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A Christmas Story from The Past

Posted on December 4th, 2014

I wrote the following essay a few years ago. I thought I would share it here for Christmas. The events and names are all true. Merry Christmas!

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© Jeff Bjorck 2004. All rights reserved.

 

In the fall of 1998, Private First Class Sheldon Bitner dialed a number obtained from the internet. When the phone was answered, he explained, “I was in World War II with Walter Bjorck of Teaneck, NJ, and I was hoping to say hello after all these years. Is this his residence?” My mother replied, “You have the right number, but I am sorry to tell you that Walter died in 1991.”

        My mother soon told me of her conversation with “an old friend of your Dad’s,” prompting me to call Mr. Bitner myself. I was only 38 then, but with my father’s stories still fresh in my memory, Mr. Bitner and I enjoyed a long phone conversation reminiscing together about “The War.” Private Bitner told me that he had been seriously wounded and honorably discharged several months after arriving in Europe. My father had been wounded only three days later, which resulted in these two men losing touch.

        Sheldon and I enjoyed more phone calls throughout the next several years until the sad day when a recording informed me, “This number is no longer in service.” I was greatly privileged to befriend Mr. Bitner, whose recollections of those army days have helped me to feel like I know and understand my own father better.  What follows is one of Private Bitner’s stories that he told me in 1999, which proves once again that truth can be much more memorable than fiction.

A Christmas to Remember

~Memoirs of Private First Class Sheldon Bitner, as told to Jeff Bjorck~

            November 15, 1944 was a day that changed my life.  While marching across France with the 95th Infantry, I stepped on a land mine. The blast caused me to part company with a leg that, until that moment, I had taken for granted. It also caused me to part company from the other men in my division.  Eventually, I found myself staring at a ceiling in the 105th General Hospital in Cheltonham, England, while my body recuperated from the War’s vicious impact on my life. Still, in spite of the horrors of war that filled the 105th, it was there that I spent my most memorable Christmas.

            During World War II, army hospitals were not exactly overflowing with the resources needed to create an atmosphere of Christmas cheer. Lines of simple beds and cots were home for many soldiers who shared the misfortune of receiving all the War had to offer. My leg was gone, but there were many that had lost both legs, or an arm, or eyes. I was in my thirties, but most were in their teens and twenties, and my sorrow for my own plight was outweighed by the sympathy I felt for those young boys.

As Christmas neared, it became increasingly clear that I would spend mine in this hospital. Mail was slow, packages were scarce, and home seemed a million miles away. Still, I could not help but think that the younger fellows were worse off than I was. As the days crawled by, I began to try to think of ways to help give them a Christmas celebration. Finally, on the morning of Christmas Eve, opportunity knocked and I answered.

The nurses brought a small plain Christmas tree on a stand into the ward. “Here you go, boys. See what you can do,” they said.  This was my opportunity! They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I can attest that this is true. On that December 24th, 1944, the 105thGeneralHospital supply closet provided the necessities, and I provided the inventions. Enlisting the help of several others, I set about making ornaments for the tree.  Mercurochrome may be a wonderful antiseptic, but it is also a lovely shade of red. We took cotton balls, and with the help of the Mercurochrome dye, proceeded to trim the tree with our bright red creations. From a distance, they almost looked like ornaments!

All Christmas trees need icicles, and obtaining some was our next task. The hospital supply closet once again came to the rescue. The icicles we used certainly shimmered, from the red markings running along each one to the bright silver mercury shining in their tips! Fortunately, the nurses found other thermometers to use for the work that day.

Of course, no tree is complete without a star, and I made sure that this Christmas tree had a grand star, with the help of a sharp pair of tin shears. The star was metallic silver and shined just like the lid of a ration can. Additional ingenuity with the tin shears transformed other ration cans into a variety of metallic ornaments to complement the red balls already present.  This was indeed a fine tree.

Several of the soldiers had received packages from home, and they heightened the Christmas spirit by sharing their gifts of cookies and candy with all those in the ward. Given enough Christmas spirit, it is amazing how a few small packages can provide for so many wounded soldiers. It is also amazing how stale cookies and candy can taste so wonderful.

That evening, one of the nurses asked me if I would like to go to church. I said yes, and she wheeled me into the small hospital chapel. With extra blankets wrapped around the place where my leg used to be, I felt warmed and touched by the service that night. As I lay in my bed later that evening, I thought of my wife and loved ones so far away. I thought of my buddies still out on the front lines. And I thought of a little baby born in a stable, lying in a manger.

Later that night, our ward had visitors. Although most of the soldiers were awake, we lay still and quiet, not wishing to frighten our guests. The nurses tiptoed silently from bed to bed and hung something over the rail of each. My curiosity was piqued, but I lay still until I fell asleep, satisfied that the morning would be soon enough to learn what was hung with care at the foot of my bed.

The light of Christmas morning revealed a small stocking, stitched by hand from some spare cloth, hanging on each soldier’s bed. Each stocking contained wonderful, extraordinary, amazing gifts, such as a pack of gum, or a candy bar. While we enjoyed our gifts that morning, we sat in peaceful silence as the radio brought Bing Crosby’s familiar voice into the ward. After listening to his offerings of “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” there was not a dry eye in the house.

More than fifty years have come and gone since that special Christmas in England. I have enjoyed many holidays since then in the comfort of my own home, with loved ones and friends. There are many happy memories that I keep from those celebrations. Still, that unique Christmas in 1944 will always stand out as my most memorable. It was the first Christmas I spent without my leg. It was one of the only holidays I enjoyed from a wheelchair. The gifts I received that year were wrapped in more love than just about any packages I have ever opened. And I have never seen a Christmas tree as unique as the one we trimmed that year! Perhaps, the dark tragedy and stark pain of the War served as a black velvet backdrop, against which the beauty and simplicity of that Christmas celebration shone like a diamond. Certainly, that Christmas remains a jewel for me, and those Christmas memories are among my most treasured possessions.