A Veterans Home – December 8, 1985, Southern California
First night of Hannukkah
“Why do you do it?” said Ed, his voice raspy and deep, filled with scorn and old things not forgiven or forgotten.
“What do you mean?” said the man with a large bag in his hands, continuing his methodical gift placement. Two small square boxes with blue and silver wrappings next to the menorah. Two small square boxes in bright red wrapping next to the miniature Christmas tree. One large rectangular shirt-sized box next to the menorah, one next to the tree, and so on. His large hands carefully, tenderly placing each gift just so.
“Why do you leave gifts for us? You don’t owe us anything,” said Ed gruffly, shifting himself a bit higher in the plaid chair as he steadied his cane that was resting on the arm.
“I just do,” he said simply with an enigmatic grin stretching across his face.
“What’s your name?”
“Call me Ted. I believe you’re Edward Swaney, yes?”
“Yeah. Call me Ed,” said Ed with a less-than-friendly grimace as if he felt obligated to share his name.
Ted’s grin grew a bit wider as he reached out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Ed.”
“Hmph,” grumbled Ed and made a show of opening a newspaper to halt any further conversation.
Later in the day, Ed was on his way to the dining room. He sidled up to his closest friend as they made their rickety way to supper. “So what do you think of this Ted guy leaving gifts for us?”
Rupert, used to Ed’s general grumpiness answered, “So you met the Jewish Santa Claus, did you?”
“The what?” asked Ed with a jerk of his head, taking his pinky finger and exaggeratedly pretending to clean out his left ear. “I didn’t hear you right. It sounded like you said the Jewish Santa Claus.”
“I did, I did,” said Rupert, walking over to his favorite place by the window with the oak tree. Everyone thought he liked that table because of the tree, Ed knew it was because he had a good view of the ladies entering the room.
“Well, I don’t know about that. What business does he have? He sellin’ sumthin?” asked Ed as he took his chair next to Rupert.
Rupert chuckled to himself. “No, no he’s not selling anything.”
Ed watched his friend as he winked at the little lady with the pep in her step. She was his square dance partner on Fridays. Then in came the lady who went on walks with him and Rupert winked again. Ed rolled his eyes.
Rupert caught the look. “What?”
“Nuthin. Anyway, maybe I should just tell this Santa to mind his own business.”
Rupert looked at Ed and cocked his head to the side, “Well Ed… You should talk with him. But before you read him the riot act, why don’t you ask him about why he does it?”
“I don’t have time.”
“Bah!” laughed Rupert, caught off guard by such a ridiculous statement. “Sure you don’t. Between President Reagan dropping by and Joan Collins coming over for your date, yeah, sure, you can’t spare any time at all.”
Offended by his friend’s mirth, as it seemed he couldn’t stop laughing, Ed said, “Hmph. Well I don’t. But I’ll see what he’s up to. Make sure he doesn’t steal anything.” For some reason this statement renewed Rupert’s amusement to an even greater degree as he slapped his knee then held his side from laughing so hard.
After he got his breath back, Rupert said, “Okay, Ed. You do that.”
The following day, Ed was ready. He was in his orange and black plaid barcalounger, lying in wait. He would not fall asleep. He resolutely clasped his hands over his stomach and watched that door. The sun was out as usual, and it looked to be a pleasant day, not getting over 80 so maybe a nice walk in the garden later on would be called for.
Hearing a bell tinkle from the little Christmas tree, Ed’s head popped up from his chest in surprise. “Dagnabbit,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry,” said Ted. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Argh. You didn’t. I was just… Grrr... Anyway, I’ve been meaning to tell you I got a beef with you.”
Ted’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Oh you do? Please. Tell me about it.”
Ed noticed his voice had a pretty thick Eastern European accent. Ted walked over, pulled up a small chair, and sat down clasping his hands as he rested his elbows on his knees. “What can I do for you, Ed?”
“I want to know why you do this and why the Sam Hell you’re called the Jewish Santa Claus.”
Ted’s smile was open and friendly. Ed noted that there wasn’t an ounce of defensiveness. Huh. Interesting.
