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Al Martinez

I returned the smile, but I couldn't get my mind off a Christmas in Korea a long time ago. : Dancing With the Memories

December 24, 1987|Al Martinez

It was the night of the storm.

Rain drummed against the rooftops. Wind howled through the oak trees. Outdoor Christmas lights swung and blinked in the calamity, flicking spears of color at the massed energy of the weather.

Inside, a little girl named Nicole watched through a window as the gale swept leaves into the air and spun them like dust devils over the rain-damped wooden deck, around and around and around . . . .

The spinning leaves and swinging lights reflected in the windows and off the deck itself, creating in multiple dimension a kinetic fantasy of color, a dream scene that flickered and blinked like the neon of a child's imagination.

The magic was not lost on Nicole. At 17 months, she is still part of the mystery and movement that nature offers in grand display to the very young, taken by a little girl's willingness to fly with the storm.

So Nicole began to dance.

She twirled over the golden tile, arms outstretched, trying with a child's tenacity to equal the scale of breathlessness the night had achieved, stretching to meet the storm sounds, head back, eyes closed, sensing the softness of the rain, hearing the music of the wind.

I watched in fascination because this is a special child, and the wonder of her perceptions never cease to amaze me.

She seems somehow aware of my moods, patting me gently when I'm low, running at me when I'm up, as bright as sunrise, as quick as starshine.

But, even comforted by the flow and whirl of this dancing sprite, my mood was heavy.

Christmas puts me in an uneasy frame of mind. It sweeps me back to a time of war when miracles were measured by the distance between life and a near-miss, when the music of the season was the whine and hiss of incoming shells.

I see mountainsides gleaming white under a bright moon and hear the frozen air crackle with small-arms fire. I see blood the color of red ribbon stain the snow and hear cries of pain that resound to this day.

Korea, 1951.

A police action. A conflict that fell into a crack between two real wars. A war that Winston Churchill said couldn't be won, couldn't be lost and couldn't be ended.

More than 1 million men, women and children died on both sides. Twice that number were mutilated. There was so much anguish for so little recognition.

I thought of that as I watched Nicole dance before the storm, her own piquancy merged in reflection with the driving rain and the flashing colors, as different from war as laughter from pain.

She turned my way and smiled, and I returned the smile, but I couldn't get my mind off a Christmas in Korea a long time ago.

Names come to mind. Wertman, Citera, Mammaril, Landsford, Hopkins. Others emerge in memory as faces without names. A corporal from Ohio who smoked a pipe. A kid from Michigan who wanted to teach.

I saw them one Christmas in Korea when the battalion rested in reserve. We drank beer and shared packages and sang loudly in the camaraderie of young warriors, for a moment removed from the chaos that roared beyond the ridgeline.

By Jan. 1, most of them were dead.

The strands of life are thin. Bullets cut them. Mortars cut them. Land mines cut them.

Human flesh is no match for steel. One moment we sang, the next we mourned. I came to realize how transitory life could be in the complexities of battle and with what caprice war mocks our decencies.

Nicole danced through the memory, turning toward me occasionally to see if I were still watching, unaware how far away I had been in such a brief period of time.

Or was she unaware?

The rain lessened and the wind faded. The branches of the trees ceased to wave and the twirling leaves settled to the wet planking of the backyard deck. Strands of lights drooped motionlessly in the night.

The dance was over.

Nicole stopped spinning and observed the sudden silence. Then she turned to me. I was half-lying on a couch, still tense with the memories of war that wouldn't go away.

She came to my side, patted my leg and put her head down without saying a word. The connection had been made. She somehow understood.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote: "Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies."

But it's more than that. Childhood is the kingdom where warmth exceeds passion and caring exceeds ego.

It's a place to dance without inhibition until the music fades, but to know that the music will come again someday, and the dance will continue.

"Nicole," I said to the little girl clutching my knee, "I really like you a lot."

She smiled and then was off in a flash, attracted by a new wonder in another room.

The enchantment had passed, but I know now I'll be able to close my eyes tonight and not see the faces of war that too often crowd my holidays.

I'll see a little girl spinning and twirling by storm-light, arms outstretched, head thrown back, reflected in every light that ever blinked at Christmastime.

It will be Nicole. She'll be dancing.

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