Caussey's Corner

The Red Fleet Line Wagon: One Last Christmas Wish

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It is cold in Montana in the winter. The Christmas holiday is seasoned from large flakes of snow with great piles along the roadways and loads accumulated on rooftops.

Arctic winds are flung from the Nordic North and are just gaining speed as they sweep across the Canadian border. The days are short as clouds hang like sinful angels over the landscape.

But folks continue their chores and their life journey regardless of the inclement weather. There are cattle to be fed, ice to be broken, shopping to complete, groceries to be stocked, roads cleared, and families to start gathering.

The room is blamelessly cold and plain. Only a few old family portraits on a night stand near the bed offer any signs of comforting warmth. The room is fatigued, and appears to be withering on the vine of the building.

Cold winds seep under one of the main doors that guard the hallways. The cold moves like a silent fog throughout the nursing home, stopping to nibble at the toes and noses of the patients. Further inside the building, cold air struggles to gain momentum as it moves against the fragrance of cooking food and smells of diseased and aging bodies.

The Red Fleet Line Wagon: One Last Christmas Wish

Photo: @Anikona_ via Twenty20

It is Christmas Eve, and there is excitement in the air as people shop for last minute gifts and gossip about Christmas dinner on the morrow. Even the nursing home is wrapped in a gala of red, green, and blue colors. An aged, but highly decorated Christmas tree greets guests and visitors in the main parlor.

Agnes Hill plays the piano in a slightly off key, but recognizable “Jingle Bells,” near the entranceway. Now nearly 80, she played for over half a century at the First Baptist Church in downtown Helena. She lives now where she once played for the ‘old folks’ at Christmas.

Ben Johnson sits in his wheelchair facing the window. He is in his room, having just been moved from the hallway where he and scores of other patients sat after their lunch. He rarely talks because a recent stroke has taken most of his voice and all of his capacity to walk. Although his body is near death, Ben’s thinking is clear and his memory timeless. So today, like all his days for some time, has been spent sitting and thinking about the present and having mental dreams of the past.

Ben was born before the Great Depression. His dad had a grocery store that went bankrupt in 1932 when Ben was 7. Each Christmas for a long time after that was somewhat meaningless. From the time he was five, he had always wished for a new Red Fleet Line Wagon for Christmas. It was bright red with yellow electric bolts painted down both sides. The wagon was made of metal and had a black tongue with a handle at the very end.

The Red Fleet Line Wagon: One Last Christmas Wish

Photo: @rcrocker1234 via Twenty20

As a child, for as long as he could remember, he had wanted a Red Fleet Line Wagon for Christmas. It never came. Ben had even lobbied his dad, hoping he would talk to Santa about the Fleet Line. He told him he could haul wood and water with the wagon. He could deliver newspapers and orders for the grocery store. But Christmas came and went. No wagon. He even prayed to God to get him the wagon.

“Please God. If there is a wagon in heaven could you give it to Santa for me,” he prayed.

But Ben’s dad died, the depression settled in, and his belief in God evaporated in the mist of despair.

Even as an adult, Ben thought about the wagon. Especially during times of despair. When he was near a small village in France the Christmas of 1944, he thought about the wagon a lot. As German shells pounded his bunker, and during the fighting afterward, Ben wrapped himself in the cloak of memories and the dreams of a Red Fleet Line. It offered him comfort and escape from the death and destruction all about.

Ben’s wife, Ellie, gave birth to a son, Alan, in 1946. The first gift Ben bought him was a Fleet Line Wagon. The bright red wagon with the black tongue was their most precious gift. When Alan went to Vietnam, he told Ben if something happened to him to give it to his boy, Ben’s grandson Benjamin.  Ben gave the wagon to the little boy right after Alan came home. His coffin was wrapped in an American flag. The flag’s red stripes were the same color of the wagon. Their son’s death traumatized Ellie so much that she died in 1968.

The Red Fleet Line Wagon: One Last Christmas Wish

Photo: @Vinokurov_Yury via Twenty20

Ben and his grandson were very close. The boy took care of Ben until he, too, went off to war. Benjamin lasted just three weeks in the desert, before a sniper took his life. In his last letter home, Benjamin asked his Granddad to send the wagon to a little Iraqi boy in Baghdad should something happen to him. The Red Cross helped Ben honor the request. Now all Ben had left were his dreams and memories.

When evening shadows had given way to darkness and supper had been finished, Helen, the floor nurse, and an assistant got Ben into bed.

“Good night, Ben,” said Helen in the sweetest voice. “Tomorrow is Christmas and your birthday. You didn’t think I could forget my best fellow’s birthday, did you? Now you sleep tight, and I will see you in the morning.”

Helen left the room, quietly closing the door. Ben lay there in the darkness, comforted by the familiarity of lonely. He dreamed the dream of a little boy. The little boy was on his knees asking God for a certain Christmas gift. A Fleet Line Wagon. It was red with golden lightning bolts on each side. And a black tongue with a handle at the end.

Helen had just picked up the breakfast cart from the dining hall. On the tray labeled room 104 Helen placed a small birthday cake. This would please Ben, she hoped.  Helen and Al were serving breakfast this sunny Christmas morning.  Helen opened Ben’s room door, and Al joined her as they entered the room singing ‘Happy Birthday’ while pushing a cart with a lighted candle resting atop a small birthday cake.

“Good morning, Sweetie. Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday.” The room was still. Helen walked over to the bed. Ben had not moved. She turned him over. He was cold to the touch. Ben was gone. Death claimed him on his birthday.

Helen looked at Al. “He was such a good old man. Even though he had lost so much over his lifetime,” she sighed. Al went over to the window to let the sunlight shine through.

“What is this over here?” he asked in a startled voice.

There, next to the window, was a shiny, red Fleet Line Wagon with a black tongue.

Durhl Caussey is a syndicated columnist who writes for papers across America. He may be reached at this paper or [email protected].