by Rev. Jim Riley
The favorite Christmas song we sang in our fifth-grade music class in 1949 was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The song was brand new. All of us thought it was a lot of fun to sing. Our music teacher was a stylish young woman who loved to pound the songs out on the piano. We sang with gusto. There was a new boy in our class named Rudolph Millard. We called him Rudy for short. It was pretty ironic that we didn’t catch the point of the song about calling names and not letting somebody play “reindeer games” because that’s how we treated our Rudolph.
Rudolph seemed a little strange to us. All of us wore blue jeans most of the time. You won’t believe this: we liked our jeans best when they were band new, and our mothers even pressed them. Rudy wore pants that looked like what we might wear to Sunday School, except that they were a little threadbare. Sometimes they were short for his growing legs, and sometimes he came in pants that were a little too long. He wore pullover sweaters that were frayed with sleeves too short for his arms. He even had one sweater with a big picture of a reindeer. Most of us wore gingham shirts that our mothers bought new when we started school in the fall. Rudy was always a little too dressed up for the rest of us, and he was always a little too shabby at the same time. He was kind of a city kid who came from the wrong part of the city. We didn’t know what to make of him.
Rudy liked to run with a skip or a gallop, and that didn’t help. When we did let him play tag or dodge ball with us, sometimes he would fling his arms, and he gave us the impression of reindeer we had seen in comic pictures. We would holler, “Run, run Rudolph. Run, run Rudolph.” Little did we know we already had some of the words for a country Christmas song that people would sing in the future. Rudy seemed to like our little chant, but it didn’t diminish the fact that it reflected our mean streak, and Rudy was catching the brunt of it.
Rudy had two younger sisters a year apart. He was good to them. They didn’t let us kids in fifth grade play with the younger elementary children, but Rudy would meet his sisters during the noon hour playtime where they divided the playground between the older and the younger kids. His sisters seemed to have problems with their classmates too. The family just didn’t fit very well. They did encourage each other.
Rudy and his sisters came to Sunday School a few times. All of us behaved better there. My mother was Sunday School superintendent, so I had better behave, and she didn’t put up with much guff from my friends either. I’m sure it was still a little hard for Rudy and his sisters. Most of the conversation while we were waiting for the Sunday School opening to start was about our favorite Saturday night television shows. That was hard for the Millard kids. They didn’t have television. I remember how it was just before we got television when other people had it. I felt a little left out then. I’m sure Rudy felt left out a lot. But he tried. I think that Rudy and his sisters decided Sunday School was one more try than they needed to make, because they quit coming. They did come back one Sunday before Christmas. Then we didn’t see them again for a while.
One time I overheard my mother talking with the other mothers about the Sunday School program. It was going to be in the afternoon that year right after school the day school let out for Christmas vacation. Our mothers talked about the treat that Santa would hand out, and one of the mothers suggested getting big candy canes and molding pop-corn balls around the straight end. It would be different from the sacks of candy and nuts they handed out other years. That sounded delicious to me.
The next Sundays we worked on our songs and our pieces for the Sunday School Christmas program. Everybody had something to say. Nobody was left out because that wasn’t the way Christmas was supposed to be. When the time came for the big program somebody brought a beautiful gingerbread church that was constructed to look like our little white church. It had trees and everything with frosting for the red roof and the snow. There were a lot of frosted, tree shaped cookies to go with it so everyone could have a taste. Santa came after the program and told us how good we all were and how glad he was we had all come to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Then he passed out cookies for the treat we could eat right then, and he passed out the candy canes with pop-corn balls on the long end.
It was really some program. The lady who made the gingerbread church gave it to my mother for all her work, and that delighted me. Everything was pretty much going my way that Christmas. Among other things, I knew for pretty sure that I would get the Erector set I wanted.
Mom let Frank and me set the gingerbread church under our tree and run the electric train around it. Frank was my older brother. We worked together to get everything just right. We put up our little tower with a beacon light, and after supper we turned out the lights and ran the train with Mom and Dad in the living room too. Mom lit the two candles she put beside the cardboard manger scene on top of our upright piano so they cast a soft glow. Dad turned on the Christmas tree. Frank and I ran the train. I always loved to see the little train cast its engine light as it went around the curves while the green and red beacon from the toy tower made everything a little eerie as it went round and round.
