Playing War

A Christmas Story

Danny was a happy boy. It was Christmas, which had to be one of his most favorite (according to him, favoritest) days of the year, along with his birthday and Halloween, since presents and candy figured prominently among the things that delighted his eight year-old soul. Besides, he'd just got done unwrapping a whole bunch of G.I. Joe action figures. What more could he want, after all? He was all ready to arrange them to play war when the doorbell rang.

"Oh, that'll be your grandparents," his mother said. "Go open the door, Danny." Danny ran eargerly to do her bidding. Now that Grandpa was here, maybe they could play war together. Grandpa always made it more fun. Besides, Grandpa had been a soldier. Grandpa would know how to do things right.

"Danny!" his grandmother exclaimed. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart!"

"Hi, Grandma," he replied, submitting to her hug.

"Hey, is that there my grandson?" Grandpa asked from behind his wife. "Come here, you little pipsqueak!"

"Grandpa!" Danny cried. "Come look at what I got for Christmas!"

Grandpa looked skeptical. "Is it as good as what I got? Bet it's not."

"Huhh," Danny scoffed. "Bet mine's lots better."

"No, siree."

Danny reached under the tree and tugged out his action figures. "See here, Grandpa. Told you mine was better. Now we can play war." Grandpa didn't move. He seemed to be thinking very hard. Danny tugged on his sleeve. "Come on, Grandpa, let's go," he whined.

"Danny, I'd like to tell you a story."

"Can we play war after?"

Grandpa looked serious. "Maybe."

Danny looked disappointed. "Awww, come on Grandpa!" When he saw Grandpa watching him, he amended, "Oh, fine, let's get this story over with." They sat down together on the couch, and Grandpa began.

"I think you already know that I was a soldier in the World War--"

"Oooh, is this from then?" Grandpa looked grave, and then he continued.

"Yes, it is a war story. As I was saying, I was a soldier, many years ago. I was stationed on the front lines in the war, fighting against the Germans. It was the winter, and we were all cold and homesick. The only thing that made us feel better was that the German soldiers were undergoing the same thing we were.

"We kept taking turns on watches. The rest of us, the unit, would sleep in this little shelter in the trenches, altogether, just trying to stay warm. It got really cold at night.

"I started to lose track of time, with all those watches, and then sometimes there'd be a battle and we'd all have to fight."

Grandpa paused. "Go on," Danny prodded. He hated when grownups stopped just at the good part.

"Well, one night one of my friends woke me up from the first sound sleep I'd had in days. I was about to rat him out for getting me up, but then he looked at me, and he said, 'Charlie, it's Christmas. Just thought I'd let you know.'

"I was wide awake on the instant. It was the worst feeling of homesickness I'd had yet. I just kept thinking about what was happening at home, if they'd opened their presents yet, if they'd started singing Christmas carols or making the food or if the extended family had arrived yet. I think all my buddies were wondering the same thing, because they all looked as low as I felt. So much for Christmas cheer."

Danny wriggled around. When were the Germans going to attack? They just had to. It wouldn't be a war story without that.

"I was just about to cry when I heard a noise. 'Shhhh,' I told my mates; almost all of them were snuffling. 'What's that?'

"We all listened. It was a voice singing in German, that much I could tell. Then someone said, 'Hey, it's Silent Night in German!'

"We looked at each other. We didn't know how to react. Finally, someone said, 'Well, come on, let's sing.' So we sang it. Silent Night. It's a beautiful song. The tears were really dripping down our faces as we sang it.

"When the song ended we stared for awhile. 'Well,' I said, 'Let's give them 'It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.' So we started to sing it. By the end of it, the Germans were singing along to the chorus. Then they started to sing 'O Christmas Tree.' We kept on going back and forth for awhile, just singing and singing and singing, looking up at the star-filled sky."

Grandpa paused. "Do you want to stop now, Danny?"

Danny looked very serious. "No, thank you, Grandpa." If you wanted something, it always helped if you were polite. His courtesy elicited a small smile from his Grandpa, who began to speak again.

