A Christmas Apart

Steam Loco in Winter

I’ve shared this story before, but I thought it appropriate for the Christmas season. Mata’s Story is an unpublished novella in which Otto Kerchner’s sister Mata tells some of the stories from the Beyond the Blue Horizon series from her perspective as a ninety year old. This selection is Chapter 36 from that book and takes place in December, 1942

Mata speaks:

What do I remember about Christmases? I remember so much that if we both lived to be a hundred and ten, I would tell you one-tenth of what I remember. Christmas is such a glorious time, full of excitement, secrets, sharing, preparing, time with family, the coziness of being inside with colorful decorations while the world is frozen outside. I’m sure you have such memories as well.

Of course, Christmas can also be difficult at times. I think of that first Christmas without my Pete after he was killed by that car. Forgive me while I recover myself.

Ah, now that’s better. Then there was the year I thought I wasn’t going to speak to anyone the rest of the year after Pete died. I was just too angry, at what or who, I do not know, but thank goodness I recovered in time and didn’t spoil it for everyone, including myself. But one of the most difficult Christmases came during the war, in 1942, when Otto was coming home for the first time since he had gone into the service.

As I have told you, we lived south of town, and the train actually ran past our farm. I had to drive north to Pioneer Lake to the small station on the Milwaukee Roads line. Pioneer Lake was of course much small then, and all the shops had closed for Christmas Eve by the time I went through town. The day was overcast, with light fading fast as the sun sank behind the trees. I had to turn my car lights on the last mile or so.

I remember standing on the platform of the station, huddled against the cold in my cloth winter coat I had worn for ten seasons, turning my back to the frigid Wisconsin wind with my head down. We knew there would be no new clothing for us on the home front, or not much, so our motto was “Make it do, use it up or do without.” And we did.

I raised my head briefly, blinking back tears from my eyes caused by the wind. The train wasn’t in sight. Silly girl, I scolded myself. It wasn’t necessary to see it. I would hear the whistle of the steam locomotive long before it arrived around the bend.

A handful of neighbors waited with me for the arrival of Milwaukee Roads Train Number 57, due in five minutes. Civilians rarely drove far because of rationing, and if they did travel any distance, they went by train if they could get a seat. All our resources and material went into the war effort. Anyone who didn’t live through this time can’t understand it. I rarely heard anyone complain, though. We all were having to make do, and we were all in the same boat. No use complaining and making it more difficult for anyone than it already was.

I quickly calculated how long it had been since I had seen Otto. He left for the Army Air Corps in March of 1942, and his last letter home came in early December. So that’s, what?  Eight months? It seemed longer. Time crept though those months, and I attributed the slowing of time to all the unfamiliar work I had to do, learning how to manage the family’s dairy med, negotiating prices, hiring what few men were available and capable of the hard physical work involved. Of course, I wasn’t alone. Millions of women were doing the jobs of men who were off to war. I couldn’t help but feel that this change would not only last for the duration but years and even generations in the future, and I believe history proved me right.

I peered down the platform to see if I could tell who the couple was at the other end. It had to be someone with a family member in the service. Almost all the trains carried troops or supplies. My eyes cleared for a moment, and I saw it was the elder Petersons. They ran a home construction business, but they couldn’t get materials or labor with the war going on. Oh, sure, the military was building military bases and factories, but our little town was too far away from everything to warrant either. That was all right with me. I loved the tranquil life on my parents’ dairy farm, although it bad been hard to enjoy it lately. I caught myself once again in these thoughts. Think of the poor people on the front lines and those who work under such difficult conditions. Think of Otto far away from home, I.  No, I had little to complain about. And business was brisk, with word that the Army would soon be coming as far north as our town. That would mean a tremendous boost to our business, although I could have done with it since it involved war and so much displacement and suffering. Ah, well, there was a job to be done, and I would do my part.

I wondered how our parents would seem to Otto. It didn’t seem to me that they had changed that much during his absence, but I knew it was harder to see someone change when you were around them all the time. I didn’t think Mama’s dementia had gotten any worse, although some days were better than others. And while his paralysis had slowed him down some, Papa was still in charge of the farm. He couldn’t do what he used to, but he didn’t hesitate to tell anyone else how to do a job. Fortunately, his mind was still sound. Occasionally I thought he was too abrupt with the workers and with me, but I had found over the years that if I talked to him gently, he soon calmed down.