We decided it would be a great thing to do again Christmas Eve.
The day before Christmas I played out in the snow in the early afternoon. I got one big surprise when I came in from outdoors. Mom was packing a box for Christmas that really looked nice. She had a layer of Christmas cookies inside, and on top of that she had three of Santa’s treats from our Christmas program at the church. She was just ready to close it and wrap it. When she had that done she handed the box to me and said, “Here Carl, I want you to take this to the Millard family. They couldn’t be at the Christmas program.”
I said, “They didn’t want to be at the Christmas program.”
Mom said, “We want them to know that we missed them.”
I protested, “Clear across town?”
Mom said, “The walk will do you good.”
There was more to it that I could have protested, and it would have all gotten me into trouble. I didn’t dare tell my mother that none of us liked Rudy, and we had all been mean to him. There was nothing to do but to take the box where my mother said to take it.
Our town was a very small town, but the Millard family lived clear on the other side and then out across the railroad tracks and the creek. They lived in a little house at the end of a long lane. It was a pretty long walk. I passed houses where friends lived, and I was glad they didn’t see me with the box so I didn’t have to explain anything. I passed our little white church a block from downtown.
Our downtown only had a few buildings. There was a grocery store, and there was an open green space beside it where people put up a curtain in the summertime and set benches for cliffhanger cowboy movies. We all got to buy frozen treats at the meat locker plant that stood just behind the movie spot. There wasn’t much action there the day before Christmas, but people were getting some last-minute things at the store. I walked past the telephone office and friends’ houses where the street made a bend to go across the railroad track. I could see the grain elevator. Sometimes it seemed like an exciting place with wagons and trucks coming to unload grain from the farms.
I came to the place where the brick and tile factory used to be. There were a lot of “used to be” things in our town that didn’t recover the Great Depression. Among the ruins of the “used to be” brick and tile factory there was a new junkyard. I stopped to admire the pile of scrap iron and wonder where some of the pieces came from. There were some worn out pre-war cars and some cars that had crashed in auto wrecks. There was a smashed new red Cadillac; I wondered about somebody’s wrecked Christmas.
I knew a guy just out of high school who was working on a hot rod in his dad’s garage. I thought that was big stuff, and I looked at the better car bodies and wondered what I might drive for a rod someday. I spotted a car that was like my dad’s ’34 Plymouth before he got our ’47 Studebaker and sold the old car. Dad’s big complaint about the new car was the glint of the sun off the interior chrome. I saw an old car like the one my mom’s dad drove before he got the dark blue ’49 Ford to celebrate ‘fifty golden years’ with my grandma. The junkyard was so much fun it was hard to move on, but eventually I crossed the railroad tracks. When I came to the lane that went to Rudy’s house it dawned on me that it wasn’t just my mother who wanted me to bring these treats. It was God.
It came crashing home to me that one way or another that’s what Jesus in the manger was all about. The kind innkeeper, the shepherds and the angels, the wise men with gifts, all of them were about being good to each other because God is good to everybody. God wants everybody to be good to everybody. God wanted me to be good to Rudy. That’s the way God is. If you think your mom and dad mean business, you’d better think God means business.
I crossed the railroad track, then I crossed the bridge over the creek. It was all frozen and there were drifts of snow along the bank. When I came to Rudy’s house I still didn’t want to knock on Rudy’s door. I knocked because I knew I had to. I held my breath.
I didn’t know what I would say to Rudy if he answered. I guessed I would just say whatever I thought when I handed him the Christmas box, and then I would get out of there. It probably wasn’t all that God wanted, but it seemed to be all I could do.
I was relieved when Rudy’s dad opened the door. I held up the box and said, “This is Christmas treats from our Sunday School.”
Rudy’s dad was tall and thin like Rudy was going to be. He almost looked a little shy. He said, “Come in.” I stepped into the kitchen because I didn’t know what else to do. Rudy’s dad put the box on the table and Rudy’s sisters were right there to see what was inside. Rudy was on the other side of the room. He said, “Hi Carl.”
Rudy’s mother told me, “Hello.” She was starting to peel potatoes.
