higher power and purpose at work. I wonder.