Here is an audio version of this story if you would rather listen than read:
Christmas of 1965 my Dad was not home. He was a world away in the jungles of Vietnam. I was seven. Mom was pregnant with my little brother Kevin. He would be born in March. My sister Melony was about nine years old. I lay in my bed on a December night a few weeks before Christmas in our little bungalow at 1917 Francis Street in Grand Rapids.
My bedroom was the best bedroom in the house. It was a porch in the back of the house re-purposed into a wonderful boy’s bedroom, complete with a wall of three or four casement windows looking out on the back yard. There was a bed–really a small cot. There was a narrow dresser. (I still have the dresser in my basement) There was an old one-armed school chair. Mom refinished the wood frame of the bed, the dresser, and the chair to match and she made curtains and a bedspread from blue fabric with an antique train print. I think she and aunt Sue worked on the project together. I loved the room. It was my very own cozy place.
That night I was awake and my mind was active. Mom was listening to Christmas music. I could see the lights from the Christmas tree reflecting on the paneled wall of my room. Mom had read all the child-development books and knew how many hours of sleep a boy of seven would need, but I was unusually high-energy and did not go to sleep quickly at 7:30 at night. Mom was talking on the phone to her friend Joyce Lloy. I could hear every word. I didn’t pay much attention until I could tell she was talking about what I was getting for Christmas. I lay perfectly still and held my breath to listen.
“Ken bought a transistor radio for Kenny,” I heard her tell Joyce. My heart raced. I let out my breath. A radio. My own transistor radio. Had I heard right? Could it be?
Christmas morning I opened my gift. It was not a dream. It was a real radio of my very own mailed all the way from Vietnam. I feigned surprise and felt guilty but I loved my radio. It was a white radio with a nice leather cover. It was one of the first times in my life I had the sensation of “the embarrassment of riches.” I felt very privileged to have such a nice radio in my possession. Still it didn’t really seem like Christmas without Dad there.
Shortly after the first of the year Dad came home to stay. That spring we made a trip to Meijer’s Thrifty Acres on 28th Street for a new ball glove. Dad taught me to throw and catch out in the thin strip of grass between our drive and the neighbor’s in the shade of a fine old Maple. At night I slept with the glove under my pillow to break it in and I listened to the Detroit Tigers on my own transistor radio.
When Dad left for Vietnam my little heart was broken. We drove him to the bus station and I cried all the way home in the back of my Grandpa’s International. My uncle Jim tried to comfort me. Night after night I lay in my bed and longed for him to be home with us. On Christmas I would gladly have gone without a present if I could have had my Dad with us.
Maybe it was then that the conviction began to form in my heart that people are infinitely more valuable than things. Just to have a loved one present is a priceless gift. Sustained, unhindered conversation is a rare and wonderful treasure. Our souls long for eye contact and meaningful touch–for the very smell of the people we love. There is nothing you can buy, no gift you can give, that can satisfy your longing for that.
I could never have put it in words then, but that is what was happening in my little seven-year-old heart lying in my bed listening to Christmas music on a winter night just before Christmas in 1965.