An Army Carol
by Robert Docter –
“Scrooge had it right— BAH HUMBUG!” he exclaimed in a loud voice that filled the entire hall. “This is too much. Now I’m decorating Christmas trees,” he muttered. There were baubles and beads—lights and ornaments—ribbons and holly scattered all over the platform in the hall.
“Is this what I went to college for? They never trained me for this at Crestmont. Is this my job?” his voice now rising considerably above a mutter.
The Salvation Army captain wasn’t at all happy. It was after midnight on Saturday, the 16th of December. His sermon for the next morning still needed a lot of work; he had spent the day relieving kettle workers, ringing bells at a dozen or so sites; the toy distribution program will start Monday and things weren’t organized—and he had found another notice from DHQ about being behind in support service payment.
Pressure—pressure—pressure everywhere. Cratchit, his sergeant-major, to whom he paid nothing and, laughingly, claimed he was the highest paid person on the staff, refused to shorten the time it took to give the announcements about Christmas parties for shut-ins or something even more farfetched—and, of course, always finding a way through prayer requests to remind everyone of the plight of his small son, Tim, who seemed perennially sick. He kept it up even when told to keep personal matters out of the announcements. In explaining, all he said was: “My job is to relate.”
Almost crying out of frustration, the captain felt like giving up. He had just finished putting all the lights and ornaments on a twelve-foot Douglas Fir and discovered that not a single light illuminated its cheery “hello.” Not one of them worked when he plugged the cord into the wall.
He was really tired—and frustrated—and going through an identity crisis.
He abandoned the tree and sank down into a seat on the first row. He stared up with some considerable hostility at the tree—the symbol of his immediate discontent. He had expected to be done. Now, all the lights would have to be removed and replaced.
He was really tired—burned out—disconnected—frustrated—unappreciated—thoroughly unplugged.
He looked down the empty row of the first pew and decided this was as good a place as any for a nap. He appropriated two or three song books and a leather Bible for a pillow and stretched out.
There it was—the tree—a symbol of his failure. He thought to himself – “I’m going to have to get after those people in the social service office. We’ve got to cut back on our gifts and our money. I’m sure the donations will be down this year. He shook his head and within thirty seconds his breathing softened, his body relaxed, frustrating thoughts disappeared and he sank into the arms of Morpheus.
Colonel W. Bramwell Marley
It was restful for only a moment.
A loud BANG echoed through the hall as if a door had blown shut. Then, struggling across the wooden platform came a thin, bald apparition dragging a long line of red pots chained together and linked to his leg.
Standing before the wide-eyed but still prone captain was his old divisional commander—long dead and mostly forgotten. His colonel’s epaulets glistened in the light; his “stand-up” collar choking his fragile neck, his florid face and balding scalp dressed in deposits of displeasure and wrinkles of wear.
eaping to his feet, the captain saluted and stammered: “ Colonel—uh— Colonel… Marley—how did you…how’d ju get in the building? I wasn’t expecting you, sir.”
“Oh—sit down, Captain — I can believe your forgetfulness. That’s not the only thing you’ve forgotten tonight. I’m surprised you remember my name. After all, I had my grand and final ‘farewell’ some seven years ago. Ah, but I remember you very well, Ebenezer. You were always late on your centage payments to the division making my job very difficult.”
“How is it that I see you now—and I’ve tried to tell you my first name is not Ebenezer—it’s …”
“I know what your name is. I called you that because I’m aware that you used that name to describe me when laughing with your peers at councils. But, I’m not here to argue about your name. No! I’m here to make amends and to warn you.”
“Yes, my son. He lifted his arms and the captain heard the loud rumble of heavy chains on rolling kettles rattling on the wood floor. “With these chains and pots I have carried the past seven years as my penance to the poor. In my need to please THQ I paid our debts to them even before they were due. I forgot the poor and needy. You made me remember them, and I beg your forgiveness.”
