November 19, 1966
Mike McRae dropped his battered duffle bag on the concrete floor and glanced through the bank of windows to where the wide-bodied army transport sat waiting on the snow-dusted tarmac. Waiting to take him and his buddies halfway around the world to war.
The name hung between him and his family as they gathered in the spare, unadorned military terminal, trying to pretend that this trip was nothing out of the ordinary. But it seemed to Mike almost as if he were gone already, that he had moved beyond the point where he could reach out to touch them. Their faces, loved and familiar, blurred before his eyes as though he looked at them through a mist.
His father cleared his throat before shoving a dog-eared, plain, tan paperback book into Mike's hands. "Thought you might be able to use this sometime," he said, his voice hoarse. "You and Julie used to like to sing some of these old songs when you were kids. Remember?"
Mike looked down at the book he held. It was his father's old service hymnbook that he'd gotten as a young Marine at Sunday worship aboard a ship headed out to the South Pacific during World War II. Frank McRae wasn't much of one to attend church, and the gift surprised Mike. Maybe spiritual things meant more to his father than he had thought.
It evidently surprised his mother too. "Oh, Frank, I didn't think you paid any attention. Julie taught you those songs when you were just a toddler," she added, lightly touching Mike's shoulder. "The two of you sounded like little angels..." She stopped, her voice choking.
Mike could feel the heat rising to his face. To cover his embarrassment, he flipped open the worn cover and stared down at the inscription on the title page. No date, just the owner's name: Frank McRae.
It was Mike's turn to clear his throat. There was suddenly a lump in it despite his skepticism about anything that had to do with faith or religion.
"Well . . . cool. Thanks."
Blinking back an unexpected prickle of tears, he glanced over at his mother, Maggie, who was thin and wan from surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. His sister, Julie, hovered near her, still in her white nurse's uniform after coming straight to the airport from the hospital where she worked. Behind her stood her husband, Dan, holding their daughter, Amy.
"I know you've got a lot to carry already, but --- "
Mike waved his father's words away. "It isn't heavy, Dad, and who knows. You lugged it through all those battlefields, and you made it home. Maybe it'll bring me good luck too."
On impulse, he pulled a pen out of the breast pocket of his fatigues, clicked it open and added his name below his father's, added the date too. Squatting down, he zipped open his bag and squeezed the hymnal in among his clothing.
When he straightened, his mother stepped forward to give him a fierce hug. "When you get there let us know you're okay and what unit you're assigned to. Write as often as you can."
"I will, Mom." He struggled to keep his voice from choking up. "Love you."
"Love you too."
"You get well, okay?" he whispered in her ear.
"I will. I'm going to beat this cancer, God willing."
Inwardly Mike sighed, though for her sake he managed not to grimace. He and his mom had always been close, but he got awfully tired of all this God talk. On the other hand, if there really was a benign force somewhere out there in the universe, he supposed prayers couldn't hurt.
Julie crowded in to put her arms around him as well. "I'm sure going to miss you, little brother." She was crying openly, not making any attempt to brush away her tears.
"Aw, you're going to be too busy with this little princess to think about me," Mike returned awkwardly, reaching over to tickle three-year-old Amy under the chin.
She leaned out from her father's arms, reaching for him. Dan surrendered the child, and she wound her arms around Mike's neck, nestled her golden head against his shoulder, giggling, as he tugged on her braid.
Mike was relieved to see that Amy, at least, seemed not to comprehend the dangers he was heading toward or the length of the separation that lay before them. He turned to clasp Dan's hand in a handshake he hoped would say everything he couldn't.
Dan pushed his hand away and embraced him without speaking, pounding him on the back at the same time. Only Frank held back, frowning, as he stared through the windows at the plane.
Outside Mike could hear the engines revving up, signaling that it was time to board. The last of his buddies were heading outside. Hastily handing Amy back to Dan, Mike kissed his sister and mother, shook his father's hand, then zipped up his parka and grabbed his duffle bag.
"Thirteen months," he said, forcing a grin. "See you all back here next Christmas."
"Don't forget to tell Terry hello from all of us. Remind him Angie and the kids want him to stay safe and to hurry home. Give him a kiss from Angie," Julie added with a wicked grin.
"Yeah, right!" Mike chuckled in spite of himself, then hefted his bag. "It sure will be good to see a friendly face when I get there. With luck, I'll end up in Terry's platoon."
"It'll be more than luck," his mother said. "I'm going to pray about it. And we'll be praying every minute until you're home safe with us again."
Mike gave her a crooked smile, then with a quick wave to all of them, turned and strode out the door and across the tarmac. By sheer willpower he kept his stride steady, refusing to let himself turn to look back at them. He knew that if he did, he'd never make it to the plane.
Every step of the way he could sense their eyes following him, and their love. When he reached the stairs, he ran up them, not letting himself think about what he was leaving behind or what lay before him.
Hurriedly he moved through the open door into the plane's dim interior, feeling, like the severing of an embrace, the moment when he disappeared from their sight.
"Mom?" Closing the front door behind her, Julie Christensen stamped the snow from her boots onto the welcome mat in the foyer. "Hello --- it's me!"
"Come on in, honey," her mother called from the kitchen. "I'm just putting a hotdish in the oven. I'll be right out. Are the streets still bad?"
Jiggling awkwardly from one foot to the other, Julie pulled her boots off one at a time with her free hand and dropped them onto the mat to drain. "The plows have cleared all the main streets now, but they're still icy in places. I barely got through to the hospital this morning, though. That was quite a blizzard."
She could hear the oven door open and close. "Your father got to the office late," her mother responded. "He called to say there were a lot of fender-benders."
Julie went into the living room on white-stockinged feet. "I brought in the mail. There's a letter from Mike."
Maggie pushed through the swinging kitchen door, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "Well, it's about time. It's been three weeks since the last one came, and he had hardly anything to say then."
When Julie held out the letter, her mother dropped the dishtowel on the arm of the easy chair and reached eagerly for it. She frowned as she studied the handwriting on the outside.
"He's still okay."
Noting the tightness in her voice, Julie reassured her hastily, "Of course he's okay. We'd hear right away if he wasn't."
Maggie looked up. "He's only written three times in the past three months."
Julie dropped the rest of the mail onto the coffee table. "Don't forget the letter he sent Dan and me last month."
"All right, four then."
"They've been involved in several operations."
"That's about all he's told us." Maggie sighed. "I want to know how he's doing --- really. What it's like over there. How his health is."
"Mom, he's a guy. Guys don't talk much about stuff like that."
Maggie gave a short laugh. "I know. Your father's the same way. How was work today? Is Diane Henderson doing any better?"
Julie hesitated. Diane had been fighting breast cancer for more than a year, and Julie was tempted to gloss over their friend's condition. But when her own mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer the previous fall, Julie had promised she would always tell her the truth and not conceal anything, no matter how unpleasant it was.
She shook her head. "Not good. I'm afraid she isn't going to make it through the night. Steve and the girls are with her, and their parents are on the way. I said goodbye to her before my shift ended, but I don't know if she could hear me."
Her movements unsteady, Maggie went to the fireplace, grabbed the poker and prodded the sizzling logs, releasing a shower of sparks that swirled upward and out of sight. Squatting down, she laid another log on the fire, jerking back from the heat as the flames licked at the dry bark. The wood began to hiss and pop, the sound loud in the quiet room.
When she finally stood up and turned around again, Julie could read nothing in her face. As usual since she had lost her abundant chestnut curls to chemotherapy, her mother had tied a bright scarf around her head. The loss of her hair bothered her more than the terrible bouts of nausea she suffered during treatment, Julie thought. Even now that an inch-long, silky growth of new hair covered her scalp, she still kept her head covered even at home.
