While home for Christmas break, Penny had been drawn back to Blacklick Creek as she often was. She walked through the blanket of powdery snow that had fallen the night before. The winter stillness and the sounds of rippling water had a calming effect on her. Penny often made the trip to the place above White Mill where she thought about Buck... how much she still loved him and what might have been. She felt his presence there.The past months had not been easy for her...."Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me...pray for Buck...bring him back," she often silently prayed. Her ache and hurt at Buck's loss had never stopped, nor did she want it to. "If I stop hurting, it means he's finally gone.... Not yet...not yet," she would think to herself.
It was the middle of May and the rolling hills that surrounded Nanty Glo were once again turning lush and green. The winter of 1950 had been slow to release its grip on the Blacklick Valley and the spring tulips, daffodils, and lilies were just now making their yearly debut in the yards and flower beds scattered among the yellow tile coal company houses of Heisley Street where the Crawford family lived.
Holding in his hand a bouquet of pink tulips and white daffodils covertly and quickly collected from a neighbor's garden, 22-year-old Howard "Buck" Crawford leaned his lanky six-foot frame against the fender of his green second-hand Jeep. He was waiting outside Hagen's Restaurant for his steady girlfriend Penny Flanagan to finish her waitressing shift. The warm breeze ruffled the canvas awning above Donofsky's store across the street. It was a beautiful day for what Buck had planned for Penny. Called "Buck" since the age of two, Howard Crawford was tall, too thin, and known around Nanty Glo as soft spoken, dependable, and passionate about the things he loved. Buck had been introduced to the joys of hunting and fishing by his father, and life was predictable: trout fishing in the spring, summer weekends with friends at Raystown Dam, deer hunting in the fall and Penny to share all the good times.
Their eyes met as she walked out the door, his deep blue behind the lenses he wore to correct his nearsightedness; hers big and brown, complimented by the curly shoulder-length auburn hair that framed her face. The spattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks made him grin as she walked toward him. He had teasingly called her "Spots" since their first meeting in high school, she a nervous freshman looking for her lost homework and he a senior looking for a chance to meet Penny Flanagan. Now 19 and into her freshman year at Indiana State Teachers College, Penny was as her father said, "Smitten with young Buck Crawford." The daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, hard working and friendly, Penny was an asset to the cozy Roberts Street eatery and her outgoing personality frequently enabled her to double in tips the 25-cents-an-hour she was paid as the counter waitress.
"These are for you, Spots; got 'em fresh this mornin'," Buck said, giving her a wink as he extended the hand-picked bouquet toward her. And I know where you got them. Your neighbor Mrs.O'Malley was in the restaurant earlier today complaining about someone stealing the flowers from her garden! she thought to herself. She was too much in love with Buck to get angry with him and was always deeply touched by the loving things he did to show how much he cared for her. She gave him her "in-public kiss" and pressed her fingers first to her lips, then to his, and in a whisper he barely heard, said, "I love you, Buck, and thank you...Mrs. O'Malley."
Buck Crawford and his family had been anxiously watching the events of the Korean War unfold, and knew it was only a matter of time until he was drafted. Fifteen local boys from Nanty Glo and the surrounding area had already been called up for duty and sent into combat, and two of the fifteen had been killed in action. In a town the size of Nanty Glo, people knew each other and though not close friends, Buck felt the loss of Steve Pazinsky from Cardiff and Dominic Concini of Nanty Glo's Little Italy neighborhood.
The waiting game he had been playing was now over. Buck had received his draft notice on April 15th and had carried it in his jacket pocket for a month, waiting for the right time to tell Penny. I'll tell her today, he thought to himself, time is running out...I have to tell her today! It was Buck's day off from his job at Brownie's Gas Station, and having promised Penny he would teach her how to fish, he took her to his favorite fishing spot upstream from White Mill. As they stood knee deep in the fast water of Blacklick Creek, they laughed and joked with each other...he teased her about her freckles,
"I hope none of our kids are born with those spots...er, freckles," he said, "The red hair is okay though," he said as he winked at her.
"And I hope all our babies are girls so I won't need to call any of them 'How-weird,'" she retorted, laughing and splashing water at his face. In the midst of their good-natured bantering, Buck felt the tug of a fish on his line. Wanting to impress Penny and playing the scene for all it was worth, he gently and gradually began reeling in his catch.
"Its a keeper, Penny!" he said as he reached for his net. Buck didn't see or feel the log behind him as he netted his trophy and, losing his balance in the fast current, fell backwards over the log into the cold water. Laughing hysterically, Penny helped him to his feet. Leaning on each other and laughing at the sight of Buck's soaking wet "overalls" and plaid flannel shirt, they waded to the stream bank and the small camp fire Buck had made from the branches of a nearby windfall. They warmed themselves by the fire and shared hot cocoa from a thermos and Buck's favorite snack, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Penny had brought from the restaurant. The uncomfortable silence between them became awkward as they ran out of small talk about jobs, school, and friends.
He reached his hand toward her hair and twirled a lock of auburn curls around his finger. He cleared his throat. "Penny, I have somethin' to tell you," he said. She knew what he was about to tell her...Nanty Glo is a small town...people talk in the restaurant, "Have ya heard?...the Crawford boy got his draft notice," she overheard someone say. She pressed her fingers against his lips, "Shhhh..." she whispered, "I know, Buck, you've been drafted, I've known for two weeks. I overheard people talking in the restaurant. I thought if we didn't talk about it, it wouldn't be true."
