December 21, 1945, 3:20 p.m.
Sharp County had never experienced such a collective sense of euphoria. First, the Great Depression and then the war had created an atmosphere of heartache, insecurity, chaos, and turmoil, tearing up families while dashing dreams and crushing security. Now there was a hope fueled by the fact that freedom had been preserved, and "Peace on Earth" was no longer just a line on a greeting card; it was a reality. Christmas was more than just a holiday this year; it was a celebration! The promise that had been offered in Bing Crosby's hit single "I'll Be Home for Christmas" had been realized and for almost everyone in every corner of this part of Arkansas, as well as all over the United States, it was the most wonderful time of the year, the decade, and perhaps even the century.
December 21 was the day everyone in the rural school district, children and teachers alike, had been looking forward to. For those spending seven hours a day behind the native stone walls of Ash Flat High, 3:20 p.m. was the moment when Christmas really began. As the clock signaled that specific instant and the final bell sounded, kids poured through the old two-story school building's large oak front door and down the well-worn concrete steps like the bulls racing through the streets of Pamplona, Spain. Their warm spirits met a cold north wind as scores of enthusiastic kids rushed across the yard and onto Calvin Jenkins' yellow GMC school bus. Other equally ecstatic youngsters raced past the mud-splattered vehicle, up the dirt road toward downtown Ash Flat, just to spy all the wonder that was waiting to be discovered in the community's handful of stores. Smiles and laughter were everywhere, as everyone seemed caught up in holiday spirit—everyone but Jimmy Reed.
While others rushed past at supersonic speed, Jimmy, a tall, thin sixteen-year-old, hung back at the top of the steps, a tormented look filling his deep green eyes. Dressed in a blue wool jacket that was about two sizes too small, he stuck his ungloved hands deep into the pockets of his patched jeans. In a sense, he was an outcast in a world of holiday cheer. For the boy, there was no light at Christmas, only foreboding darkness brought on by great loss. While all his friends saw Christmas as a joyous dream, to Jimmy it was a nightmare, a prison of loneliness and a day of despair. If Jimmy could erase any day from the calendar, it would be December 25.
"See you in January," Wylie Rhoads called out from behind as Jimmy slowly ambled down the steps. Glancing back over his shoulder at the short, stocky school superintendent standing in the arched entry, the youth shrugged his shoulders and smirked. That expression brought an immediate response.
"Yeah," the boy shot back at the school administrator, his voice and body language showing great contempt and little respect.
As their eyes met, the man pointed his finger and barked, "Get the chip off your shoulder, son. You've got two weeks to shape up that attitude. When you come back, I want to see a different person. Someone with the kind of character your father had."
"You leave my dad out of this," Jimmy hissed.
Marching down the steps until he was face-to-face with the angry kid, Rhoads emphasized his threats in a firm, deliberate tone. "I can't do anything about what happened to your father and neither can you. But you're driving your mom to an early grave while you're setting yourself up to end up in reform school or worse. You've got too much potential to waste it!"
"I haven't done nothing that bad," the boy snapped, his green eyes never leaving the man's.
"Not yet," Rhoads shot back. "But it's coming. I've seen it before. Starts with stuff like breaking windows, sneaking behind the fence to smoke, and going out getting drunk, but it always ends with a whole lot more. And you're heading that way at a breakneck pace."
Jimmy shook his head, "You don't know nothing."
Frustrated, Rhoads turned his back on the boy and marched back up the five steps and into the building. As he did, Jimmy leaned against the school wall and pulled a cigarette from his pocket. Who cared what old Wylie thought? So what if he got kicked out of school? It was a waste of time anyway.
"James Reed, don't you light that up on campus or anywhere else."
Audrey Lankins was one of the few students who hadn't given up on him. Like Jimmy, she was a junior, but while he had developed a knack for getting into trouble, she walked on the right side of the street. She was Ash Flat's prize student, and with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and striking figure, she was also the prettiest girl in the county as well as the youth leader at the Methodist Church. She was the ideal daughter for her banker father and the apple of everyone's eye. And as much as he didn't want to admit it, Audrey was also the one person he truly wanted to impress. Yet she couldn't know that, not now or ever. So though he yearned to reach out to her, he delivered his reply in a machine-gun fashion he hoped would shut her up and drive her away. At this point, he couldn't afford to have anyone close enough to know what he was planning.
"What do you care? You won't get in trouble if I have a smoke."
"I just care," the pretty blonde assured him. "I don't want you in trouble. That's not who you really are. You've always been my best friend, or at least that's how it used to be."
