He was just another kid away from home at Christmas. Twenty-four years old, to be sure, but when you're thousands of miles away and you've survived a war and it's your third straight Christmas away from home and you're writing longhand to Mom and Dad, you're a kid. He remembers sitting in a Quonset hut at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines and jotting down thoughts to his parents in San Pedro.
It's a safe bet that Ensign Charles Newbury, soon to be a lieutenant junior grade, didn't think on that November day in 1945 that a newspaper guy would be calling him 51 years later to ask him about the letter. In a way, though, that's no more surprising than the fact that the letter intended for his parents found its way to The Times, which printed it on Christmas Day, 1945.
Dear Folks, he began. . . .
One short month away and some 6,000 miles away from here and it will be Christmas in Southern California! Rain splashing on the windshield, the soft swish of tires on wet pavement, the red and green and yellow and blue lights of the Christmas tree sales lots shining through the rain and dancing on the gutter puddles and the sidewalks. The growing trees on lawns hung with strings of lights which . . . make every street and avenue a Christmas Tree Lane. . . .
Charles Newbury, now 75 and a retired civil engineer and tax accountant, lives alone in Anaheim. He didn't find out until he returned to the States in March of 1946 that The Times got hold of his letter. "At the time I wrote it, I was thankful I was still alive," he says today. "The war was over and we knew we would be getting back the next year." Over the years, it's stayed in a drawer with other keepsakes, to be looked at from time to time--and especially around Christmas. For a few years, he used it as a Christmas card.
The downtown shopping crowds on Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, jamming buses and streetcars and shops. The warm sultry smell in the crowded stores as one comes in from the wintry rainy streets. The misty halos around the street decorations and the neon signs. Jampacked streets, automobiles crawling along, honking, and the trolley bells, and the tinkling of the [Salvation] Army tambourines. Packages of colored paper, tinsel and the thousand-colored ribbons. And small children and Santa Clauses . . . .
Newbury jokes that, had he known The Times was going to print it, he would have done a better editing job on himself. "I just wrote as I thought," he says. "I was surprised, when I finished, how much I had written. I just started writing. Something had to have happened to make me write it, although I can't remember what it was. "
The "Merry Christmas" and the "Happy New Year" in speech and in print--the carols and the stories and the signs. Christmas cheer and the drunks. Blazing fires of papier-mache logs and red light bulbs and cellophane and the warm fires in homes, red and yellow and green, when the sap comes out. Flames and the shadows flickering across the room. And candlelight and incense and presents under the tree. And poinsettias. . . .
"I don't think there's a family alive, except for those whose religions don't recognize it, who don't make something out of a family Christmas," Newbury says.
The chill in the air. The feeling of a real holiday spirit--more rain--and snow in the mountains and last minute cards ("I never thought they would send us a card"). And visits, friends, relatives and the people next door--the candy and nuts and the big dinner ("Honestly, I'm stuffed") and taking it easy, just relaxing. Eggnogs and wine and rum and that rosy feeling. . . .
Newbury's mother died in 1958, his father in 1981. He will spend this Christmas with his daughter and her family in Newport Beach. As for the letter, he says, "I still feel the same way about all the things I wrote, except for the trolley cars we don't have anymore. There are times when it seems like another world when I wrote it. It becomes a matter of, 'Who is this?' Then, the thing that always puzzles me is why didn't I write a better piece?"
Christmas in the Philippines--drinks, reminiscent thoughts, a day off, a good dinner, perhaps a card game, carols on the radio, more drinks and to bed, for tomorrow we build. Am I ever getting sentimental! Or maybe homesick is the word--or maybe I'm just fed up with being out here or something.
Now that he is asked about it, Newbury realizes the stream of consciousness in the letter constituted life's simple pleasures as he saw them then. Odd to look at his list and see that most of them wouldn't have cost him a cent.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, the things we say to each other--they're what constitute our Christmases. Newbury's letter stands the test of time not because it is especially insightful, but because it could have been written by any of us to any of us.
"It wasn't planned," Newbury says of the letter he dashed off 51 years ago. Yet, with a lifetime under his belt now, we sense he has a better understanding today than he did way back then of just how much he really had to say.
Dana Parsons writes a column for the Orange County edition.