Preface: Several years ago, someone told me of an incident in Denison, Texas during World War II with an ending much like the ending of this story. What follows is fiction. There is no reason to believe it happened this way. But it might have.—Edward Southerland
Henry Wilson was in the car with the heater set on high to cut the icy chill, and Marion, who was about to join him, was on her way out the front door, when the telephone rang. They were late, and she had half a mind just to let it ring, but she didn’t, turning back into the house to pick up the phone on the hall table. It probably was Lois Kelly.
“Hello, Lois, we’re on…. Oh, hello, Mr. Brewster. I thought you were Lois Kelly.”
“Nope,” said Mr. Brewster. He was the station master at the passenger depot. “Glad I caught you, Mrs. Wilson. I just got a call from the station man in Parkerville. There’s a special due in there at 8:30. That’ll put it here about 11:30, if she’s running on time. Thought you’d want to know.”
“I thought there wouldn’t be any more trains until after Christmas, not until at least Monday,” said Marion.
“That’s what I was told, Mrs. Wilson, but there’s a train coming through all the same. Thought you’d want to know. They’re scheduled for a ten minute stop.”
“Well….,” Marion paused. “Thank you Mr. Brewster, but I don’t see how—oh, Henry is honking. I’ve got to run. It’s so late, Mr. Brewster, and Christmas Eve and….”
“Yes, Ma’am. Just thought you’d want to know, that’s all. Merry Christmas now.”
Marion hung up the telephone and stood in the dark hall for a moment. Then she turned and walked out of the house to join her husband, reaching up to brush her finger-tips across the red and white banner with the gold star which hung in the window by the front door with the absent minded gesture that had become habit over the past months.
Henry leaned across the seat and opened the door for his wife. If it hadn’t been so cold he would have gotten out, but after twenty-three years of marriage, comfort overcame gallantry.
“There’s a train coming in tonight,” Marion said, as she slid into the seat and closed the door.
“I thought nothing was due until after the holidays,” said Henry but his wife didn’t hear him. She was lost in thought, staring through the windshield as the wipers whish-whish-whished away the mixture of sleet and rain falling through the dark.
They were pulling up in front of the Kellys’ on Montgomery Street when Marion finally spoke. The words were soft, almost as if she were speaking to herself. “Tommy might be on that train.”
“I said, someone’s boy is on that train. We have to be there.”
“Well, it’s about time,” said Lois, as she answered the knock on the door. “We were wondering where you were. The Martins did say eight on the dot,” and then shouting back into the house, “Let’s go Fred, we’re running late.”
“There’s a train coming in tonight,” said Marion. “I think we have to meet it.”
Lois didn’t hesitate. There were two blue stars on the banner in the Kellys’ front window. “Of course we have to meet it,” she said. “It’s Christmas.”
In the spring, Marion Wilson had been at the Railway Express office one afternoon shipping a package to her mother, when a troop train filled with soldiers had pulled into the station for a ten minute rest stop. When the train came to a halt, hundreds of young men came tumbling out onto the platform, laughing, shouting, and engaging in the horseplay of youngsters not sure whether they are excited or scared and covering the embarrassment of either emotion with noise.
There had been a long line of soldiers at the snack bar pushing to the front to buy a Coke or a candy bar when the engineer gave three short toots on the whistle, and the men with chevrons on their sleeves started yelling—“Let’s go! Saddle up! Move along there soldier!”—and the soldiers started back to the cars, grumbling. One private, he was just a boy really, brushed against her and immediately turned, gave a short bow, and with a Southern drawl said, “Pardon ma’am. ‘Scuse me. Gotta run,” before dashing off and disappearing in a sea of khaki.
Almost as quickly as the cars had emptied, they filled again. The conductor called “All aboard!” and swung his right arm in a wide counterclockwise circle, as far up ahead the engineer released the brakes with a pop of compressed air and with a chuff—chuff—chuff the train pulled out. As the last car passed, Marion saw the soldier who had bumped into her standing in the side door of the vestibule. Their eyes met, and she started to raise her arm in a tentative wave but stopped halfway. He showed no such reluctance. He waved, shouted something that was lost in the noise, and he was gone.
She told the story over the dinner table that night, and Henry mentioned a newspaper article he had read about the people of some small town in Nebraska or Kansas who met every train that came through. “We could do that,” she said. “We really ought to you know, all those boys so far away from home.”
And so they did. Marion enlisted her bridge club and the women of the Missionary Society at the Methodist Church. Her best friend, Lois Kelly, corralled the Baptists, and soon others from other churches and clubs joined in the effort. Lois Kelly’s uncle, George Brewster, was the station master, and he agreed to alert the women when a troop train was expected. “I’m not supposed to divulge that information,” he said. “If I end up in Leavenworth, you have to send me a cake with a file in it. I like coconut.”