I said, “Hi, Mrs. Millard. Hi, Rudy.”
Rudy said, “Come over here. I want to show you something.”
I went over. Down on the other side of the old cook stove there was a mother cat with her kittens. I said, “You’ve got kittens.” The mother was a three-colored cat. One of the kittens was like a little tiger; one was black and white with a little spot of yellow; and two were more like the mother.
Rudy said, “Do you want one?”
Rudy’s mom said, “We want to find homes for them. They’re old enough to be weaned now.”
That was another big surprise. I said “Sure!” I didn’t know what Mom would think, but I thought it was all part of a plan. It was the way it had to be. Sure, I wanted a kitten.
Rudy reached down to get one, and his sisters came over too. They each reached for a kitten and held them up to show them off. The kittens were a little disagreeable at first; then they started to purr when we started to pet them. The mother cat arched her back and removed herself. I picked the little tiger and took it in my hands. I held it close. Rudy said, “That’s just the cat I want you to have.”
Everything changed in a flash. Rudy and I were friends now. Rudy’s mom and dad fussed with the kitten a little and showed me how to feed it milk. They said it would soon catch mice for itself and it would be a good mouser if it was anything like its mother. They said, “Your parents will be glad you brought it home.”
I said, “I hope so.”
Rudy led me outside because he wanted to show me a pen where they kept a few chickens for eggs. I noticed a spot for a garden where Rudy and his sisters had built a snowman. It was actually a pretty sooty snowman. I understood why when a train came with a big steam engine. While we stood and watched the train, I started to notice that Rudy was really pretty advantaged. He didn’t have to leave his house to see a real train. He saw steam trains and he saw the big, new diesels that were replacing them. He didn’t have to leave his house to see the Rock Island Rocket when it came speeding through with passengers on their way out west or back to the east.
There were woods on the hillside that Rudy could explore. The creek was right there where he could fish. The junkyard wasn’t very far away with all its treasures. I hoped I could come back and play with Rudy sometime, but I thought I had better get the kitten home. I tucked the kitten into my coat to keep it warm. I was just ready to tell Rudy that I had to get going when Rudy said, “Do you know what else, Carl?”
I said, “What else?”
“My dad quit drinking. Rudy threw his hands in the air and jumped when he said, “Mom told me he’s in recovery!” He has a new job now.
I asked, “Where at?”
Rudy said, “Dad has a job at the elevator. He operates equipment they have.”
I said, “That’s great Rudy.”
Rudy said, “I even got to talk to the guy who runs the elevator. He wants me to come up sometime to show me how it works.” Rudy went on; he was pretty excited. “And we’re even going to get television! Dad told me we can do it in a couple of months.”
I said, “Rudy, that really is great. I’ve got to be going now, so I’ll see you again soon.
I hope I can come here to play sometime.”
Rudy said, “I hope so too, Carl.” We told each other good-bye, and I left.
When I went back up the street into town I saw two friends. Mike lived in the big, brick square house with porches all around, where somebody big in the railroad business had lived at one time. Tom lived on the other side of the street. They were playing close to the telephone office. They called to me, and I went over to see what they were doing. They were impressed when I opened my coat and showed them the kitten.
Mike asked, “Where did you get it?”
I said, “Rudy gave it to me.”
Tom said, “Rudy?”
I said, “He has some more kittens he wants to give away.”
They said, “He does?”
I said, “They want to find good homes for the kittens.”
Mike and Tom both told me they could give good homes to a kitten.
I said, “Rudy would give you one. The Millards are really nice people.”
Tom didn’t want me to miss out on anything and he said, “Did you get your thing from the telephone office?”
I asked, “What thing?.”
He told me, “They’re giving out Christmas decorations this year. They’re like angels, and Christmas trees and bells. You bend them into a circle to make them stand up, or you can hang them on your Christmas tree. They’re really kind of nice.”
I told him I didn’t get one.
Mike said, “Then let’s go over there before Tom and I go to Rudy’s house. You can show your kitten to Mrs. Robbins. She’ll think it’s cute.” Mrs. Robbins operated telephone switchboard. She knew everybody’s business in town because she heard it all. Nobody minded because she kept it all to herself. I saw her once-in-awhile when my parents had some business at the telephone office. It was fun to watch her plug in the connections when somebody called up somebody else.
