A ghost of Christmas programs past

The Mall Diva’s Christmas program, Eclectica, went off as scheduled last Sunday before a packed house that included my mother who flew in from Missouri. The show was great with the only flubs being the charming ones that somehow make a show a more personal experience for everyone. Oh, and a couple of young angels from the manger scene got stage fright and refused to go on, but I’m sure it was noticeable only to their parents and the cast.

Of course, it all reminded me of the many Christmas programs I had participated in as a child, especially since I had my mom sitting next to me. The first one I can remember (barely) was when I was three or four and it must have been at an Air Base where my father was stationed. As I recall there wasn’t a stage as such, just something like a gymnasium floor with rows of seats in front of the performance area. I can remember sitting in a chair at the back of the “stage” while other acts performed before my group got to do our thing. I have no idea what our act was, but my parents caught my solo performance as I waited…casually picking my nose. Hearing about it often afterwards helped keep that in my memory banks.

My next solo was in kindergarten when our class of 12 performed “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I was “Five golden rings!” I also couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, which makes me think that perhaps my kindergarten teacher had some kind of twisted sense of humor. After all, she also assigned the kid with the lisp the part of “Seven swans a’swimming.” It’s safe to say we brought down the house.

But the one performance I’ve especially been thinking about the last few days came when I was in fourth, or perhaps fifth, grade, when my dad was out of the service and we were living in Indianapolis. It was at Harrison Hill Elementary, either in Mrs. Boaz’s class in 1968 or Mrs. Zinn’s in ’69. The Viet Nam war was going on and I remember our teacher, whichever one it was, telling us that a local soldier had written a poem (he may have even been a former student of hers), and that it had been set to music and that a group of us boys were going to sing the new song in the program. Pretty cool beans for a bunch of boys at that time, especially for my best friend Trey and I, because it meant we could wear our toy army helmets and bring our guns (I was especially proud of my Thompson submachine gun replica). We practiced that song for several weeks, and I remember it was a pretty grim one. It didn’t seem much like a Christmas song at all, but the teacher said that it was going to fit into the program.

This show was just going to be a passing reference as I recounted some other programs, but I remembered the opening lines of that song and started wondering who the author was and what ever had happened to him. With the power of Google I searched the opening line:

“Take a man and put him alone, put him 12,000 miles from home.”

To my amazement, I found the poem on several websites, including that of a sometime commenter here, joatmoaf’s I Love Jet Noise. None of them had an author name, but several included the citation that it was found in the pocket of a dead Marine in the Quang Tri Province, June of ’69. Joatmoaf listed the whole poem, although updated for Iraq. The first verse was pretty much how I remembered it, though:

Take a man and put him alone,
Put him twelve thousand miles from home.

Empty his heart of all but blood,
Make him live in sweat and mud.

The rest of the poem doesn’t register with me, though it does seem even grimmer than what I remembered. Definitely not Christmas program material. While I don’t remember all the words of the song we sung, I know they weren’t happy ones. I do remember what happened next. The emcee of the program was a sixth-grader, dressed as Santa Claus. He’d been a great and jolly Santa all evening, but this time he came out, as planned, and spoke to us “soldiers” kneeling on the stage. He said that once upon a time there had been a young family with a new baby that hadn’t even been able to find a room in an inn and had had to give birth to their son in a stable. He said that even though things looked bad for them, they had had hope. When he finished his speech we exited backstage while an adult came up. As I led our small group down some steps I heard the adult say that the author of the poem was in the audience that night, and I heard a loud round of applause. I never did see or meet him. The show continued with Christmas carols about the newborn king.

Viewed through the fog of nearly 40 years, it almost seems like another world. Indeed, a world where kids could wear army gear and bring toy guns into the building, and where a Christmas program could mention the Savior and sing songs about His birth. It is also almost surreal that I could have been that close to the origins of what some might consider almost an urban legend in our internet age. The dead marine in Quang Tri might be apocryphal, but I remember what our teacher told us and I remember singing that song, and I remember the soldier being introduced, even if I never saw him.

I wish I had been able to shake his hand.

2 thoughts on “A ghost of Christmas programs past

  1. I think that our program next year should also involve toy guns. I bet Kevi would come, then.

    There Dad, look! I left you a comment!

    Merry Christmas!

  2. Great post John; but as always, lets go to the lighter side.

    MD: write a part for Ben as a Che Guevara type camel, wearing his beret and an ammo belt, carrying around an AK47. He’d love that.

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