Every six or eight years I relate to you a Christmas story first told to me by Max Ford. Here goes:
In the winter of 1944, American and German armies were engaged in one gigantic slugfest in Belgium and western France. It came to be called the Battle of the Bulge, and it was Adolf Hitler’s last major effort to turn the tide against the allies in Europe.
Most of the fighting took place in heavy snow and bitter cold, and for several weeks the front -- that imaginary line where armies clash -- was fluid and confusing.
Early one morning, a reconnaissance patrol of American paratroopers was trudging through the snow back to its own lines. Most of the hard work had been accomplished in darkness and stealth, and now, within a few hundred yards of their encampment, the GIs were beginning to relax.
They went up a hill and entered a stretch of dense forest. The men began shifting their weapons and closing up, as men will do when a job is completed and comfort and haven are close at hand. And at that very moment, as they relaxed and dreamed of warm fires and hot food, they ran head on into a German patrol going in the opposite direction.
In the half-light of a new dawn, a short, noisy and brutal fight erupted. At close quarters, rifles and automatic weapons stuttered and barked, and then hand grenades began to fly. It was over in a matter of seconds, and then there was silence.
One GI remained alive of his 12-man patrol, and he was terribly wounded, his knee shattered by a rifle bullet. He lay in the snow for a long time, wondering if the enemy was still close at hand, lapsing in and out of consciousness.
Hours passed, the daylight all but blotted out by towering fir trees, and it occurred to him that he must find a way to get back to his unit. He crawled a few yards, fell into a snow-filled shell hole and slipped again into unconsciousness.
When he awoke, half delirious with pain, it was late afternoon, and very cold in the snow, but now the GI could hear movement close by. Friend or foe? He fumbled with his rifle, propped himself up on an elbow and was contemplating his next move when, quite suddenly, a German soldier loomed over the rim of the hole and then tumbled in.
The German lay face down in the bottom of the hole. He was very still and quiet. The GI thought he ought to go over and find out if he was still alive, and if he was -- at that moment the American passed out again.
When he came to, afternoon was passing into dusk and it was snowing again, but a most extraordinary thing was happening. The German, very much alive, was kneeling over him. The GI, defenseless, assumed the worst, but then he came to see that his enemy had cut away his trouser leg and was bandaging his knee; moreover, he was splinting it and applying a tourniquet. When he finished, he slumped against the wall of the shell hole and did not move.
The GI crawled over. The German was himself wounded, a large rip running by his left eye almost to his ear. The GI began thinking he could fix the German up, take him prisoner and get them both back to American lines, so he fished out his bandages and wrapped them against the man’s head.
Night fell, and it was terribly cold. Without a word between them, these two men from different cultures, languages and countries -- sworn and hated enemies -- found themselves huddled together in the bottom of that hole as winter howled.
The next morning, they awoke to a violent artillery barrage. Now they hugged each other out of mutual terror. They were, after all, fearful survivors at the gate of hell.
Later they pooled what food they had and, while eating, looked into each other’s eyes. A funny thing was happening. Both men had begun looking on each other not as enemies but as helpmates.
The German fished in his tunic pocket, fished out a metal cigarette case, opened it and handed it to the GI. It was a family picture: a wife, a daughter. The GI handed the German a picture of his wife. Both smiled in recognition of their common humanity.
They huddled again that night for warmth, and the next morning awoke to more falling snow and a howling wind. The German reached into his shirt to a chain about his neck and pulled out a cross, then beckoned at the sky. The GI did not understand until the German produced a scrap of paper and a pencil and wrote “December 25.” It was Christmas Day.
They spent that Christmas, enemy and enemy, trying to stay warm. Toward noon, the German left the hole, found scraps of wood and returned to build a small fire at the bottom of the hole. They warmed what scant food they had left, and held their hands close to the small fire.
The German prayed in his language, conducting his private Christmas service there in no-man’s land, and the American -- tough paratrooper that he was -- followed with his own prayers.
It was late afternoon when the GI knew the time had come to leave the hole. He and the German stood and the GI climbed to the ground above, using his rifle as a crutch, the German grasping his arm and helping him along.
They looked at one another one more time in the falling snow, the GI with his wrapped and splinted leg, the German with his head swathed in bloody bandages. They were going in opposite directions, but both knew they would never be the same.
Their shared experience at Christmas time, in many ways almost surreal, would stand out as they most important of their lives. They would not see each other again, but they would remember forever this almost divine moment of peace and fellowship.
The war was very far away as they embraced.
“Merry Christmas,” the GI said, moved almost to tears.
“Frohe Weinachenk,” the German replied huskily.
I do not testify to the truthfulness of this battlefield encounter. Perhaps on a blustery day more than a half century ago, it did occur. Maybe it didn’t.
But it makes a nice story at this time of year, speaking as it does of man’s humanity to man. It is a tale worth remembering.