My father used to tell me that during World War II the thing he missed most was Christmas in his hometown of Rising Star, Texas, population 800. In desert towns of North Africa, and bombed out Italian villages, he would listen to Bing Crosby on Armed Forces Radio singing everyone’s favorite holiday song, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” It reminded soldiers of what they were fighting for, but dreaming about it also broke their hearts.
I came to know and love dad’s little town because, after my sister and I were born, our family spent every Christmas there. Our granddad owned the City Drug Store. At Christmas he would drape garland along the soda fountain and hang a wreath outside the door. He never worried about it disappearing overnight. Things like that didn’t happen in Rising Star.
Kindness and tolerance were the hallmark of dad’s hometown and not just at Christmas. During the Great Depression when times were hard, City Drug helped out every family that needed medicine whether they could pay or not. Some would come to the house with cantaloupes, peanuts and chickens from their farms. They were always treated with respect and we learned from that.
The family next door owned the grocery store. At the end of the week the unsold items would go to a food pantry to feed those who were down on their luck. Not because of a federal mandate or a tax break, but because it was the right thing to do.
When we arrived for our annual Christmas visit, the old house would come alive like a magic castle with aunts, uncles, and friends all laughing and talking as we waited for Santa. Lyrics from Crosby’s song really did come to life there with “snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree.”
Christmas mornings hadn’t changed much from when my dad was a boy. Stocking gifts were simple. An orange, some peppermint candies, maybe a few tiny toy soldiers. Santa never wrapped his gifts, he just laid them by the tree.
One year I got a cowboy hat and some boots. When I clomped along with my father on the boardwalk downtown, I was proud that everyone stopped to shake his hand, and mine, West Texas style.
All of that is gone now. My father and his clan have long since passed away. The store is closed. The house was torn down. I know because I went back to look for it one time.
In a world gone mad, it’s hard to imagine that a place like the Rising Star of my youth ever existed. But, each year I’m reassured when I hear Bing Crosby sing my father’s favorite song, because I know that Christmas Eve will find me there ... if only in my dreams.