The following true story first appeared in the Bangor Sunday Commercial in 1952. It has been reprinted in The Sentinel during many Christmas seasons. The story was also published in pamphlet form by the Salvation Army and distributed widely. The author, John J. Lindsay, went on to work at The Washington Post and later was a reporter in Newsweek’s Washington bureau. Lindsay died in 1988. His story survives.
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, knuckles tiny gray spots against the grime of his hands.
He threw an occasional curious, troubled glance at the old man huddled against the corner of the building, protected from the wind by a solid vertical column of masonry.
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. Nor did the old man seem aware of his passing. Backed up against the steamed-up plate glass window, the kid studied the bright half-dollar. He turned it over in his hand. He looked up and down the street once.
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 the grimy open palm, like a shining dollar sunk in gray cement.
No words had been spoken. The old man shifted his feet. He looked at the boy’s face, bordered at the top by a leather pilot’s cap brim, its symmetrical lines broken here and there by tufts of matted brown hair.
Perhaps it was the sharp claws of the wind. It was raw enough to moisten the eyes. But the old man’s leathered face, just under the eyes, glistened in the vari-colored lights of the overhead Christmas bulbs.
A shadow descended over the boy’s face like a shade drawn on a brightly lighted window. Involuntarily, his hand withdrew a few inches. Fingers closed over the shining half-dollar. Then, unaccountably, the boy lowered his head. Though he bit his lip, he wept, too.
Passers-by hurried on without a glance. They had troubles 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 bell, as much to warm himself as to draw attention to the metal pot 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 disappeared.
The two solitary figures shuffled across the street and disappeared into the dimly lighted restaurant. Inside, the 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, hands shoved deep in his mackinaw, moved away in the darkness. The old man watched for a moment, then turned slowly and shuffled around the corner, up the hill from where the yellow light fanned on the sidewalk from a side door. He disappeared inside the warmth of the Salvation Army.
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.