Early in the cold, windy, and gray darkness of a December morning, my dad quietly closed the back door of the small farmhouse. Then snugging the collar of the long overcoat tightly around his neck, he began walking west on the gravel road.
Along the way, he couldn’t help but think that in normal times, none of what he was doing would’ve been necessary. Everything had been going along so well, then with numbing reality, the country became tightly gripped by the Great Depression. Christmas was coming, yet he and millions of others across the U.S. were out of work.
Desperate, and with only enough money to cover the cost of bare essentials, he’d heard there was a job available in the small town almost three miles away. If true, he wanted to be among the first in line to apply for it. It took him more than an hour to walk the sometimes muddy and rutted road.
He walked past the town’s small knot of businesses — bank, grocery, hardware store, barbershop, and variety store — then continued toward the grain elevator where the job was supposedly being offered. A door to the elevator office opened, and a man appeared.
Dad approached him and told him why he was there. Sorry, said the man, he hated to give bad news, but it was only a rumor. There was no job opening, nor had there been for quite some time. Come back in another couple of weeks, he told Dad, and maybe by then someone might be hiring.
Sadly disappointed, Dad began retracing his steps. As he walked back past the variety store, he stopped short when he saw a small wooden wagon in the window. It was for sale for $1.50. The sign said the store owner had made three of them to be sold as Christmas presents. Two had already been sold.
The store owner saw Dad and came out and asked him if he’d like to buy the wagon. Staring longingly at it, Dad told the man he wished he could because it would be his young son’s only Christmas present, but all he had was twenty-five cents.
The man paused, then said that because he believed no child should ever be without a present at Christmas, Dad could take the wagon and pay the rest whenever he could.
Dad tearfully thanked him then tied a piece of rope to the wagon with a loop wide enough to slide over his head so the wagon could rest easily on his back.
He’d barely walked a half mile, however, when the clouds suddenly got darker and the wind became stronger. Then came the rain which was soon mixed with sleet. Attempting to keep the wagon from getting wet, Dad moved it under his coat. Unfortunately, that made it impossible for him to button the coat. Having to face into the wind, he was soon soaked to the skin. Walking became more difficult. As Dad trudged onward on the lonely road, no one saw him, and no one drove by.
By the time he finally arrived back home, he was cold, wet, tired, and hungry. With Mom’s help, he struggled out of his wet clothes then managed a smile when he discovered he’d been successful in his efforts to keep the little wagon dry.
Mom found a red bow, tied it to the wagon handle, and hid the wagon until Christmas Eve. That’s when she placed it under a small evergreen tree Dad had cut down by the creek, decorated with the only ornaments she had — a string of tinsel and a star. The wagon was the only present; there hadn’t been enough money for Mom and Dad to give presents to each other. For this Christmas, at least, their shared love had to be enough.
The story goes that on Christmas morning, I saw the wagon, and with a laugh, happily climbed into it. Mom and Dad took turns pulling me through every room in the small house until it was time for me to take a nap.
They never forgot that Christmas, a time when having a present for their young son meant so much, a time when millions of other Americans also had to tough it out as best they could. The details I’m sharing with you here were forever etched in their minds.
Although I was too young at the time to fully remember, I came to deeply appreciate how much they sacrificed not only then, but countless other times as they helped prepare me for what they hoped would be a long and successful life.
And the wagon? I still have it.