I was named after my father, David Chapman. He was a quiet man with callused hands and a soft smile. He was a farmer. He worked the rocky hills around our house as long as there was daylight. In the evening after supper we would all gather near the fire in the winter or on the porch in the summer. Daddy would read to us from the worn family Bible or play songs on his harmonica. On Sunday he made breakfast and in the fall and winter he would walk to the church to kindle a fire in the pot-bellied stove against the back wall. Then he would ring the bell, come home and hitch-up the buggy, and drive us all to church. Ringing the bell and tending the fire was his way of serving the Lord. He never held a church office. He wasn’t a preacher. He found it hard to speak of his faith, but everyone who knew him knew it was deep.
We lived just outside Charity, a little village between two mountains in central Pennsylvania. Our home was a farm a couple miles west of town out the main road past the Baptist church. On the east side of town was the train station. The train was quite a novelty then. At night, in the loft where my brother and I slept, I would often lie awake and listen for the train. Its steam whistle made a haunting noise. The sound carried across the valley as the train came around the face of the mountain. In the fall and winter, when the leaves were off, we could see the lights in the passenger cars. I always wondered where those people were going and where they had been. Our family rarely left Charity. None of us had ever left on the train. I never realized then the role that train would play in my life.
When I was just a boy, about fourteen years old, our family had an experience none of us will ever forget. It happened at Christmas time in 1863. I’ve celebrated seventy Christmases since then but it is still as clear to me as if it had happened yesterday. Last Christmas, just before Mama died, she still spoke of it as her fondest Christmas memory. My older sister Rebecca and my younger sister Rachel cherish the memory too. Daniel, the baby of the family, was only four that year but what happened had a profound effect on him. None of us will ever forget the Christmas of 1863.
In the fall of the year, I remember sitting watching a checker game in the barber shop. The barber shop, the general store, the post office, and the telegraph office were all housed in the same building on Church Street in Charity. The men of the town would gather there and swap bits of news and weather they gleaned from here and there. Because of the post office and an occasional telegram the fellows that gathered there were usually the first to know when something new happened. Some of the battles of the American Civil War were being fought only a few counties away. Only a couple weeks earlier President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address dedicating a battlefield not far away. It was all the men talked about those days. The grizzly tales that were told about the war should not have been related in the presence of a boy my age. But I tried not to miss any of them. As soon as I finished my lessons and my chores I would find my way down there.
One day, late in the fall, I was warming my hands by the fire in the general store when a telegram began to come in. Mr. Douglas, the proprietor, hurried to get it. He scribbled the message down and walked over to me. “Son,” he said, “You better get this home to your Pa as quick as you can.”
When I rounded the last bend in the road past the church toward home, I could see my dad. He was splitting wood by the shed north of the house. His sleeves were rolled up and his forehead was wet with sweat. The bright November sun glinted off his ax as it paused high overhead. With a sharp crack he brought it down through the wood. The smell of wood smoke scented the air. Seeing me coming, Dad shouted, “Dave, help me get this wood loaded on the wagon, we need to get it down to the church before Prayer Meeting.” It was the day before Thanksgiving. The message in my hand would change all our lives forever.
That night, after prayer meeting, Daddy had us all gather. While the last embers of the fire glowed on the hearth he told us about the message. He had been in the Army before the War. The message was from Washington. They were calling him back. He would have to leave in ten days.
He was holding little Danny on his lap when he broke the news. Danny buried his head in Daddy’s chest and gave way to the most pitiful crying. Late that night, as I lay awake in the loft, I could hear little Danny still sobbing in his sleep. It would be hard on all of us, but little Danny was so attached to Daddy, his little heart was broken. For the next week and a half he followed Daddy everywhere he went. He plagued him with questions which had no answers. “When will you be back? What will you eat? Will they shoot at you, Daddy? Will you write? Winter’s coming, Pa. Will you be cold?”
Daddy tried to answer his questions and prepare him for what could happen. Each night, after supper was cleared away, we all looked especially forward to Daddy’s Bible readings. One night I remember him reading from the book of Romans as firelight played off his face. His voice was quiet but strong.
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” if God be for us who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with Him also freely give us all things? “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That night Mamma cried. Danny set in Daddy’s lap. Rebecca and Rachel were working on knitting warm, wool socks for Daddy. Daddy said, “No matter what happens, even if we are separated by death, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” “Even if I don’t come home we can all be together in heaven some day. We must trust Jesus. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s pray and take our burdens to the Lord.”