He took her face in his hands and lightly touched his lips to hers. I don't want to cry...please God, don't let me cry, she thought...but she lost the battle to keep back the tears. Her eyes filled and overflowed. Her voice trembled and she choked on a strangled sob as she pleaded, half demanded: "You listen to me, Buck Crawford. I know you have to go...you just make damn sure you come back to me." Pulling her close and wrapping his long arms around her, he whispered into her gardenia-scented hair, "I'll do my best to come back Penny, you know that."
The bright sun reflecting off the snow lifted her spirits a little. As she looked up the hillside, she saw a tall lanky figure walking toward her through the trees. The bright afternoon sun was behind him and shining in her eyes, half blinding her. She watched as he came closer. God, is it Buck? she thought.It looks like him.... But it can't be him...the letter from the War Department said: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Crawford, we regret to inform you that your son, Pvt. 1st Class Howard T. Crawford, is missing in action and presumed dead." But wait! ...Yes!... It is him!
Her heart pounding, she ran through the ankle-deep snow toward the familiar form, Her woolen coat and fur-lined boots were heavy and caused her to stumble. "Oh, God, they found him...he's alive! she cried. As she got close enough to see his face, she saw that it wasn't Buck, but a stranger. "I'm sorry," she said as she wiped the tears from her cheeks and turned to walk away, "I thought you were someone else."
In a soft voice with a southern accent, the lanky stranger said; "Miss Flanagan, my name is Artie Brinker, I was told that I might find you here. I was with Buck when he was wounded."
"You were with Buck in Korea?" she asked.
"Yes, Ma'am. We were on patrol together when Buck was hit. I dragged him out of the line of fire, but I wasn't goin' to leave a buddy, so I stayed with him until...the end." He reached inside his coat. "He wanted me to make sure that you got this." The last person to see Buck Crawford alive handed over to her a soiled, wrinkled, envelope with Penny scrawled across the front. Her hands shook as she opened it, carefully unfolding the letter to find a ticket stub from their first date at the Capitol Theater...and in his messy, printed handwriting that she'd often teased him about, Buck Crawford had written his final words:
Penny carefully folded the letter and placed it in her pocket. "Mr. Brinker, how can I ever thank you for bringing me this final Christmas gift from Buck?" she said. "You have been so kind. I'll have Fr. Calderone say a mass for you at St. Mary's."
The soft-spoken southerner took her hand: "Thank you, Ma'am, that's right kind of you. I know you and I are of different faiths, but my Daddy is a Baptist Minister and he taught me a lot about prayer; I'd be obliged if you would let me say a few words to the Lord about our friend Buck," he said.
"I'd be honored," said Penny. The two young strangers bowed their heads as the minister's son began to pray: "Our Heavenly Father, I ask that you ease the pain in this young woman's heart. Let her accept the loss of her loved one in the knowlege that our friend Buck is safe with thee, and I will repeat the prayer that Buck and I shared before he died: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presense of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
As Penny Flanagan said "Amen" she felt the sweet touch of a breeze against her cheek.
I hate to be the one to defy sacred myth, but I believe he's a she. Think about it. Christmas is a big, organized, warm, fuzzy, nurturing social deal, and I have a tough time believing a guy could possibly pull it all off! For starters, the vast majority of men don't even think about selecting gifts until Christmas Eve. It's as if they are all frozen in some kind of Ebenezerian Time Warp until 3 p.m. on December 24, when theywith amazing calm call other errant men and plan for a last-minute shopping spree.
Once at the mall, they always seem surprised to find only Ronco products, socket wrench sets, and mood rings left on the shelves. (You might think this would send them into a fit of panic and guilt, but my husband tells me it's an enormous relief because it lessens the eleventh-hour decision-making burden.) On this count alone, I'm convinced Santa is a woman. Surely, if he were a man, everyone in the universe would wake up Christmas morning to find a rotating musical Chia Pet under the tree, still in the bag.
Another problem for a he-Santa would be getting there. First, there would be no reindeer because they would all be dead, gutted and strapped on to the rear bumper of the sleigh amid wide-eyed, desperate claims that buck season had been extended. Blitzen's rack would already be on the way to the taxidermist. Even if the male Santa did have reindeer, he'd still have transportation problems because he would inevitably get lost up there in the snow and clouds and then refuse to stop and ask for directions. Add to this the fact that there would be unavoidable delays in the chimney, where the Bob Villa-like Santa would stop to inspect and repoint bricks in the flue. He would also need to check for carbon monoxide fumes in every gas fireplace, and get under every Christmas tree that is crooked to straighten it to a perfectly upright 90-degree angle.
Other reasons why Santa can't possibly be a man: Men can't pack a bag. Men would rather be dead than caught wearing red velvet. Men would feel their masculinity is threatened, having to be seen with all those elves. Men don't answer their mail. Men would refuse to allow their physiques to be described even in jest as anything remotely resembling a "bowlful of jelly." Men aren't interested in stockings unless somebody's wearing them. Having to do the Ho Ho Ho thing would seriously inhibit their ability to pick up women. Finally, being responsible for Christmas would require a commitment.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
Norman Vincent Peale
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