I was 9 years old when my family moved to Omaha, Nebraska. It was winter. Our family moved wherever the U.S. Air Force sent us. We were leaving Idaho because they sent my dad to an island near Hawaii called Johnston Island. That’s all I knew other than top-secret activities happening there. That, and the fact the island didn’t allow women or children.
While dad was on that secret island, my mom, brother, and I lived in Kauai. You know the one. We had a lot of warm days. I loved the sounds of the waves and the evenings we grilled teriyaki on the beach while the evening tide came in. Kauai was great for my mom because she was born there, and she got to spend a lot of time with the family she grew up with. Her parents were still alive then.
After about a year and a half, my dad received transfer orders to Omaha. It was a small radar squadron consisting of eight houses. The associated base was Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
When we left Kauai, we landed in California and the plan was to drive to Omaha from there. But there was a problem with our car that was being stored in a large field with other cars near a base in California. I guess that’s where cars went when you were stationed overseas. Because nobody had driven the car in a year and a half, it wasn’t drivable due to carbon monoxide. So, we had to buy a new car because we had that drive to Omaha.
It was close to Christmas when we reached Omaha. It had been so long since I felt the cold or seen snow, that it seemed new again. I remember going shopping and I recall seeing Santa Claus. The ringing of bells was around us along with people rushing with their packages. We were part of that rush.
It was Christmas Eve and the last thing we needed was a tree. It’s also snowing and it’s cold. I remember having real winters when we lived in Idaho and loving it. There was no snow in Kauai. Even at age 9, I was taking it all in and waiting to see what would happen next.
We pulled into a grocery store parking lot. The name of the store was Piggly Wiggly. It was dark. They had a tree outside. The store looked like it was getting ready to close. Why shouldn’t it close? It was Christmas Eve.
Dad gets out of the car. I watch him go up to the door and he starts knocking on it. I could not believe someone came to the door. I could hear dad asking the employee, “How much do you want for this tree?”
I remember sitting in the car watching. A year and a half was a long time not to see my dad but for a few visits. I’m sure my younger brother was thinking the same thing. I was also remembering the house we lived in. A pipe was leaking under the kitchen sink. My dad wasn’t there to fix it, so I tried to. I made it worse. I don’t know why I thought I could — I was only 8 then. I remember my mom was not a bit happy with me.
I kept staring at my dad talking to the man behind the door. I watched the door open. The man told my dad to take the tree. “Merry Christmas.” We were so excited we got a tree! Those were the days you bought real trees too.
Nothing was artificial then. The whole experience was like a heart-shaped ordeal. It was dark, cold, and snowy. The random act of kindness received by the store employee was like a big fat heart smiling on my family.
When I was 6 living in Idaho, I saw my parents carrying presents downstairs — so I figured Santa out. But I thought if I told them that it would hurt their feelings or something, so it was never shared.
On our first holiday in Omaha, when my brother and I woke up Christmas morning and saw all the presents, I pretended they must have been from Santa. The real gift, though, was that tree.
My parents are gone now, and yet they’re still here. Every year when we put a tree up, I still catch a glimpse of my dad out in the snow with that man at the Piggly Wiggly store.