“Well, sir. That’s a complicated story,” said Ted, his careful eyes taking the measure of Ed.
“I got time,” said Ed, wincing as just at that very moment Rupert walked by and chuckled.
“Hello Rupert!” said Ted, waving at Rupert as he walked by.
“Hello Ted. Don’t take any guff from Ed, there. He’s as big as a bear, and just as cheerful. Besides, I think Joan Collins is coming by later, so he might need to get to his next appointment. Take care! I’m off to square dance.”
Ted looked a little confused at those statements as he turned a furrowed brow to Ed. “Joan Collins?”
“Bah! Never mind. You were saying that it was quite a story? How you got to be the Jewish Santa?”
Ed looked closely at Ted as several poignant emotions ran across his earnest face. The raw emotions, in just a flash, surprised Ed so much, he found himself saying rather kindly, “Well, Ted. Really you don’t have to. It’s okay.”
Ted’s eyes opened wide and said, “Oh no. I don’t mind. It’s actually three stories. One man named Tibor, three different eras. How ‘bout this. I’ll tell you the first one, then you can let me know if I should continue with the second one tomorrow. What do you say?”
“Well, I just want to know why you’re doing this. Are you sure it’ll take three stories? Three days? I don’t know…”
Ted nodded solemnly. “Yep. That is the deal, my friend. One story for today. Yes?”
Ed was not happy with the time commitment. He’d expected a quick explanation, then he could tell him why he didn’t trust him – surely he wanted something – and that he’d be keeping an eagle eye on him. Why else would someone relatively young - he could only be in his fifties or sixties - come to a lonely place like this full of old fogies?
After considerable grumbling as Ed came to a decision, he said, “Okay. You have a deal, Ted. Can you at least start today? And I thought you were telling how you came to do what you do here. Do I have to hear Tibor’s story?”
“Yes, it must be Tibor’s story. But, sure, I can start with the first story right now. All right,” he said, taking a big breath of air, collecting his thoughts. “Let’s see… It starts with a young boy from Paszto, a small town in Hungary. Tibor is his name and he grew up with his two sisters and mother and father.”
“A friend of yours, this Tibor?” asked Ed.
“Yes. I knew him very well,” said Ted, taking a sip of his coffee. “One day, Tibor’s family hears of a small, horrible man who has taken power in Germany. He has this power over people that used the brokenness and despair of the country and roused in them a deep hatred. He took the seeds of racial differences and fueled it with fear and blame for the world’s problems. It’s always been easier to make a villain out of group of people than to work on peace and equanimity. One takes a little power and lot of hate, which is simple. The other takes understanding. Much more difficult, yes?”
Ed nodded his head, fully comprehending both what he meant and that he was clearly referring to Adolf Hitler.
“He begins annexing countries like a ravaging wolf. He went into Hungary and Tibor’s family hears rumors of atrocities committed against the Jews. Which is nothing new to his family. Since ancient times, their people had been scapegoats, hunted because they were different. Others thought Tibor’s family was being paranoid when they sent him away at age 14 with a group of adults to attempt to reach Switzerland. But the whole group was captured. He was shipped to the Maulthausen concentration camp in Austria. He barely survived the 14 months there. When the U.S. 11th Armored Division liberated the camp on May 5th, 1945, he was just about a bag of bones. Mind you, he was only about 16 years old. When he saw those Americans breaking down the gates of that god-forsaken camp, he made a vow then and there that if he survived he had a debt to pay. He’d somehow get to America and show the world Jews were good for more than just dying. They could fight! He wanted to become a real G.I. Joe.”
Ed looked at Ted with his head cocked to the side. Ted was in another world as he told this story. His eyes were somewhere else; Maulthausen he guessed. Ed asked, “What happened to Tibor’s family? Did he ever find out?”
Ted’s eyes shifted to meet Ed’s. “His older sister survived and they eventually found each other. Right after he’d been sent on his escape route, the family had been rounded up. His mother and two sisters were taken to Auschwitz. The very first day, they’d taken his little sister, only 10, to the gas chambers. His mother turned to the older daughter and said, ‘She shouldn’t have to die alone.’ And she went with her youngest child to die together. His father went to Auschwitz then Buchenwald where he died.”
Ed watched as Ted’s eyes filled and his voice cracked at that final word. God Almighty. How did the boy survive?
“Well. That’s enough for today, Ed,” said Ted, clearing his throat loudly and bracing his hands on his knees as he hauled himself up. He looked so tired, thought Ed. And older suddenly.
“Well, Ted, will I see you tomorrow?”
Ted turned, sighed, and let a small smile creep into his eyes. “Yes, Ed. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Alrighty then, Ted. I’ll be right here waiting.”
At supper that night Ed sat by himself. He was quiet, contemplating about Tibor and his family. Thinking of his own sisters and brothers. Two had gone before him, one brother in the war after he himself had survived. They’d both fought together in France. He still felt guilty about surviving somehow. And his one sister died of a heart attack, but she was in her eighties when she passed, after a good long life. He couldn’t fathom knowing your family died so young, so horrifically. And separated from each other. That was the worst part. He slept fitfully that night, but the next day he was ready and waiting for Ted.
Today there was no danger of him falling asleep. Ed cracked his knuckles, an old habit since he was a boy. He felt the comfort of the orange and black plaid barcalounger. He had his own story of deprivation, fear, sacrifice. Yes, by God, he did. Maybe that’s what made him so keen to hear more of Ted’s stories. He wondered what happened to Tibor and if he ever made it to America and became a G.I. Joe.
“Hello Ed!” said Ted cheerfully as he walked in the door. “Let me get these gifts ready and I’ll be right with you.”
“Hiya, Ted. You have quite a bundle today.”
Ted laughed as he carefully placed four red boxes and four silver boxes by the menorah and the tree. In companionable silence Ed got settled in for another session while Ted straightened up the packages. Ted smiled when he caught the fact that Ed had a more comfortable chair all lined up for Ted to use instead of the folding one he’d sat in the day before.
Ed clasped his hands and tried not to look as enthused as he truly felt. He felt like a little kid at story time.
Seeing Ed’s eagerness, Ted pursed his lips as he tried to not smile broadly. “So Ed, are you ready for your second story?”
Ted laughed. “Get on with it, right?”
“Okay, Ed, okay. Let’s see. Tibor’s story picks up as he has to wait a long time before he can make his way to America. Even though his own country of Hungary killed his family and tried to kill him, America found it difficult to have people from the Axis countries come to her shores. But Tibor finally made it when he was about 18. He was taken in by a Jewish housing organization. He signed up for the army, but was rejected because his English was so poor. He couldn’t pass the entrance exams. But the third time he paid off a sergeant and officially joined the United States Army in February of 1950. He was a rifleman with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. After just weeks of basic training his unit was sent to fight in the Korean War. Funny thing, by the way, Tibor wasn’t a U.S. citizen yet, so he could’ve gone to an assignment where they wouldn’t face combat. But that was not what his debt payment was all about. He wanted to fight! And be with all his new friends in his unit.
Despite that sacrifice, he found that he still couldn’t get away from anti-Semitism. His own sergeant hated Jews and began giving him the most dangerous, certain-death assignments. But Tibor was a fighter. He’d learned early, as just a child, how to survive. That sergeant soon found out it wasn’t so easy to kill him,” said Ted with a glint of mischief in his dark eyes.
“One day, his unit was to withdraw to safety when a large onslaught of North Korean troops were coming through. Tibor’s sergeant commanded him to man the hill while the troops withdrew, figuring he’d never live. This Tibor, though…” laughed Ted, shaking his head. “He had a plan. He knew no one was coming back for him. And he cared for his men. All night long, he gathered as much ammunition - especially grenades - and peppered the fox holes all over that god-damned hill. At dawn, the enemy attacked the hill. And Tibor? He just went bananas! He ran all over that hill, leaped into one fox hole, pulled the pin of a couple of grenades and lobbed them toward the enemy. Ran to another fox hole, lobbed more, fired helter-skelter, over and over. The enemy was like a bunch of ants climbing over that hill. But his plan worked. The Koreans thought the unit had not withdrawn and Tibor personally held that hill for 24 hours! He single-handedly slowed the enemy advance and inflicted a staggering number of casualties against the attacking force. You know the Bugs Bunny show?” he suddenly asked Ed.
