Granddaddy placed me on his knee, he fuzzed my hair and smoked his Bing Crosby pipe. The world smelled like Prince Albert in a can.
“The year was 1862,” Granddaddy began his story. “The day was Christmas. The place was eastern Virginia.”
East Virginia. God’s country. Where the Rappahannock River traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains, then dumps itself into the Chesapeake like a pitcher of ice tea. The War was on. The landscape was torn up from war.
“And it was so cold,” said Granddaddy.
Paralyzingly cold. The winter of 1862 was brutal. You could break a tooth eating a bowl of soup.
Eighteen-year-old privates were sleeping on barren earth, huddled together like puppies beneath woolen blankets. Grown men—military men—spooned together, just to survive.
But this cold snap was nothing compared to the hunger. Some soldiers were so hungry they were eating their tobacco. There are stories about soldiers eating their own shoe leather.
Christmas morning came with fresh misery. A wet snow had fallen overnight. Gaggles of army boys awoke with frostbitten noses and frozen earlobes. Others were coughing themselves to death.
The opposing armies were camped on opposite sides of the river. Gray coats on one side. Blues on the other. Before evening, these countrymen would probably be killing each other. “It was a hell of a time to be a soldier.”
I interrupted my Baptist grandfather. “Grandaddy, you can’t say ‘hell.’”
My grandfather, the grizzled veteran who spent his youth dodging shells in Anzio, Italy, said, “Son, there is no other word for war but hell.”
That morning, a few young soldiers were on patrol near the banks of the Rappahannock. They stopped patrolling when they saw the enemy on the other side of the river, also patrolling.
Both groups halted.
Soldiers on both sides of the river were skin and bones, with sunken eyes and the pallor of cadavers.
It was a stare down between adversaries. But nobody reached for their rifles.
Instead, in a moment of pure instinct, one patrol soldier waved at the enemy.
His partner punched his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m waving.”
“It’s Christmas,” said the man. At which point he cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted, “Hello, over there!”
“Hello, yourself!” came the reply from across the river.
“Merry Christmas to you!”
“Same to you!”
“Say, you got anything to trade over there?”
“Not much! We got parched corn and tobacco—that’s about the size of our Christmas!”
By now hundreds of privates from opposing armies had gathered on opposite shores. They were all eyeing each other. Grays and blues. Capulets and Montagues. Sharks and Jets.
“Let’s trade gifts!” someone shouted.
In a moment, the groups of men started gathering items to trade with the enemy.
The men grew suddenly cheerful. There was even laughter heard on the banks of the Rappahannock. It felt like Christmas.
The soldiers built makeshift toy sailboats, pieced together with sticks. They used handkerchiefs for sails, then placed the tiny boats into the river and sailed them to the opposite shore.
Each boat was filled with whatever gifts the soldiers could find. Trinkets, pocket change, carved figurines, folding jackknives. Parched corn. Roasted persimmons. You name it.
When the first fleet of boats arrived, the soldiers on the opposing side were thrilled with the gifts. They whooped and hollered. Then they refilled the boats and sent a return fleet to the opposite shore.
The enemy rafts drifted across the current toward the starving soldiers, who chased the little boats along the banks like schoolchildren.
Each boat was found packed with bags of coffee, sacks of sugar and salt pork.
“You sent us REAL coffee, Yank!” said one soldier. “Thanks!”
“We sent you sugar, too!”
“Thank you, Yank!”
“Thank you, Johnny!”
“Merry Christmas to you!”
“Same to you, fellas!”
They ate. They drank. They smoked their pipes. They offered thanks. They hollered jokes across the river. They sang songs of home.
And one of the soldiers from that fateful day wrote this:
“…We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of goodwill in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ‘62. At the very front of the opposing armies, the Christ Child struck a truce of us, broke down the wall of partition, became our peace. We exchanged gifts. We shouted greetings back and forth. We kept Christmas and our hearts were lighter of it, and our shivering bodes were not quite so cold.”
My grandfather finished telling the tale. Tapped his empty pipe against his thigh.
And as he walked away, he said, “You can figure the moral of this story out for yourself, son.”
And I pray I never forget it.