The women solicited doughnuts from Mr. Krumholtz at the bakery and got Clovis Stevens at the Coca-Cola plant to sell them Cokes by the case at below wholesale. When they met their first train, there were almost more volunteers than soldiers, and the soldiers, recipients of all the attention, seemed a bit bewildered, grateful, but bewildered.
There weren’t that many troop trains coming though the town, usually only three or four a week, and after a while the newness of the effort began to wear off, and the volunteers began to drop away, until the welcoming committee was usually just a handful of diehards, Marion, Lois and five or six others.
It was eleven by the station clock, when the Wilsons and the Kellys arrived at the Union Depot at the foot of Main Street. In the intervening three hours, they had called Mr. Krumholtz and persuaded him to leave his Christmas Eve dinner and open the bakery, but because the bakery had closed at noon, and would not be open again until Monday morning, there wasn’t much on the shelves.
When Marion said she would take all the day-old doughnuts he had left, Mr. Krumholtz, whose son Rudy was with the Eighth Air Force in England, smiled, shook his head and said, “No, Mrs. Wilson, that won’t do,” and then he set to work making fresh doughnuts and bear claws and sweet rolls. Clovis Black met Henry and Fred at the Coke plant, and the three men loaded Fred’s pickup with cases of Coc-Cola and several larger coolers, and then met Bert Forbes at the ice house.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s enough,” said Lois. “It’s Christmas, and there’s no holiday things here.”
“Let’s highjack the Martin’s Christmas party,” Marjorie suggested so seriously that both women began laughing at the absurdity of the idea, and so they did it. They found two other parties as well, and with much laughing and to do, all three gatherings packed up food and drink and transferred their merriment to the depot where the celebrating continued. Mr. Brewster was there and told anyone who asked that he had given permission, and made the joke about Leavenworth and the cake to anyone he could buttonhole.
The train was on time, and when it pulled to a stop in front of the main platform, some of the soldiers on board, sleepy-eyed and nodding, stumbled out of the cars for fresh air. The sleet had stopped, and the wind had died, and it was cold on the platform. The soldiers, after hours in the stuffy, over-heated passenger cars, didn’t seem to mind the cold, and most of them left their heavy overcoats on the train.
When more than a hundred people suddenly burst through the doors from the waiting room carrying trays of pastries, sandwiches, coffee and Cokes, the men on the platform were more than just surprised. Their eyes grew wide and their mouths opened in astonishment as they tried to figure out what was going on. It took only seconds, and the soldiers and civilians quickly mingled and began to exchange greetings. When the soldiers still on the train saw what was happening, they shook their friends awake and joined the gathering. The merrymaking continued until three blasts of the train’s whistle signaled it was time to leave.
The girl may have been standing near the doorway where the awning reached out to provide shelter when it was raining, because something, perhaps it was the awning, seemed to reflect and magnify her voice under the velvet blackness of the winter sky when she started to sing. “Si-lent night, Ho-ly night….” By then, by the time she sang, “All is calm….” it was a silent night indeed, as the crowd on the platform fell quiet.
She sang alone for only a moment before a short, round soldier with thick glasses raised his head and joined her with a clear, crisp tenor. Then someone else joined in and then another, and in a moment, everyone was singing, and for more than one person in the crowd, soldiers and civilians alike, the carol was accompanied by tears.
When that most beautiful of all Christmas carols closed with “Sleep—in—Heav-en-ly peace,” the only sound on the air was the hiss of steam from the locomotive and the north wind in the night sky. Then once again the engineer blew the whistle three times, and without the usual shouts and orders, soldiers and civilians quietly bid farewell, shaking hands and exchanging hugs with murmurs of “Thanks” and “Be careful now” and “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you,” and parted.
And then they were gone. And Marion Wilson went home through that once again silent night to say a special prayer for loved ones far, far away.
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In 1917, Robert L. Queisser, a captain in the U.S. Army’s Fifth Ohio Infantry, designed and hung in his window a small red and white banner with two blue stars to honor his two sons then serving in the army. The idea quickly caught on and spread across Ohio and then the entire United States.
On September 24, 1917, an Ohio congressman added this to the Congressional Record: “The mayor of Cleveland, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Governor of Ohio have adopted this service flag. The world should know of those who give so much for liberty. The dearest thing in all the world to a father and mother—their children.”
The service flags, a white field with a red border, hung in the windows of homes and businesses all over America during World War II. Each blue star on the banner signified a family member in the armed forces of the United States. If a family member died while in the service, regardless of the cause, the blue star was covered with a slightly smaller gold one, so that the blue formed a border to the gold.
The use of the service flags, generally abandoned after the Korean War, has found new life in recent years as Americans have once again embraced the idea of recognizing not just those who serve, but their families as well.
Learn more about the service flags of WWII at these websites: