the best Christmas ever

On Friday morning, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, I worked at Paper Source. I circled the second floor to make sure that all of the customers were doing okay. There was one older man standing staring at the all of the paper. Sometimes, you find men who are just there until their wives sufficiently finish exploring the store. I smiled and greeted the gentleman and asked if he was having a nice day. I think that the long pause and a smiling face was all that he needed to tell the stories that were ready to pop out of him.

As he looked around at the countless number of colorful paper products, he told me that he was from a small town in Ohio, which was the home of Champion Paper. Everyone in his family had worked for the paper mill, which produced coated paper used for Life Magazine, among other things.

Somehow we jumped from his hometown to Japan, as I pointed out some of the beautiful Japanese papers hanging on the ladders that stand at the top of the stairs and decorate the perimeter of the first floor. He then told me that he was stationed in Japan two years after WWII. He would go out into the fields and earn the trust of the craftsmen throughout the countryside. He said, “If you want to learn the culture of a country, go to where they get mud on their feet. Skip the embassies, where everything is clean. Visit the artists and craftsmen.”

He further described his experiences of photographing the craftsmen at work. He took thousands of photos of every stage of the Japanese paper-making process. He said that he started with the farmers in the rice fields, the harvest of the rice, the pounding of the pulp, on through the painting of the paper.

He then told me that one day he was out in the field and three children came up to him and tugged on the side of his pants. He showed them that he was out of the typical candy that most soldiers carried with them. But they were persistent in their pleas. Finally he followed the children out through the field to discover a forgotten orphanage. He described the poverty that he witnessed. The children had nothing of their own and two women were serving the children with little help from the advancement of technology. One woman was carrying water in buckets from the river and a second was washing clothes on the side of a large rock. He left the orphanage with the intention of making a difference.

That weekend, he won $500 in a poker game back at the base. He told his friends about what he saw at the orphanage. The children did not have any toys to call their own. And he proposed that they do something about it. Christmas was four months away. So they pulled together their money along with the poker money and started going through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. By the time it was all said and done, they ordered over $1500 worth of merchandise, including some credit chipped in by S&R. (Don’t forget that this was around 1946 – that was the equivalent of a car!)

Each little boy received their own baseball bat, glove and ball. And each girl received a doll and buggy. They also bought 21 red wagons. The women who ran the orphanage were not forgotten. One received a bike with baskets in the front and on the sides. The other received a portable washing machine. They were thrilled. He finished up by saying, “That was the best Christmas ever.” And that maybe the best story I have heard in a while. What a way to start the Memorial Day weekend.

I asked him if he ever heard from any of the children from the orphanage again. He said that he had received some letters from the children, but it had been years ago. I encouraged him to ask his son to help him post his pictures to Flickr. Maybe there was a chance to reconnect all of these years. And it serves as a great reminder to all of us the power that one person can do. And the power of these stories even sixty years later.

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