Pulling off gloves and muffler and unzipping the parka she wore over her starched, white nurse's uniform, Julie threw them onto the sofa, then went to give her mother a quick hug. "How've you been today? Are you feeling all right?"
"You look tired. You haven't been overdoing it, have you? Are you sleeping okay?"
At the barrage of questions, Maggie raised her hands. "Now who's the mother here? I'm supposed to be asking you that. You've got a three-year-old at home, a husband who's a pastor, and you work all day on a cancer ward. With that much stress, it's a wonder you're not sick --- "
"Mom, you're always doing that." At her questioning look, Julie burst out, "You always change the subject if it's about you! You always think you have to take care of other people, and you act as if you aren't important at all!"
Maggie raised her eyebrows, but before she could protest, they heard a car pull into the driveway. At the same instant the mantel clock tolled four o'clock. Julie went over to the window.
"It's Dad. What's he doing home so early?"
"I hope there's nothing wrong. He hardly ever makes it home before six-thirty."
The engineering firm owned by Frank McRae and his high school buddy, Larry Bringeland, had landed a major contract with the State of Minnesota that had been taking most of his attention for the past eight months. He usually worked late on the job site or at his office in Minneapolis, thirty miles southeast of their home in the small bedroom community of Shepherdsville.
He's more worried about Mom's appointment tomorrow than he'll admit.
Julie bit her lip to keep from blurting out what she was thinking. Her mother was already nervous enough about the appointment at university hospital the next morning, where she was scheduled to receive the results of tests to determine whether she was finally cancer-free. She didn't need any more anxiety.
After a moment Julie heard her father come into the kitchen, banging the back door behind him. When he appeared in the doorway, he first glanced at Maggie, then apparently reassured, grinned at Julie.
"Thought I'd find you here. You girls have a good day?"
Maggie went to give him a kiss and help him to slip out of his overcoat. "You're home awfully early. We ought to celebrate."
He chuckled. "Sounds like we're on the same wavelength. We finished our last meeting early, so I decided to take you out to dinner."
"But I just put your favorite hotdish into the oven."
"Stick it in the fridge. It'll keep till tomorrow."
Seeing the look he gave her mother before he crossed the room to warm himself in front of the fire, Julie smiled. After almost twenty-five years of marriage, they still acted like young lovers.
"We're not going anywhere until we read Mike's letter," Maggie insisted. She handed Julie the letter and sat down on the sofa. "Why don't you read it so we can all hear it together."
Eagerly Julie tore open the thin air-mail envelope. Pulling out several creased, humidity-stained sheets of paper, she unfolded them and stared down at the pages thickly scribbled with Mike's free-flowing handwriting.
February 19, 1967
Nha Trang, South Viet Nam
Dear Mom and Dad,
When you arrive in the Nam, the first thing you notice is the intense heat, followed by the stench of sweat and fuel and refuse that permeates everything. Next is the sound --- a vibration that raises the hair on the back of your neck --- the roar of helicopters and jet fighters taking off and landing, and the occasional whump of artillery fire. Gritty red dirt coats everything, from your boots and fatigues to your food. You chew it with every bite you eat, breathe it in with every lungful of air.
It's a strange feeling --- as if you've dropped into an alternate reality, a parallel universe that revolves along its own separate course on a totally different plane from life in the real world. Ten months, and I'll be home. That thought is the only thing that makes life here bearable.
Sorry I haven't had much to tell you up till now. It's taken a while to get oriented and figure out what what's going on. I have some great news to share, though! I got that transfer to the medic unit I asked for. Instead of running sweeps through the jungle and setting up ambushes, my job will be to accompany the medics during our operations, get them in to the wounded, then get them and the casualties back out to safety.
"Thank God!" Maggie said, relief flooding through her. "At least he'll be a little bit safer with the medics."
Excerpted from One Holy Night © Copyright 2012 by J. M. Hochstetler. Reprinted with permission by Sheaf House Publishers. All rights reserved.