So every year about this time I am convinced that I’m probably going to have to skip this year’s Christmas/holiday column because I can’t think of anything to say. One of the things that I was having a hard time getting past was how many horrible events have been transpiring – dark, evil, debilitating and unworthy of humankind. And I thought about that for a long time and finally arrived here: For every act of hatred, for every evil event, for every unkindness, for every selfish decision, there are a thousand acts of light, kindness, courage and grace – you just don’t always see them or hear about them like you do with the bad stuff.
It is worth saying again: For every bad act, there are a thousand good acts – every time, every day, always.
It’s all around you in the person of your neighbor, your kid’s teacher, your old friend from college, the new person at work or just some complete stranger who is stopping to change a flat tire, fostering a child, pulling someone out of a burning house, taking in a refugee family, baby-sitting, reading to you or just sitting next to your side, listening, buying groceries because they know you haven’t, praying with you – or for you, giving your kid a job, or, yep, trying to protect a co-worker, like one of the San Bernardino victims did when he wrapped his arms around a younger female co-worker and told her, “I got you,” as bullets flew out of two lunatics’ assault weapons. She lived. And though he died, his willingness to make that ultimate act of sacrifice for another person is what made me realize that, in the end, the bad guys will never win. Never. They will live by the sword and die by the sword and, in the meantime, the rest of the world will go on, sustaining each other because we are part of something so much greater than the darkness and our humanity will prevail.
It took me about 60 years to figure that one out. But I get it now. I really do. It sort of feels like I have been sitting in a movie theater trying to watch a 3-D movie without those glasses and then someone slips me a pair and it’s like, “Wow! I can’t believe I have missed most of this!”
So my Christmas column this year is a reprint of my column from 2005. I think it is more relevant than ever in light of everything that has been going on and it is also in honor of everyone who has ever helped out a stranger, a neighbor, a refugee, or any other person in need. I dedicate this to you with thankfulness and humility.
A (true) Christmas Story: 1946
Dec. 22, 2005
Much of Europe was in shambles at the end of World War II. Food was scarce, heating and gasoline were rare commodities, and many were without shelter.
After the war, America helped rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan. Hundreds of American companies were contracted to participate in the rebuilding efforts overseas – including the one involved in this account, J.A. Jones Construction Company, then based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, with concerns in, among other places, Poland.
On the particular night in point, an engineer was working late. His company's contract was one of the largest in their history and the assignment to get the job done on time had been given to a hard-driving German immigrant with a reputation for meeting deadlines. The engineer had already successfully led the company's Liberty ship building efforts in Panama City in 1942 that reduced the amount of time required to build a Liberty ship from 134 days to 41. He had also helped guide the company's efforts in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the Manhattan Project – which ultimately produced the atomic bombs that ended the war. But now he was behind schedule, which was not OK. It was Christmas Eve 1946, somewhere in postwar Poland. The engineer was working into the night to find a way to catch up.
At home about 25 kilometers away, the engineer's wife and two young children waited. Snow fell outside. It was bitterly cold. The children played near a fire. The engineer labored over blueprints and concentrated. Crews, equipment, supplies of petrol and steel and transportations problems reeled through his mind as he worked out a plan. He had responsibilities and a job to do. A noise outside the office distracted him. The cleaning "staff," which consisted of a boy from the village, moved about the office. The "boy," as the engineer thought of him, was actually a German war refugee in his early 20s with a young family. The engineer had created the cleaning job for him to try to help. Jobs were scarce in Poland in 1946, but so was money. The night before, the boy had not finished the cleaning and had been reprimanded. "Don't forget the last offices on the right and don't go home until everything is finished," the engineer had said. He didn't have time to manage a cleaning boy when he had deadlines to meet for a major construction project. And he wouldn't accept unfinished work – no matter how small. Priorities, for the engineer, were always clear.
Time passed. Europe was rebuilt. Three or four wars passed – depending on how you count them. Fast-forward 46 years. I answered the phone at my home in Alpharetta. It was December 1992. A voice, which I recognized as belonging to an old man, asked to speak with Mr. Appen. “Speaking," I replied. The voice continued. "I apologize for calling but ‘just in case,’ I did. I saw your name in the phone directory and are you possibly related to H.V. Appen?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered. "He was my grandfather." I heard a sigh on the other end of the phone and then there was a long silence. My senses were on edge and I could not imagine what this call could possibly be about. H.V. had lived larger than life to me and still does. This call was so soon after his death.
The voice on the other end of the phone continued. "I knew your grandfather a long time ago. In Poland. Not a week goes by that I don't think of him and finding you in the phone book is more than I can believe." His voice broke and grew softer. "You see, on Christmas Eve 1946, I was working for your grandfather and he called me into his office. I thought that he was going to fire me because I had not finished the job the previous day. He was a hard man to work for, you know. He told me to go get his car and to drive. I didn't know what to think and I was frightened," he said.
The man continued. "That night, your grandfather took me out and bought Christmas presents for me and my entire family. At the time, we had absolutely nothing. We were not even going to have a Christmas dinner. He bought that, too. We drove back to my house and he dropped me off. It was a Christmas that I will never forget as long as I live. So, when I saw your name in the phone directory, I just had to call you. I am so happy to be able to tell you how grateful I am to your grandfather.” We spoke for a few more minutes then hung up.
In silence I replayed the conversation in my mind – several times, and then smiled. “How grateful I am to you,” I thought. “What a priceless Christmas gift you have just given me.”
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. Ray Appen, Publisher. In memory of my grandfather, H.V. Appen, who always kept his priorities straight.