A boy whose family has limited means dares to dream big. But will his dream come true?
Nov 29, 2013
World War II had turned the world upside down, but for us second and third-graders at the Camak Elementary School, Christmas traditions went on same as always.
The first week in December our teacher Mrs. Virginia (who was also my mother) announced this was to be a special week. First we decorated a tree with handmade ornaments and paper garland. Then we all sat around it to share our Santa wish with the class.
“I want a scooter,” said the boy on one side of me.
“I want a Red Cross nurse’s kit,” I said for my turn.
Willie sat next to me. He never spoke in class, so I was shocked when he stood up, put his hand over his heart, and in a soft voice said, “I want a leather flight jacket with a helmet and goggles like the pilots in the Air Corps.”
After he finished Willie looked around and sat down. Then it was time to prepare for the annual gift exchange.
“Everyone will take one name out of the hat,” Mrs. Virginia said, shaking up the scraps of paper. “Don’t tell anyone whose name you have. That’s the person who will be getting your gift.” She went around the room, giving us all a chance to pick.
The gifts, we knew, would not be anything fancy. Folks in our railroad town did not have a lot of money to spare. There was a spending limit of ten cents, or we could make something.
When Mom came around to me, I shut my eyes, plucked out a scrap of paper and read the name: Willie Evans. I was tempted to turn and look at him, but that would reveal my secret.
I knew Willie’s oversized shoes had been bought with rationing stamps and had noticed that his hand-me-down cardigan didn’t quite meet in the middle. If there was one child in the class who deserved something special it was him. Of course I couldn’t make Willie’s big wish come true.
Nobody was more dashing and heroic than those pilots battling in the skies of Europe and Asia. My uncle Marion was an officer at a flying school in Alabama, training to be an aviator. In his crisp uniform he looked like a movie star. I knew how courageous he must look in his leather flight jacket.
“Mom,” I said that night as she was making supper. “Do they make flight jackets for little boys?”
“I don’t think so,” Mom said. “But I’ve been thinking about Willie too. Why don’t you write to your uncle and ask if there’s something he could send from the airfield?”
“Good idea!” I said. Right after supper, with Mom’s help, I wrote a letter to Uncle Marion. I explained about the gift exchange, and told him about Willie’s wish. “I’m going to get him a pair of warm red socks from W.M. Moore,” I wrote.
Two weeks after we mailed my letter, a package arrived from Gunter Army Air Corps Flying School in Alabama. Inside was a gift wrapped up with a bow. The label said, To Willie Evans. There was also a letter for me.
“Please make sure your classmate gets this gift, but do not tell him who it’s from.” Uncle Marion wanted to remain anonymous.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, we gathered around the tree. By then there were piles of presents underneath it. We sang carols and Mrs. Virginia read us the Christmas story from the Bible. After that we were ready to open our gifts.
One by one we went to the tree and found the present that was meant for us. Soon the room was full of excitement as kids opened their gifts: I got a beautiful set of ribbons for my hair. The boy next to me did tricks with his new yo-yo. Willie showed everyone the thick wool socks I got him.
When everyone had a gift, one mystery box remained.
“Who is that gift for, Mrs. Virginia?” someone asked.
My mother frowned, as if in confusion. “This present is for Willie Evans,” she said.
“For me?” Willie said. “But I already got these warm socks!”
All eyes were riveted on Willie as he went up to the tree to receive his awesome present. “It must be from Santa,” one girl said.
“Santa doesn’t arrive until Christmas Eve,” someone else said. “Maybe an angel left it.”
I pressed my hand over my mouth and did not say a word.
We all crowded around Willie as he opened the gift. Slowly he peeled the paper away to reveal...
The whole class gasped in awe as Willie held up a leather flight jacket just the right size for a third grader, with real patches from the Army Aviator Division. Underneath it was a leather helmet with goggles!
The class watched in stunned silence as Willie slipped the jacket on. His thin frame seemed to grow taller. “May I put on the hat too, Mrs. Virginia?” he whispered. Usually it was considered bad manners to wear hats indoors.
“Oh, yes, Willie. Try it on!”
Everything fit to a tee. “You look so grand,” said Mrs. Virginia. “And patriotic too. Will you lead the class in the salute to our flag?” How proud shy Willie looked.
Willie didn’t take the jacket or the helmet off for the rest of the party. When he met up with his little sister, Anise, from the first grade after school, she stared up at him like he was a movie star.
I expect Willie wore that jacket every day of his Christmas vacation. I know he wore it every day for the rest of the school year.
The Evanses moved away after that, but as time went by I would sometimes think about shy Willie. I hoped he’d always be as proud and happy as he was in that leather jacket, long after he would have outgrown it.
Eventually I became a mother and a teacher myself. A few years ago I returned to Camak for the Railroad Days Festival. As I was admiring a display, a lady my age made her way through the crowd. “Do you remember me?” she said, studying my face. “I’m Anise Evans.”
“My goodness! Willie’s sister!” I said. “How is he?”
Anise told me that Willie had passed. “He had a very happy, full life,” Anise said. “I suppose it was because of Willie that I came back to Camak. This is where he got his flight jacket!”
Anise confirmed that Willie did indeed wear that jacket until he outgrew it. After that he always kept it nearby, and showed it off to everyone he met.
He never tired of telling the story of the miracle mystery present. And neither do I. Because that Christmas, an angel, my uncle Marion, strengthened the faith of a shy little boy named Willie, and answered two prayers, Willie’s and mine.
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