I had visions of sugar plums dancing in my head for today’s column.
My grand plan was to reprint a letter written by my dad, Guy Wharton, on Dec. 24, 1944, to my mom, Eleanor, my sister, Marilyn, and my brother, Butch. It was one of those V-Mails or Victory Mails that soldiers used to communicate with their families during WWII. It was a beautiful handwritten note that underscored how much my dad missed his young family and was praying that this war would end so he could return to his job of driving a bread truck in Pana, Illinois.
Many years later he told me he wrote that Christmas Eve V-Mail in a foxhole in the middle of the Ardennes Forest. The night was pitch black. The ground was frozen solid, and the snow was waist-deep. It was difficult to dig a foxhole. Dad said the German army was so close he could hear them singing Christmas carols in the stillness of the night. Stille Nacht. Helige Nacht. Silent Night. Holy Night.
In the short letter Dad told my sister, Marilyn, that he hoped she was listening to her teachers and doing well in school. He told Butchie to help his mommy around the house while his daddy was away. He told my mom he loved her and missed her and told her not to worry because the guys in the 7th Armored Division “think this war will end soon." Dad also asked about his dog and hoped she would remember him when he came home.
Dad was smack in the middle of what was soon to be called the Battle of the Bulge. Days after he scribbled that V-Mail he was hit by a tree-burst mortar shell and was critically wounded. After being in military hospitals for nearly a year he finally made his way home to Illinois to reunite with his family and start over.
My whole column was going to be centered around that short letter that was written 73 years ago today. Alas, I can’t find it. My nieces and nephew have turned over every box they have, and it is nowhere to be found. I’m hoping my buddy St. Anthony can help us find that precious note.
In its absence, allow me to share a few of my memories of Christmases past as a boy growing up in central Illinois.
Upon his return from the war dad went to work in my Grandpa Wharton’s gas station in Nokomis. When a vacancy occurred at the local post office, dad took the test and ended up being appointed postmaster. Back then, postmaster appointments had to be confirmed by the U. S. Senate. I have dad’s certificate signed by President Harry S. Truman.
Mom was a stay-at-home mom. With four kids, she had all she wanted, but always made sure Christmas was special.
Those of my vintage will remember the balsam fir trees with the silver tinsel. To this day I’m amazed our house didn’t go up in flames. Bubble lights before they went retro. Huge colorful Christmas bulbs. The angel at the top of the tree.
One of my best gifts ever was a Lionel train set. My dad and brother-in- law, Bob, set it up under the tree after I went to bed on Christmas Eve just to make sure it worked. They apparently enjoyed it too much because when I awoke Christmas morning I discovered that they had left the transformer on overnight and burned it up. My Lionel train was derailed before I even saw it.
Fact is, I remember very little about the gifts. I do remember a lot about my immediate and extended family at Christmas. My Grandma Pearl holding court with gifts stacked up to her waist. Pearl loved the attention. Cousins running around the house making my mom nuts. Aunts in their aprons and uncles all smoking and enjoying a highball.
Christmas is so different these days. Many of us have too much. I plead guilty as well. As we prepare for the birth of our Savior, let’s center on the real meaning of this season. In quiet times I think of my mom and dad and what Christmas must have been like for them in 1944. Then I ponder what I have today. Blessings abound.
For unto us a child is born. To us a son is given. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Next week: Steve Warnstadt
Jim Wharton, of Sioux City, is a former member of the Sioux City Council and a former mayor of Sioux City. He and his wife, Beverly, have one daughter, Dr. Laura Giese, and three grandchildren.