Then, quoting Charles Dickens, he said: “Not to know that a Christian spirit working kindly in its own little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its moral life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for life’s opportunities misused. Yet, such was I!”
“But sir,” the captain said quickly. “You were always a good man of business.”
“Business!” cried the colonel, wringing his hands. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. The dealings of my office were but a drop of water in the ocean of my business. At this time of year I suffer most.
“Hear me – hear me,” he cried. “My time with you is nearly gone. I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance to avoid my fate.”
With these words, the colonel, dragging his chains, stepped backwards, gradually receding into the space behind the unlit tree and floated through the wall under the large picture of William Booth, to whom he raised a crooked, spindly finger.
A haunted remembrance
Abruptly, the captain sat up once again as bells chimed the midnight hour. Lights flashed through the room, and he found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor. “Who are you,” the captain demanded.
“I am the ghost of Christmas Past. Rise and walk with me,” he ordered, taking his hand…
Together, they floated through the wall out of the hall and into the bright sunlight.
Laughing children and warm greetings fell on the captain’s ears. He was now a much younger man. “I remember those children. They would never play with me when I was a boy.”
The ghost stopped at the door of an Army corps and bade the young man to enter, which he did happily.
Inside, pouring over Scripture, was an old man with an unfitting wig. “Major Fesselwig! I haven’t seen you for years. Bless your heart.”
Leaping up from his study, Fesselwig said: “Come—the carol sing starts and warm cider bubbles in the courtyard.”
Together, they entered the hall, singing joyously the carols of Christmas— dancing a few steps in the rhythm of their celebration.
Then he felt the touch of the ghost’s hand once again and found himself, older now, outside seated on a wooden bench next to young lady in Salvation Army uniform. It was Sal. There were tears in her eyes.
“My tears reflect the sorrow of my love for you,” she said. I am called to Army officership and I fear another idol has displaced me in your heart—a golden one. You seem consumed by money and power. Your noble goals have been dispossessed as your new passion is Gain.”
He felt uncomfortably cold as she released his hand and left.
“A warning,” said the ghost, his voice reedy and cold. “What will you do with it?” His words echoed as he slipped away and disappeared in a fog.
A giant lesson
Awaking in the middle of a prodigious snore, our captain heard the tick of the clock and saw that the bell was about to toll the hour One. He became fully conscious in the nick of time as he looked upon a jolly giant sitting in the captain’s own “platform chair”—high backed, almost a throne with red velvet upholstery and richly turned oak arms and legs. He laughed a rich warm, gracious laugh that immediately gladdened the captain’s heart. He looked around him and the hall was hung with holy holly, bright, sparkling tinsel, and red and green banners, and bows bedecked each wall. Heaped on the floor were piles of turkeys, great joints of meat, mince pies, plum pudding and seething bowls of punch.
He was about to order the giant to another chair when his laughter erupted once again and stilled any negative judgment. “What a joyous spirit you bring,” the captain said with a smile. “Tell me who brings such pleasure to my troubled world.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” he said.
“Spirit,” the captain answered. “Conduct me where you will. I went forth last night and had a lesson that is working now. Teach me what you have for me tonight. Let me profit by it.”
“Touch my robe.”
The captain obeyed, and in a flash all around him vanished as he was transported instantly into the streets. He found himself in the parking lot behind DHQ as tired, frustrated workers made their way slowly to the morning’s work. The giant smiled on them and sprinkled them with sweet smelling incense. Instantly, attitudes changed. They greeted each other with friendly, happy faces—eager to bring joy to those around them. The contagion spread throughout the entire building as workers—even the officers—presented an attitude of gratitude.
Awestruck, the captain was heard to say: “It’s a miracle!” just before his warm feeling of joy whisked him away.
Now, he was standing before his sergeant-major’s house. Entering with the giant he found the family sitting around the table. An empty platter sat in front of the chair at the head of the table—a carving knife and fork beside it. The chair next to the platter, however, was empty. Three or four Cratchits came running into the room followed by little Timothy, on crutches.
