The following true story first appeared as a news report in the Bangor Sunday Commercial in 1952 when The Sentinel’s publisher emeritus, the late James D. Ewing, was that paper’s publisher. The author is John J. Lindsay, who went on to report for The Washington Post and Newsweek. The Sentinel has reprinted this timeless tale during many Christmas seasons since. We revisit the story once again today, with the nation and its economy under extraordinary strain, and all of us in need of a reminder of the goodness that will help all of us — together — to get through these difficult times.
The raw wind whipped around the corner of Exchange Street in Bangor. It tore at the ragged ends of the kid’s faded mackinaw. He hunched up his shoulders and half-turned to fend off the probing chill, clutching his solitary wreath tighter against his stomach. He threw an occasional curious, troubled glance at the old man huddled against the corner of the building.
It was the supper hour. Only a few busy people hurried past. A ruddy, pleasant-faced man, burly in a heavy overcoat trimmed with a fur collar, hesitated, then stopped when he saw the kid. His hand plunged into his pocket. He bought the last wreath, smiled a Merry Christmas to the kid and passed on. He did not glance at the old man. Backed against the steamed-up plate glass window, the kid studied the bright half-dollar.
The old man turned his eyes slowly downward to where the boy now stood before him on the sidewalk. His expression revealed nothing for an instant — lost somewhere, probably in memories. Then the old man’s mind registered. He stirred as the boy’s hand came out, the half-dollar flat, glittering against his grimy, open palm.
No words had been spoken. The old man shifted his feet. Perhaps it was the sharp claws of the wind, but his leathered face, just under the eyes, glistened in the lights of the overhead Christmas bulbs.
A troubled shadow descended over the boy’s face. Involuntarily, his hand withdrew a few inches. Fingers closed over the half-dollar. Then, unaccountably, the boy lowered his head. Though he bit his lip, he wept too. Passersby hurried on without a glance. They had concerns of their own.
For a few seconds, the two tattered specks of humanity stood in tableau. Two sparks from the grindstone of life. The chilled kid, the cold feet and the faded Mackinaw, possessing only unbounded hope. The old man, long past hope, with only memories of perhaps better — maybe worse — Christmases.
They were standing a few feet apart, but essentially were separated only by time. Time, a meaningless abstraction to the old man; an eternity to the kid.
Finally the old man stirred. The kid withdrew the money. A long, withered hand fell on the kid’s shoulder. It squeezed once, tight. “You’re good,’’ was all the old man said, his lips scarcely moving. He nudged the kid along the sidewalk. The kid followed along at his side, with just a questioning glance through his drying eyes.
They stopped near the uniformed man absently ringing a Salvation Army bell, as much to warm himself as to draw attention to the metal kettle suspended on a red tripod on the sidewalk.
The old man motioned toward the pot. The kid edged forward, his grimy fist unwound. The half-dollar glittered once and dropped into the kettle.
The two solitary figures shuffled across the street and disappeared into the dimly lit restaurant. Inside they talked. What they said is theirs. Eavesdropping would have been an impertinence.
The old man paid the check. It was 52 cents. Back on the sidewalk, the old man extended his hand. The kid grasped it. “Merry Christmas, mister,’’ his high-pitched voice prayed.
The old man nodded, his eyes twinkled momentarily. “God bless you. God bless you,’’ he said.
The kid moved away in the darkness. The old man watched for a moment, then turned slowly and shuffled around the corner. He disappeared inside the warmth of the Salvation Army building.
Two human souls, perhaps forever physically separated, were suspended as one for a fleeting moment in history. Revealed to them was the awesome meaning of Christmas. So awesome, they wept instinctively.