Forcing his attention toward the street, he twirled the cigarette from finger to finger of his right hand, slipping it between one and then the next with the dexterity of a magician, before finally letting it slide into his palm and easing it into his coat pocket. When the thirty-second show was over, he looked back at the girl. "Didn't feel like smoking anyway. I'll save it. But it has nothing to do with what you want. You understand?"
Audrey smiled. Clutching her black purse to her chest, she moved to the boy's side. "You coming to the church program on Sunday night?"
"Naw, got better things to do. Got something really special planned."
"I'm going to sing," she added enticingly, now she was more begging than just giving him information on the program. He approved of her approach, but he still couldn't go. There was something far more important calling him.
"And you'll do great," he mumbled, "but, like I said, there are things I got to do."
"Fine," she replied in a huff. Then, her tone changing, she added, "But it would mean a lot to me if you'd come. So please try."
He didn't understand why she cared about him, why she continued to reach out to him. Maybe it was true that good girls liked bad boys. Who knew? So, though he had no intention of stepping into her church or any other on Sunday night or on any other day, he nodded.
"Jimmy," Audrey's sweet voice pulled his eyes back to hers, "even if you don't come, you have a merry Christmas."
Shaking his head, Jimmy laughed. "Christmas is for kids. I don't need it and don't like it. I don't care if it ever comes. Just another day and not a very good one either!"
The smile drained from her face as quickly as a solitary raindrop evaporated in the scorching August sun. Pushing her hair over the shoulders of her coat, she said, "I don't understand. Everyone likes Christmas, and on top of that everyone is home this year." The words hovered in the cool air like a dark cloud. She probably knew the moment she spoke them she'd opened a wound too painful to contemplate, much less talk about. Yet words can't be unspoken, and they rarely disappear as quickly as they are said. And so her words hovered just out of her reach for moments too long to count.
Turning his face back toward the old school bus, Jimmy chewed on Audrey's observation. She'd opened a large door to a place where no one would have thought him rude to lash out at the girl. If the superintendent, or a teacher, or even one of his friends had spit out what she'd just said, he'd have jumped on them. But this was Audrey; she was incapable of pouring salt in a wound. It wasn't her nature. So, after taking a deep breath, he said, "Christmas was OK when I was a kid, but that was before the war."
Moving two steps closer, Audrey placed her right hand delicately on his shoulder and whispered, "What I said was stupid. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for," he mumbled, once more digging his hands deeply into his pockets. After all, she was not the one who had changed everything. She had no part in it. Christmas had once been wonderful for him, too. There were still bittersweet memories that were woven into the fabric of his mind. He and his father had always gone out into the woods to find and cut a tree, drag it into the house, and laugh about a host of different things. And they had strung popcorn while Jimmy's mother pulled out old decorations and hung them on the tree.
After their turkey dinner and a dessert of homemade pecan pie, his dad would pull out his Gibson guitar, and for more than an hour they would sing every carol they knew, many three and four times. And they always ended with "Silent Night," with his dad explaining the story behind the song before they sang all the verses. Finally, just before bed, Jimmy's mother picked up his father's well-worn Bible and read from Luke about Jesus' birth while Jimmy moved the pieces of their hand-carved nativity scene across the coffee table to match her words.
But the war had changed most of that. Yes, the nativity scene was still on the table. Yes, they still cut and decorated the tree. But now the Gibson remained propped against the wall, as did the innocent joy that had once defined those December days. And it wasn't just Christmas the war had changed, though the wounds might hurt the worst on December 25; in truth the war had altered everything.
"Jimmy," Audrey's voice brought him back from the past to 1945. "You OK?"
"Yeah," he said, straightening his shoulders and forcing a smile.
"Your dad," she said, her hand still lingering on his shoulder, her light touch pushing through the coat and into his heart, "was a great man."
It was funny, Jimmy had once used those same words to describe Robert Reed. He'd boasted to his friends, including Audrey, that his father would lick the Japs all by himself. Back then, he supported that bragging by quoting from long, handwritten letters he and his mother had received from the Pacific Front. When he told what was in those communications, his friends hovered around Jimmy at the lunch table, completely awed by the fact that a Marine from their small town was fighting the Japanese in places they'd never heard of.
But all the bragging abruptly stopped in May 1942. Jimmy had just gotten home from school and was headed out to gather the eggs when he saw the dusty black truck pull into their long dirt lane. An old man he'd never seen, dressed in a dark blue uniform, got out of the vehicle and marched past Jimmy without saying a word or even acknowledging his existence. The stranger paused for a moment at the base of the porch, taking off his hat and smoothing his gray hair, then slowly, as if he were carrying a backbreaking load, climbed the three steps to the landing. After taking a deep breath, he knocked lightly on the weathered front door.