“Where’s father?” Tim asked. “And what about the turkey?”
“He’s still down at the corps finishing up the toy distribution. It is Christmas eve and the captain insisted,” Mrs. Cratchit said.
“And the turkey…?”
“All your father said was ‘the Lord will provide’—but he has more faith than me.”
Hearing her tone, the captain recognized the unfairness of his demands. He looked at the lovely table—set for Christmas with steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, creamed corn, glistening peas floating in melted butter, dressing heaped before the empty platter and boiling hot gravy ready to pour.
He looked around the room—the happy children, the smiling mother, a relative or two—and then he recognized another family—new to the corps from the daily meal service provided the poor. He looked at Tim, his pale face shining with a happy smile, struggling to ease into his chair.
Then with a great shout they cried—“Here’s Daddy!”
In he walked carrying a roasted turkey, sizzling in a pan, and now sitting on the platter.
Mrs. Cratchit raised her eyes heavenward and said, “Sorry God—miracles still happen.” To her husband she said “Welcome, my love – your faith bolsters mine. Now, Bob. Wash up and sit yourself down.”
“Look closely, Captain,” the giant said. “I need no sprinkled incense in this place. Their warmth spreads from inside them to all around them. Do you feel it?”
“Yes—yes, I do.” Then he was whisked away in a cloud.
A shocking shadow
Once again the bell struck the hour. The giant was gone, and in his place stood a solemn phantom—mist whirling about him in the middle of the stage. “I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” the Captain said quietly. “You are about to show me shadows of events not yet transpired—yet to come.”
They scarcely seemed to leave the building and enter the city, for it simply erupted around them—the merchants on the corner, jingling their coins in their pockets, ignoring the boy in uniform ringing a bell by a red pot on a tri-pod.
They moved closer to the corner to hear the conversation of the merchants.
“Well—he won’t be missed,” said one.”
“Did they send him somewhere else?”
“No! He just up and died. I’m sure the Army will give him a good send-off and say many nice things—but—well—you know.”
“When did it happen?”
“Last night, I believe.”
Turning to another boy selling newspapers the captain asked: “Who are they talking about?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, “but it sure didn’t make it into the paper.”
The phantom led him back into the corps building, and the captain saw another man standing in his pulpit—people were smiling and enjoying the meeting. There was joy in the air—no grief.
Then the phantom carried him out to the cemetery. He saw his wife, weeping by an open grave as a casket was lowered into the ground.
“Spirit!” the captain cried. “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I shall not be the man I would have been. I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. Why show me this if I am past all hope. Assure me that I may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life. I will not shut out these lessons that they teach.”
Holding up his hands in prayer, he bowed his head. Suddenly, there was an alteration in the phantom’s appearance as in a heavy mist he shrunk to nothing…
And all the Captain saw was the cross on the back of the platform wall.
“HALLELUJAH,” he shouted and sat straight up.
“Why yes—hallelujah, dear, his wife said, poking her head out from behind the tree. “How do you like the tree?”
The captain stared up at the fully lit tree with ornaments, ribbons, bows, and a star at the top. “How did you get it lit?” he asked.
“You had already done much of it before you fell asleep. You had the extension cord plugged into the wall and only needed to plug the lights into the cord. Bob Cratchit came by before going home and put the star on. Oh, and I gave him that big cooked turkey that restaurant gave us. He doesn’t make much money and he has such a big family.”
“Dear,” the captain said, “no explanations are needed. It’s Christmas time—a time of joyous celebration.”
She looked at him, eyes wide with wonderment—wondering about the remarkable attitude transition in just the half hour they had been separated. “You’re absolutely right about that.” She paused a moment and then said:
“Merry Christmas, my love.”
He had undergone a fundamental change—a dramatic renewal. He looked at her, his face glowing, tears of depth pooling in his eyes, touched by the feelings of the moment. “Yes! Merry Christmas, my love. And as I’ve heard
Tiny Tim say often—‘God bless us, everyone.’”