Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Downwinder's Son Remembers Christmas 1963

Daddy loved Christmas and wanted to be with us. He enjoyed our excitement as much as we enjoyed all the surprises of the season.

I didn’t know he had lung cancer, but the illness worsened with the news of November 22, 1963. President Kennedy’s assassination left him quiet and withdrawn. The next morning an ambulance rushed him to the hospital. A few days later mom drove us there for a visit. Dad was hooked up to oxygen and an IV but looked so glad to see us. When he said, “I’m going to beat this thing,” I didn’t really consider the alternatives.

Dad knew about adversity. He’d worked as a Special Agent in the FBI during World War II. In 1941 he wrote to his father: “Since December 7 I’ve been especially busy... Last Friday we were given gas masks and instructed how to use them. These are trying times but I’m inclined to think they’ll pass away.”

After the war, he was stationed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was a loyal American who didn’t question his assignment as our nation built a nuclear arsenal. Dad’s nature was to strive for resilience, but early on the morning of December 9, 1963, the battle ended. With his death our family would never be the same.

I didn’t see it as a nine-year-old, or at 19 or 29, but now that I’m almost 50 I’ve come to view his untimely death as a strange, unwelcome gift, one I’d never have sought but with value nonetheless. Without it I might never have sought and found mentors who have guided me in so many ways.

Late last Christmas Eve my wife and children gathered quietly in our living room. Thanks to a teenage son who had crawled up on the roof, strings of glowing lights hung from our gables outside. An old toy train sat silently under our tree.

I thought about dad and how I’d missed his sense of adventure, his calm resolve, his hugs. I thought about Christmas miracles, and for just a moment I felt something strong and gentle, comforting and familiar just beyond the glow of the lights on the roof.


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