We all knelt by our beds and prayed that the war would be over soon and that Daddy would come home safe. Sometimes I though he would. Other times as I lay awake at night I would remember gruesome stories the men told. Dead, dying, or wounded men, none more than six feet apart, as far as you could see over a two-hundred acre field. Men lying shoulder to shoulder in a primitive field hospital without enough pain medication to go around. If a man fought, the enemy might shoot him. If he tried to go home, he would be hung by his own men. I tried to trust God for Daddy’s safety but I was tortured in my sleep by nightmares of Daddy being hurt with no one to help him.
Early in December on a cold, gray day we stood on the platform at the train station and said good-bye to Daddy. Mamma had to pull Danny away from Daddy so he could get on the train. As the train pulled away to the south across the trestle over the river and around the bend out of sight I could see Daddy standing on the back steps waving. The wool socks the girls knitted were tucked in his pack along with a batch of cookies.
I wondered if I would ever see him alive again. I fought back tears all the way home. Everyone was silent as we drove the buggy back through town. As we passed the church, Danny said, “Mamma, who’s gonna’ ring the bell now?” Mamma said, “Pastor Taylor said that the bell will not ring again until your Papa is home safe to ring it himself.”
That night, after supper, the family gathered near the fire as usual, but tonight I read from the family Bible. Again and again I read the passage in Romans. It was good to feel the worn leather book which had been such a comfort to us all in our lives.Daddy took his harmonica with him. I imagined him playing it near a warm campfire somewhere in the mountains of Virginia. I hoped it would remind him of home. After Daddy left, Danny left his bed every night and slept with me. It must have made him feel secure. When he was awake we would pray together for Daddy. I loved to smell his sweet little head before I would drift into sleep.
For weeks, we heard nothing but rumors from the battlefields. We weren’t sure where Daddy was. He said he would try to get word to us from time to time. He said he would write. But mail in those days during the war was not at all regular. In town there was no word of Daddy, only talk of bloody battles and hungry soldiers in the field in winter. The men would often stop talking when I came in.
Every week at Prayer Meeting, Pastor Taylor would lead the church in prayer for Papa and others who were far from home. Winter was setting in heavy and Christmas was coming.
On Christmas Eve day, snow began to swirl on a cold wind. The flakes hit your face with a sting. When there was a big fire in our snug house and everyone was safely in, I loved snow especially at Christmas time, but I wondered if Daddy was warm out there.
I bundled Danny up and hitched the big sled to the horse to get the tree Daddy had marked for our Christmas tree on day in late August. After supper I was reading from Luke chapter two the story of Jesus’ birth. Little Danny began to ask questions. “Why did Jesus come?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why would they kill such a nice man?” Pulling him to her knee, Mamma explained to Danny that Jesus died as our substitute. “Danny, Jesus came to die for you and me to pay for our sins. If he didn’t die for us, we would have to die to pay for our own sins.” Danny looked puzzled.
A noise from outside sent Rebecca and Rachel racing for the door. Then they stepped back in surprise. The rest of us crowded in. There in the yard were a dozen or more from the church who upon seeing us in the door, broke into carols. After the carols, they all came in stomping of snow. We drank cocoa and ate cookies and for a while the joy of Christmas drove the gloom of war from our minds.
Pastor Taylor was among the carolers. “Have you heard any news from the battlefield today, Pastor?” Rachel said. “No, sweetheart,” the Pastor said, “still nothing.”
When the last of our visitors left, we sat by the fire and prayed for Daddy. When every one else had gone to bed, I brought the fragrant fir tree in and set it up. We would decorate it tomorrow, on Christmas. It was Saturday night. It was one of the rare years when the Lord’s birth is celebrated on the Lord’s Day.
About eleven-thirty, I was startled by a tapping at the door. I opened it to find Pastor Taylor. “Mr. Douglas was down at the store tonight and a wire came in,” the Pastor said with a grave look on his face, “I think you better wake your mother.” “What is it, Pastor?” Mamma asked, coming out of the bed room. “A wire. Its news from the war. It’s not good, Mrs. Chapman.” Rebecca and Rachel came out of their rooms. Mamma took the telegram and when she read it her face turned white, and her hands began to shake. She sank to a chair and said, “Children, your Daddy is in heaven, now.” A wail came from the loft. We all though Danny was asleep, but he was sitting at the edge of the loft, listening. When the news sunk in, he began to cry, pitiful weeping from the depths of his precious little soul. We all cried. Pastor Taylor prayed and said, “before I leave, let me read a passage from God’s Word.” Then without knowing how precious the words were to us, he began to read from Romans 8.