"We were just starting on 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' when one of the guys saw something. It was a light coming from the other line, towards us. We all held our breath like anything and watched it come, closer and closer until it was in the very center of the no-man's-land between the lines. My buddy Rob was the first to make out what it was. "Charlie," he whispered, "it's a truce flag."

"The whispers started to go around. "A white flag!" "Truce! What the heck?" "Should we go out there?" "Is it a trick?"

"Rob was the first to act. He leaped out of the trench, a lantern in one hand and a white hanky in the other. We watched, trembling with suspense, as the light from his lantern hovered away over the frozen turf and his ghostly white handkerchief waved out a peace signal. "Oh, my God," a man prayed out loud. "Let it not be a trick. Please, let there be peace tonight."

"'No killing for just this time,'" another one added. "'Peace for Christmas.'" "'Amen,'" several voices said fervently.

"Rob had now reached the two German men. All my muscles were tensed for the shot that would leave me a friend less. The one that would shatter the warm feeling of Christmas. We were all waiting, listening, afraid to look over the top of the trench for fear of witnessing Rob's death. The minutes ticked by.

"At long last, I raised my head and dared a glance towards the lights. At that moment, Rob's hearty laugh rang out, disturbing the strange silence of the night; it was the first laugh we had heard in a long time. Illuminated by the lantern light, I saw three men standing together, shaking hands and passing a bottle around. I realized I couldn't really quite see them properly, because my eyes were blurry with happy tears.

"Rob turned in the direction of our trench. "'Come on, boys,'" he shouted, "'and bring the liquor!'" Some people started at the voice. "'He's alive!" '"They meant it!'" "'Hurrah for Christmas!'"

"I clambered out of the trench and began running towards the light, calling out to the others to do the same. "'Aww, Charlie old pal, I knew you'd come," Rob said, clapping me on the back and shoving the bottle into my hands. As the liquid went down, I smiled and shook hands with the German men. My eyes were full again, and I realized that theirs were, too. "Peace," I affirmed. Although they replied in their own language, I was sure they meant the same thing.

"One German pointed to himself. "'Johann,'" he said. "'Karl,"" the other one introduced himself. I smiled. "'Charlie,'" I spoke happily.

"Rob's coat pocket was open, and a picture fell out, dog-eared and folded too many times. "'Oh,'" he gasped, looking at it. I sneaked a glance; it was his family--mother, father, sister, brother--and so it was no wonder it was painful. Karl looked over Rob's shoulder. "'Ach,'" he sighed softly, and started fumbling with his own coat pocket and produced a photograph of his family. When seen next to each other, the families looked so similar no one could have guessed that one was German and the other, English.

"The night wore on, with more and more men coming to greet each other, exchange names and show pictures of loved ones, whose similarities were astonishing. I guessed that we had this image of Germans as being fearsome, savage, ruthless and bloodthirsty. How far we were from the truth, I thought as Johann blinked tears away at seeing pictures of my family next to his own. "'Gott in Himmel,'" I heard him whisper.

"With the dawn, all of us, British and German alike, began to drift back to the trenches on either side of the field. I wished the night could have gone on and on and on until the war was over; the sunrise meant the beginning of another day of blood, another day of death. As the sun rose, inexorably over the cold world: colder now, for lack of the warmth of love we had felt all through the night.

"From that night onward, not a day went by in that terrible war when I did not wonder who was lying in the mud on the other side of the battlefield, gasping their last breath. Did I kill many men? How many families did I tear apart by pulling the trigger on my gun? How was the whole populace deceived into thinking that the Germans were ruthless animals who enjoyed the blood and death? It was not them who were ruthless; they were like us. They did it for their nation, for their leaders, because they wanted to feel patriotic. The soldiers of war are not the savages; it is the war itself that kills. I believe that is the most important lesson I ever learned through all those terrible months and years.

"I am still amazed at the power and love of Christmas that brought us together for that single, magical night. I will never forget it, as long as I live."

Grandpa shifted in his chair and wiped his eyes. Then he grinned at Danny. "Do you still want to play war?"

Danny's face was serious. "Nahhhh," he replied, frowning. Then he brightened. "Grandpa, you want to go build a snowman?"