Our Matchbox Christmas

Our Matchbox Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Our Matchbox Christmas

Sharing is sometimes more demanding than giving.

Mary Catherine Bateson

It was a rainy California Christmas Eve. Our tree was lit up, and it shone through the large picture window of our home in military quarters at Port Hueneme. My husband would finally be spending Christmas with us. He had often missed the holidays due to deployments, leaving me and our three small children alone for Christmas. He had just returned home from Vietnam and would be home for six months. Then he would have to go back to fighting the war in Vietnam.

Our children, six, four and two years old, were anxiously waiting for their daddy to return from battalion headquarters. He had to “muster and make it.” Their little noses had been pressed against the big frosty window almost all afternoon, waiting for him to come back home.

Their daddy was a Seabee, and we were all as proud of him as we could be, but we often struggled to make ends meet. Once a month, I would buy a month’s worth of groceries, and this month, I had managed to squeeze in a large turkey and all the trimmings, to cook for our Christmas Eve meal, but money for presents was scarce. I had bought my husband a small gift, and he had bought me one. The children each had a handful of tiny department-store toys, all individually wrapped and waiting for the big day. There were no names on the small gifts; I could feel through the paper and tell what they were.

I saw my husband’s car headlights cut through the dark winter mist that engulfed our home. I pushed back my hair and straightened my clothes. The children and I rushed to the door. This was our big night! It had been our tradition back home in Texas to eat our big meal on Christmas Eve night, and this year we were going to eat better than we usually did. Our little table was laden with all sorts of tasty-looking food. Each of the kids would get to open one present, and Santa Claus would be coming after they went to sleep.

To my surprise, when I opened the door to give my husband a big kiss, standing behind him were three burly Seabees. They hung their heads as they entered our home, as if to apologize for intruding on our family feast.

“Honey,” my husband said, almost apologetically, “these are some of the guys who were with me in ’Nam. Their families are thousands of miles away. They were just sitting in the barracks, and I asked them if they wanted to come eat with us. Is it okay if they stay?”

I was thrilled to have Christmas company. We, too, were thousands of miles away from friends and family. It had been so long since we had “entertained.” We gladly shared our small feast with those three huge Seabees. After dinner, we all sat down in the living room. The children started begging to open their gifts. I sat them down and walked over to the tree to get them each a tiny wrapped gift.

As I glanced up, I could see my husband’s friends sitting there looking sad and distant. I realized how bittersweet it must feel to be here with us. I knew they must be thinking about their own children, wives and homes. They were staring down at the floor, lost in the loneliness of the season, trying to shake the horrible memories of the war they had just left—a war to which they would soon return.

Quickly, I scooped up six colorfully wrapped Matchbox cars. I called each of our children’s names, and they quickly opened their presents. Soon, all three of them were rolling their cars on the floor.

I walked over to the men. “Well, what do you know?” I said. “Old Santa must have known you were going to be here!”

Those big old Seabees looked up in surprise. They opened their treasures: a Matchbox car for each of them. Within seconds after they opened the gifts, those men were grinning from ear to ear, down on the floor playing with their tiny cars.

I looked up at my husband. “How about me?” he asked. “Did Santa leave me anything?”

I reached under the tree and handed him a tiny present also. He joyfully joined our children and his friends. They must have played for hours. They ate, told funny stories and laughed while they rolled those race cars around on the floor.

I watched them there, filled with pride. These men had fought for us and kept us free. Free to have nights like this one, and others that were to come.

I didn’t really know these men, but there they were, sitting on our floor. They would have given the world to be back home with their loved ones, but it wasn’t possible. They had committed to defend our country. They were trying to make the best of an awful time in their lives.

Soon, the races were over, the food was almost all devoured, and each of the men said their good-byes and left our home, their faces shining with new hope. In each of their hands, clutched tightly, was a tiny Matchbox car.

Years have passed since that Christmas Eve night. Two of the men returned from the war. One didn’t.

We have seen them over the years, visited their homes, met their families. The men have swapped war stories while the women shared “left at home to do it all by ourselves” stories. Our children played together.

When we first met again, I was surprised to learn that every one of the men had kept their cars in their pockets when they were in ’Nam. When times got tough, and everything would get still, the men would quietly take out those little cars. They would give each other a grin, as if to promise that there would be another race and that they would see another day.

And they showed me how, high on a mantel, or proudly displayed in a shadow box, safely tucked away from harm, they still have their tiny Matchbox cars!

Alice Smith

More stories from our partners