As he rode away through the deepening snow, I thought, we don’t have to worry about Daddy anymore. He is warm and safe. In an hour the house was quiet again. Everyone was sleeping or trying to sleep.
The next thing I remember was the smell of bacon frying. What day was it? Sunday. For a second, I remembered Daddy’s good Sunday breakfasts but then the awful reality of Daddy’s death struck me like a kick to the stomach. At breakfast, Mamma said, “It’s Christmas today and I don’t want to go out in public, but I know your Daddy would want us to be in church, so we are going. We’re going to let everyone know that we plan to see Daddy again. Little Danny, go out and get some milk for our breakfast and be quick, or we’ll be late for church.” Danny put on his coat and with his poor little head down shuffled out the door on his way to the spring house. I would have given anything to take the pain of losing his Daddy away from the pitiful little creature.
We were just set for breakfast when, like an odd dream, the church bell began to ring. After a few rings, there was a loud crash outside the door. I ran to see what happened. Little Danny, hearing the bell, dropped the milk and darted off the porch and down the road. Half laughing and half crying, he shouted as he ran, “Daddy, Daddy.” He was gone around the bend and out of sight before I could stop him. Rachel said, “Since Daddy won’t be coming back, Pastor Taylor must have decided to get someone else to ring the bell. We better get there quickly. Little Danny will be so bitterly disappointed when he sees it’s not Daddy.”
But before we left the porch, the ringing had stopped. We ran through the snow toward the church. I hurt so for Danny. How would he ever understand Daddy’s death? Ahead, just around the bend in the road, came a man carrying Danny back home. There was something familiar about the man’s long stride. Could it be? Before I could make sense of it, my sisters swept past me down the street. “Daddy, oh, Daddy,” they cried, “We heard you had been killed.” He set Danny down and swept Rebecca and Rachel up each in an arm and held them close. “Oh my darlings, I can explain everything, but I’m home. Finally home. Home for Christmas at last, and that’s all that matters now,” he cried and big tears coursed down his cheeks and into his full beard. He smiled at me and with a gleam in his eye, he said, “Son, don’t just stand there gawkin’ boy, hitch up the buggy or I’ll be late getting your mother to church.” Than, walking between the girls, he gathered Mother in his arms and kissed her sweetly and long.
Coming up the steps of the church late, we could hear our friends and neighbors singing, “Oh come let us adore Him Christ the Lord.” We filed into an empty row near the front and with a broad smile, Pastor Taylor said, “Brothers and Sisters, as you all know, last night we received news of brother David Chapman’s death, but there has been some kind of Christmas miracle. David Chapman, himself, rang the church bell this morning and he just came in with his whole family. I’ve never seen him more fit. Brother Chapman, perhaps you could explain?”
My quiet father rose and said with an air of reverence, “Brothers and Sisters of Charity Baptist Church, the events of the last month are nothing short of a miracle. It’s a long story to tell. Those of you who care to hear it, you are invited to our home at seven-thirty this evening. Those of you who come to hear the story will be in awe of the providence of God.”
That afternoon, Mamma and the Sisters pampered and petted and fed and babied Daddy. Daniel wouldn’t let him out of his sight. We played checkers and decorated the big fir tree, but none of us could pry even a word out of Daddy about what happened and why he was reported killed. He was glad to be home, but there was a deep seriousness about him that I had never noticed before. Late in the afternoon, he settled down under a thick quilt with Mom for a nap. It was so good to have him home.
Christmas night, the house was full of friends and neighbors and alive with joy. Friends piled the table with every imaginable Christmas delight. Danny stuffed his cheeks with samples but no one had the heart to scold him. The house was warm with love and fragrant with the aroma of apple wood, cinnamon, and pine. We ate and caroled and then someone called out, “David. Play us a carol on your harmonica!” The smile faded from Daddy’s face and he said, “I suppose it’s time to tell you what happened to my harmonica. I gave it to a young man whom I met on the train. I gave him my warm wool socks and my pocket Bible, too. In fact, that’s not all I gave him.
