I’m reading this really good book called Stand Tall. I got it on the bargain table at Books-A-Million. I think it cost $2.95. It’s about this kid called Tree. He’s a seventh grader, six-foot-three and his parents have just been divorced. They have joint custody and he goes back and forth between them. The writer, Joan Bauer, lets us into his head as he struggles to find himself in a world made for shorter people, as he awkwardly makes his way into his first relationship with a girl, and as he helps out his grandfather who has just recently had a leg amputated from an old Vietnam War wound. Tree’s grandfather, Leo, is my favorite character. He is tough, resourceful, wise and loving. He is just the teacher Tree needs because his parents are so self-absorbed.
There is this scene when Tree, Leo and some of his kooky vet friends go to a children’s hospital. Leo is Santa. He has been for years and he isn’t going to let the fact that he has just has his leg amputated stop him. You don’t need much setting up for this scene. In fact, as a short story, it stands well all by itself. It is not a book about Christmas per se, but it fit so nicely with the season that I thought I’d include it here.
“The thing about Christmas,” the Trash King said, driving his truck to the children’s hospital, “is how I didn’t understand what it was about until I got to Vietnam. You remember Christmas in Nam, Leo?”
Grandpa sighed. “I was in the hospital.”
“That’s right, you didn’t get to see the show.” King turned the corner. They brought in a big show from the States with singers and dancers. There were hundreds of us out there watching. A couple guys had made a Christmas tree out of bamboo and painted it green. I was feeling sorry for myself because I wasn’t home.
“And then we started singing. Just singing the songs. ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ ‘Hark Those Herald Angels Sing.’ And I could have sworn – and a few guys in the signal corps would back me up on this – that there was a star in the sky a little brighter over where we were. And I thought, we get these holidays all wrong. We think it’s what we get and how we feel and how warm and cozy we are, but Christmas came to all us slobs that night and most of those guys weren’t expecting it. Some of us hadn’t even washed. Now, I’ll tell you how this helps me in trash…”
King pulled up to the hospital parking lot. Grandpa groaned. “Save it, King, for the ride home. We’ve got a job to do.”
Tree got the wheelchair from the back, placed a red throw blanket over it. Carefully eased Grandpa out of the truck and into the chair.
“Santa has landed,” said the King.
“You bet your boots, Elf Man.”
Grandpa adjusted his beard, waved them forward like a lieutenant leading a platoon into battle. “Let’s take this hill.”
He grabbed the chair’s wheels with his strong arms and pushed through the emergency doors that swung open at the miraculous power of Christmas.
“Ho, ho, ho,” Grandpa bellowed to young and old who looked up excitedly.
“The big guy’s here!” the Trash King shouted. “We’re gonna party tonight!”
Tree laughed and waved and shook all the hands of the kids who came up to him. Down the hall they went with the ho-ho-hos booming. Kids in wheelchairs were following them. Tree handed out candy canes; King had a bag of toys over his shoulder. They turned the corner, saw three vets dressed like reindeer. Luger marched forward dressed like a toy drummer, beating a snare drum with his good hand.
Rat tat tat.
Rat tat tat.
Rat a tat. Rat a tat.
A doctor took them into the rooms of the children who were too sick to come out.
One little girl had an IV in her arm and looked gray. Her mother was sitting in a chair by her bed. When Grandpa rolled in, that child lit up like a Christmas star.
“Santa,” she whispered.
“You’ve got it kid.”
“You’re in a wheelchair.”
“Life isn’t perfect, is it?”
King pulled a stuffed bear out of his bag, gave it to her. She hugged it, smiled at Tree.
“Santa, would you tell me a story?”
“Would you tell me ‘The Night Before Christmas’?”
“Sure. Where’s the book?”
She looked concerned. “Don’t you know it?”
Grandpa looked at Tree and they both looked at the Trash King, who sniffed and said, “He knows it.”
Grandpa desperately tried to remember the poem. The little girl hugged the bear and smiled.
“Okay, here goes… ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” He stopped dead.
“The stockings,” the little girl said.
“Were hung by the chimney with care,” said King.
Grandpa grinned. “In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”
Tree whispered about the kerchief, the cap, and the nap.
They got through it, helped by the little girl and her mother, and they had to call in two nurses to get the names of the eight reindeer right. King insisted the front reindeer were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Nixon.
“Vixen!” shouted the older nurse.
“Jeez, They named a reindeer that??
They didn’t miss a room that night. Didn’t miss a child.
Dozens of children lined up to see Santa. First in line, a boy in a big leg brace. He looked at Grandpa’s half leg. “What happened to you?”
“I had an operation.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Mine hurts too. I wouldn’t want anyone to sit on it.”
So he stood next to the wheelchair and told Santa how he wanted a complete model train set, not like the one he got last year, like the one Billy Buckley got with the cool engine and the miles and miles of track.
Grandpa motioned to King. “Write that down.”
“I didn’t bring any paper.”
“Elves,” Santa said, shaking his head.
They had a party in the cafeteria for the kids who could get there; everyone sang Christmas songs. Only a few stalwart believers sat on Santa’s knee, and he managed. Then a little girl climbed up on Tree’s knee and told him she wanted her lung to get better for Christmas.
Tree didn’t know what to say.
Then she whispered, “I know you really can’t give me that. I just wanted to tell you.”
And she hugged him like he was the genuine article.
It made Tree feel about a foot taller, which was really saying something.
That's it. Now I'm hooked. I'm going to have to find the rest of Joan Bauer's books. They'll probably cost more than $2.95. This one has so much real life in it. There is a scene where Leo takes Tree to The Wall in D. C. The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. After finding names of Leo's friends and leaving artifacts Grandpa reflects...
"We hear about the casualties on the news - 114 dead. Two murdered. Over three thousand killed. Numbers don't tell the story. You can't measure the loss of a human life. It's all the things a person was, all their dreams, all the people who loved them, all they hoped to be and could give back to the world. A million moments in a life cut short because of war."
Thanks, Joan Bauer.