Mrs. Robbins greeted us when we knocked on the door. I spied the Christmas tree with the foil decorations they were giving out. The tree was lighted, and the decorations glistened. I asked, “Do you want to see something?”
Mrs. Robbins responded, “I do want to see something.” I opened my coat and showed her the kitten. She took it and made over it, just as she knew she was supposed to do. Then she gave it back and told me to pick a decoration off the tree for bringing such a cute kitten to show her. Just as I was about to pick something a call came in. Mrs. Robbins turned to answer and make the connection. She turned back to me, and she told me, “Your mother is talking to your grandmother. Do you want to tell them “Merry Christmas?” I said I did.
Mrs. Robbins turned back to the switchboard, and listened a little bit. Then she broke into the call. She said, “There’s somebody here you might want to talk to. Carl stopped by.” Mrs. Robbins guided me over to the mouthpiece that hung down from a couple of cords, and she put the earpiece up to my head.”
I said, “Hello.”
Mom and Grandma both said, “Merry Christmas, Carl.”
Mom asked, “Did you get the treats delivered.” I told her I did.
Then I said, “You can’t guess what Rudy gave me.”
Mom asked, “What did Rudy give you?”
I said, “Rudy gave me a kitten. It’s a really cute tiger kitten!”
Mom said, “Oh Lord!” That’s the strongest language my mother ever used. She was the Sunday School superintendent. She just said, “Oh Lord!” I hoped I wasn’t in trouble.
I asked, “Is it okay?”
Mom hesitated. I could tell that my mother was thinking. I didn’t want to take the kitten back. I didn’t know what to tell Rudy if I did. I held my breath.
Mom finally said, “It’s all right. You’ll have to take good care of it and keep it out of things around the house.”
Grandma said, “It sounds very cute, Carl. I want to see it when I come tomorrow.”
After I told Mom and Grandma, “Good bye” I took a blue angel off the telephone office Christmas tree. I had three surprises: I made a new friend; I got a new kitten, and we had a new decoration for our Christmas tree at home.
All of us at the telephone office told each other “Merry Christmas” and I left.
Frank liked the kitten when I brought it home, we named it Tiger. I had to keep a pretty close watch on Tiger because he wanted to bat the balls on the Christmas tree and nibble at the little, white church. He got real excited when we ran the electric train in the glow of the lights, and it was fun to feed him milk after we did that. Mom and Dad even thought it was fun. Frank helped me, and we made a nice place for Tiger in our basement where Mom said we could.
Christmas morning after we emptied our stockings and opened our presents, Frank and I had a good time with the Erector Set, building things with wheels for Tiger to chase. Mom had put the turkey in the oven, and it was even more fun when Grandma and all our aunts, uncles, and cousins came with food for Christmas dinner and presents for later. Grandma got to cuddle “the cutest kitten she’d ever seen,” and we played with our kitten and our cousins all afternoon.
I did figure out that some things happen because God wants them to happen. When our teacher let us tell at school what we had gotten for Christmas, Rudy said the best presents he got that Christmas were new friends. I noticed that Rudy’s sisters were having more fun on the playground too. Mike’s younger sister liked the new kitten they had at their place. That’s what the baby in the manger at Bethlehem is all about. God’s loves us. God wants all of us to love each other. God is still using Christmas to put that point across.
I’m sure you’ll want to know about how the whole town was surprised. One day our high school coach saw us running on the playground during the noon hour and he decided to take a little time to show us some things about running. (We went to a small school and our coach coached everything including the class plays.) Rudy got the hang of it and he turned out to be our track star in high school. Rudy’s family moved to a better house about a block and a half from where we lived. One Christmas Rudy’s dad gave him a basketball and when the weather warmed, he put up a backboard and hoop for Rudy and his friends. We played and practiced there a lot. We became very good. Rudy played center for our school team and we won the Conference title when we were seniors in high school. Hooray for our school! Hooray for Rudolph!!
All rights are reserved to the author, Rev. James C. Riley. Permission is given to copy the story for individual or group use, but not for publication. November 2, 2020