When I got on the train, there was only one seat available. Next to me, looking out the window, was a young man traveling alone. His name was Robert Erickson. He was from New York. He looked very troubled. You all know how hard it is for me to talk about God and the Bible to strangers. But I just knew in my heart that I needed to talk to this burdened young man. I offered him some of those good homemade cookies first, girls, and tried to strike up a conversation by asking about his family. He didn’t want to talk of them. Instead he stared for a long time out the window without a word.”
“As the train moved along, it occurred to me that I may never get back home. I realized I may never have an opportunity to speak to the young man again. I comforted myself by reading from the eight chapter of Romans from my pocket Bible, but I couldn’t get the young man off my mind. I wondered where he was going and why he was upset at the mention of his family. I prayed for an opportunity to speak to Robert of Christ and for the courage to do so. My prayer was quickly answered. After a long silence, he said, ‘my mother reads that book a lot. But I haven’t seen her for a long time. I been thinking about goin’ home again, but I just can’t. I’ve traveled too far to go back now. They’re God-fearin’ people and I don’t pray as much as I used to. Don’t even have a Bible any more. Haven’t been to church in five years.’
“I showed him the story of the wayward son in the fifteenth chapter of Luke and I told him that God was eager to forgive him if he would turn from his sin. ‘If your parents are truly God-fearing people, they are eager to forgive you, too,’ I said.
“For an hour, we spoke of the things of God. I told him about our family and I urged him to go back and set things right with his and live for God. He was silent for a long time. When he turned to me again, there was a new light in his eyes. ‘Before you came along,’ he said, ‘I was thinkin’ of doin’ that, but I didn’t really know how. I didn’t have the courage. I don’t deserve for them to take me back the way I’ve done them. I will go back, but there’s one thing I want to do first. I want to take your place. I want you to go home, back and be with your family. I want to enlist for you. I’ve heard of it bein’ done. A fella’ just has to take the other man’s name. It’s legal and proper and when the war’s over, I’ll go back home. If I don’t get home, you’ll know” and I want you to tell my mamma that I died for someone else trying to live the right way.’
“And if you don’t get home, shall I tell her that you repented of your sins and took Christ as your Savior?” I asked him. Tears began to flow and soon his whole body began to shake with grief over his wasted and rebellious years away from God and his family. “If I don’t get home please tell her.” he said.
“I left him with my warm socks, the harmonica, my pocket Bible and most of the money I had with me. I kept enough for a train ticket home, but they were all full because of the war and I had to walk across the mountains back home. I borrowed rides from other travelers and slept in barns and under bridges at night. One night I was gathering brush for a fire when I was captured by a Union patrol as absent without leave. They said they would have to hold me until my story checked out. If I was lying, they said I could prepare for a military trial and a hanging for desertion. They held me for nearly two weeks and then one day, an officer came for me and said, ‘You say you’re David Chapman, but our records say you were killed in action, shot while dragging two wounded men to safety after you were ambushed on patrol. We have no reason to hold you. As far as the Army is concerned, you are a dead man.’ Stunned by the news, I watched the Captain turn and stride off to the edge of the circle of light. Suddenly he turned and said warmly, ‘Mr. Chapman, your friend must have been a loyal and courageous man.’ ‘No, Captain,’ I said, ‘My friend’s name was Robert Erickson and he was my brother, truly my brother.'”
When Daddy finished his story, the room was silent except for the crackling of the fire and the whistle of the wind in the pines west of the house. A few at a time our guests said their final Merry Christmases and made their way into the winter night toward home, footsteps muffled by new-fallen snow. And then we were alone alive, together, and warm. A deep and profound peace settled upon our home that night. Our hearts were full, not of lively gaiety so common this time of year. Our hearts were full of thanks for the one who died so we could have our Daddy back for Christmas.
Until Daddy died, thirty years later, he rang the bell every Sunday at the Charity Church. Daniel and his wife raised six children on the old home place. He worked the same soil Daddy did, his family occupied the same pew we did, they read from the family Bible, and, yes, my brother Daniel still rings the same old bell for worship. Sometimes, around Christmas time, when he rings that old bell, he gets a lump in his throat when he remembers Daddy bounding down those church steps Christmas morning in 1866.