A distant steam whistle sounded from the south, and I moved to the center of the platform so I’d would be able to get to Otto quickly. He had never been away this long before, and I had been mulling over the first words I would say to him. He seemed the same in his letters home, but again you never know. He could have changed in ways that didn’t show up in the letters. The wind blew harder, and I drew my coat collar over my head. That helped, but not much. Mrs.  Peterson came up to me with her husband trailing behind as usual. “Hello, Mata! Do you remember an old lady? I know you’ll be glad to see Otto. I’ve missed seeing all our young men around.” Pete was the eldest of the four brothers, and the only one old enough to serve.

“And I know you’ll be glad to see Pete again.”

Ja, we have missed him as our son, and he was such a good worker, although he would probably have had to go to Minneapolis to find work if he hadn’t gone into the service.”

“We’re all glad to have our boys back for a while.” Could you say anything more obvious? I thought. The brilliant white headlight of the locomotive cut through the onrushing air. It was right on schedule, which was unusual these days. The loco’s boiler loomed nearer and nearer, until seemed to fill my field of vision entirely. Then the huge black machine slid by, brakes squealing, venting steam down the line of coaches. The train strained to a stop, and the engineer blew off the excess steam. The conductor climbed down the steps of the first coach, holding a small wooden box in his right hand. He carefully put it in place and then stood by as the passengers came out. None of them needed help since they were all young men with a smattering of women. I counted ten people, but none of them was Otto. What could have happened to him?

The train crew clambered down from the locomotive, and I watched as the relief crew took its place. I walked over to the first coach where the conductor looked up and down the line. He apparently was about to call “All aboard!” when he noticed I striding toward him. He tipped his cap to me. “What can I do for you today, Miss?”

“Has everyone who’s going here gotten off?”

“Yes, m’am, I had six passengers for Pioneer Lake, and they all got off. I count them as they get on, don’t cha know and I count them again when they get off. On some trains, they’re not awakened or called at our stop, but not on my train.”

My face fell. “Oh.”

“He’ll likely be on the next train. I’m sorry.”

“But today is Christmas Eve, and there’s no train tomorrow. The earliest he could make it is the 26th.”

“I am truly sorry, Miss. But now we have to leave. I have to keep to a schedule. I’m sure you understand.” He tipped his hat to me and called, “All aboarrd!” He swung up the steps, and the train pulled out, slowly at first but then with increasing speed,, and it was gone as if it had never been there, vanishing around the bend. I heard the whistle blowing for a grade-level crossing to the north of the station.

I watched it vanish from sight, put my head down into the wind and fought my slow way back to the car. Once in and glad to be out of the weather, I laid my forehead against the steering wheel and felt my tears come, freezing as they slid down my cheeks. After a few seconds, I straightened up, started the engine and picked my way back home among the black ice patches on the state highway.

The sun set early that time of year, and by the time I pulled up in the driveway of the old farm house, night had spread its inky cloak over all I could see. I thought that phrase came from something we had studied in my senior class, Hamlet, perhaps. I turned my face to the sky, thinking how cold and distant the stars were that night. If I had to go to tend the cows at night, I always saw those distant points of light as warm, even inviting, but not this evening. Christmas was just a few hours away and my brother was not there.

I opened the door and wondering how my parents fared. When I left for the station an hour earlier, I felt filled with hope and expectation, but the bright flame of that hope and that expectation had gone out. I hoped I would be able somehow to keep thet fire alive.

I stopped in the kitchen because I heard someone, no, two someones, singing an old German carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.

I thought it was the radio at first, but as I went into the living room, I saw that it was my Mama and Papa, singing the old, old words with conviction. I have never heard it sung so beautifully before or since.

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.

Aus einer Wurzel zart.

Wie uns die Alten sungen,

Aus Jesse kam die Art

Und hat ein Blümlein bracht,

Mitten im kalten Winter,

Wohl zu der halben Nacht.


Das Röslein das ich meine,

Davon Jesaias sagt:

Mama ist’s, die Reine,

Die uns das Blümlein bracht:

Aus Gottes ewigem Rat

Hat sie ein Kindlein g’boren

Bleibend ein reine Magd.

I paused in the hall. Mama could go for days without talking, and when she did, I could not make out most of what she was saying. But there she was, singing a clear harmony with Papa. Maybe there are no more miracles, but as I bowed my head in the cold kitchen I knew I had witnessed one, truly a Christmas miracle. I prayed, “Thank you, Lord,” and lifted my head. Tomorrow was another day and more importantly, it was Christmas Day. I felt something a warm glow in my heart, hope and expectation burning brightly there against the piercing wind and bitter cold of war and winter.

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