This really isn't a Christmas story so much as a Christmas parable - call it The Parable of the Rash Judgement and What Befell Him Who Exercised It.
In December, 1943, I was one of about 100 pre-aviation cadets assigned to the 55th College Training Detachment at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania. As Christmas approached, it was decided to grant a few days' holiday leave to a limited number of men. I was not one of the lucky few. Rashly, I refused to accept a lonely Christmas in Gettysburg. With or without a three-day pass, I would go home for Christmas in New York.
It matters not how I managed to slip away undetected from Gettysburg on the morning of Christmas Eve. I boarded a bus for Harrisburg, caught the first train for New York and was on my way. No sooner was I in my seat in a car full of Christmas travelers - some in uniform like me, most in mufti - than in strode two MP's, their white Sam Browne belts and black armbands generating terror in my guilty soul. I prepared to surrender quietly and be shipped to Leavenworth.
But they were not checking for passes and furlough papers. Filled with the Christmas spirit, they greeted each serviceman cheerfully as they moved down the aisle. They didn't notice my ashen face and trembling hands when they passed my seat and wished me Merry Christmas. They did not return during the remainder of the three-hour trip, but I never unclenched my fingers until the train stopped at Penn Station.
the Long Island Railroad train I became aware that I was drenched with
sweat. By the time I walked in the front door at home, I was weak and
dizzy. My mother, an RN, hustled me off to bed and called the family doctor.
I had a fever of 102. "Flu," said the doctor. "Stay in bed for the next
two or three days," he said. When he had gone, I confessed. "Dad," I said,
"I can't stay beyond tomorrow. I'm AWOL." To my Spartan father, a doughboy
in World War I who never broke a rule, I might just as well have admitted
I don't remember Christmas Day, except being sick and remorseful. My father raged quietly about my shameful escapade. I was a pariah in my own home. Toward the end of the day, I began to feel a little better, and Dad and I discussed how to get me back to Gettysburg alive and, if possible, without arriving under military arrest. Despite my feeble protests, he said he was going with me. On the morning of December 26th, we boarded the LIRR for Penn Station. An hour later we were on a train for Harrisburg. I took the window seat; Dad took the aisle and opened the NY Times as if it could serve as a curtain concealing his dishonorable son. I pulled my GI overcoat up to my neck and feigned sleep, remaining in that position for the entire miserable journey. Again the car was filled with holiday travelers, again MP's roamed the aisles and again I was not accosted. I began to think I might get away with it. We left the train at Harrisburg, boarded the bus for Gettysburg and arrived late in the afternoon - but in plenty of time to get to the college in a taxi, safe at last. ..
An hour before cadets on pass had to report back, my father and I stood on the steps of the college Administration Building as he prepared to leave for the bus station. He was quiet for a few moments, then he stuck his hand out and said "You'd better see a doctor." I nodded. We shook hands, and I said, "I'm sorry for what I did, Dad, but thanks for coming with me." He looked at me for a long time and then turned to go down the steps to the cab. And then, to my surprise, he looked back, smiled and said, "Take care of yourself, son." He didn't hear my whispered "Merry Christmas, Dad" as the cab drove off.
That evening as I sat wearily on my bed, the staff sergeant who served as barracks chief stuck his head in the door. He was not a favorite with us. "Hey," he barked, as I looked up expecting the worst. Since I had never been authorized to leave on Christmas Eve, I had not dared to report back. Did he know?
"Have a nice Christmas?" he asked with a grin, adding, "I didn't see you around."
"It was OK, Sarge," I said, "but I think I caught a cold.".
"Better get over to the Dispensary, then," he said and closed the door. I did that. An hour later I was hospitalized with a strep throat infection that would keep me there for a week. .
And that was Christmas, 1943. .
- Don Murray