A few moments later, Jimmy's mother, dressed in a blue flower print dress half-covered by a yellow apron, appeared. It seemed strange to Jimmy that she said nothing and didn't even smile; rather, she simply stepped out and nodded as if she knew what the visitor wanted. He didn't speak either. Instead, he just pushed a shaky hand clutching a light brown envelope toward her. That simple action was just like turning the sound knob down on a radio; everything was suddenly tomb quiet. Marge Reed studied that envelope for almost thirty seconds, then, after wiping her hands on her apron, finally took it. No, now as he recalled those moments, Jimmy realized she really didn't take it; it was more as if she accepted it because she knew she had no choice.
Jimmy stood mute and confused as his mother pushed her auburn hair back off her forehead and took a seat in the porch swing. She stared off toward the pond for several minutes, long enough for the Western Union representative to start his old Ford truck and head back down the Reeds' quarter-mile lane to U.S. Highway 62. Only after the vehicle had disappeared over the hill in the direction of Agnos did Marge finally take a deep breath and gently tear open the communication. The thirty-eight-year-old woman studied the message on the yellow paper briefly before setting it carefully down on the swing. Showing no emotion, she resolutely pulled herself to her feet and silently walked back through the front door, closing it gently behind her.
When Jimmy heard her rattling the pots on the stove, he slipped from the yard, climbed up onto the porch, and moved quietly over to the swing. Picking up the telegram, he glanced at the message. It began simply enough, "We regret to inform you ..."
Those words were all that was needed for an adult to know how the story ended, but it was not enough for a thirteen-year-old boy. So he read on, "... that Private Robert J. Reed was killed in action while fighting in the Philippines."
Jimmy read no more before dropping the telegram onto the porch's wooden planks and racing off into the woods. He would stay there, tears burning his eyes and streaming down his face, until the sun went down, and he came home a much different person than he had been just hours before.
That news changed everything. From that day forward there would be no more letters from overseas and there was suddenly no pride in being the son of a Marine. The news of the war, which had once drawn him like a moth to a flame, was now avoided.
In June 1942, his mother got a job in town at Miller's Store. Soon after that, the farm animals were sold and the fields leased to a neighbor. Yet those actions, while putting food on the table, didn't ease the pain. It was still there in October. That's when Jimmy found out his father really was a hero. It seemed Robert Reed had refused to retreat from his position, as others fled in the face of overwhelming odds, and instead had stubbornly manned a machine gun, holding off the advance of scores of enemy soldiers while hundreds of American Marines escaped to safety. Yet, even as others patted Jimmy on the back and spoke glowingly of the lives his father had saved, Jimmy did not care about those who had survived: his thoughts were only of the one who hadn't.
It was December 24, 1942; just at the moment his mother was placing dinner on their table, a knock at the door brought the news that would forever cast a cloud over Christmas. Three men, two Marines and one local congressman, explained that for his heroic actions Robert Reed had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. With a sense of solemn pride, they handed the citation and medal to the small woman who now carried the burden of being both a mother and a father. And that was where the most painful holiday tradition began. With the trio of visitors looking on, Marge removed the yellow glass star that had always been placed atop the Christmas tree, setting it on an end table, then pulled the medal from its case and carefully draped it over the top of the old tree's highest branches. With tears in her eyes she stepped back and studied that shiny star and blue ribbon.
Tears also rushed into Jimmy's eyes. Yet his tears were not fueled by pride, they were inspired by anger. To him this star was not about heroism, it was a symbol of loss—his personal loss. And that is when the attitude took root. That is when he began to lash out. As the years passed, he embraced the attitude he saw in gangster movies—grab what you want and walk over anyone to get it. The change affected every facet of his life. He had no use for anyone in a position of authority. He didn't care about his studies. He lived to push the limits and test the rules. Life was short, his dad proved that, so he vowed to live hard and fast.
"Jimmy," Audrey looked at him with her big, sympathetic eyes.
"Got to go," he sighed.
Pushing himself off the wall, he walked toward the old yellow bus. As several little children sang "Jingle Bells" and a host of his friends talked about what they would be doing the next few days, Jimmy Reed was consumed by the hate he felt for this holiday and the star that would soon be placed on their tree. It was time to get even with Christmas, and he knew just how he was going to do it.
Excerpted from The Christmas Star by Ace Collins. Copyright © 2012 Ace Collins. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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