“Yeah, sure,” said Ed.
“He was like the Tasmanian Devil!” Big laughs poured out of Ted. As he wiped his eyes from laughing so hard, he said, “The 8th Cavalry Regiment was able to withdraw safely thanks to him. But…” He paused, his face slowly taking a solemn look, full of the gravitas of the moment. “After the battle, he staggered down the hill and saw all those dead and injured bodies. The guilt was like a mountain on his chest. Even though they were the enemy. But still. He killed someone’s father, brother, son… Then again, if he didn’t kill them, they’d have killed him. It’s war. War is hell.”
Ed nodded with the same solemnity. “It sure is, Ted. It sure is.”
Ted looked at Ed, his eyes sharp. “I heard you were at Omaha, Ed.”
Ed’s head whipped up at that. “Yeah. Yeah I was,” he said cautiously. He rarely talked about that.
Ted’s keen eyes searched his face. After a long pause, taking his time to carefully study Ed’s face, he said, “I see you have your own story to tell.”
Ed sat in silence, Ted let him. He thought about it for a good five minutes. He could hear the talking and laughter from the other rooms, the ticking of the clock on the wall with the orange and brown wallpaper with the pineapple design, a few birds chirping from outside. Ted busied himself with adjusting his watch while Ed considered.
Finally, Ed decided. “All right, Ted. But ah… Not to anyone else, okay?”
“Of course, Ed.”
“Well, I was with the 29th Infantry Division, the Blue and Gray. I was in the 116th division, in the first wave of troops ashore at Normandy. I’m uh… not as good of a story teller as you there, Ted. But it was rough, Ted. It was rough. Some of it’s a blur, you know? And then there are moments of such perfect memory, it’s like I was there yesterday.”
Ted nodded. “Yes, my friend. I understand.”
Ed looked at Ted. “Yeah. My unit sustained a lot of losses. I was one of the lucky ones, I guess. But so many… So many were just mowed down. It’s not something so easy to talk about to someone, is it?”
“No, it’s not. You’re right,” said Ted. “But sometimes it’s good, yes? It’s a heavy load to carry. And telling the story once in a while helps with that.”
Ed thought about it for a minute. Actually yes, he did feel lighter and he murmured their old motto Twenty-nine let’s go! to himself. He knew that Ted understood, even through his meager words, and it did help. “You’re right, Ted. But I still feel guilty.”
“From killing?” asked Ted.
“From surviving,” said Ed.
Ted breathed in a long, thoughtful breath. “Yes. That is heavy, too. Sometimes more so.”
Ed held out his hand, “Thank you for sharing the stories, Ted.”
Ted took his hand and shook it. “Well, my friend, you have one more to go. Same time, same place tomorrow?”
“You got it,” said Ed.
That night Ed ate supper by himself again. But later on, he found himself at the swing dance that evening. He’d never gone before.
“Well lookie here!” exclaimed Rupert, holding his dance girl with the pep in her step.
“Aww, come on Rupert! Leave me alone!” grumbled Ed. But he at the tall gal he’d had his eye on. The one with the light red hair and the green eyes. He smiled and winked at her. Then he spun her around.
The next day, Ed was ready and waiting yet again in the good ole orange and black chair.
Ted came in right on time, smiling at the eager look on Ed’s face and the fact that today not only was the nice chair in place, but a cup of coffee and a cookie on the adjacent table. “I’ll be right there, Ed!” he said as he pulled out his gifts and placed them with care.
As they munched their cookies in preparation for the next story, Rupert walked by. “Hiya Ted! Did Ed tell ya he was a dancing machine last night?”
Ted laughed at the heckling. Ed felt his face go red. “Bah! Go bother someone else, Rupert!” Rupert did a little Dick Van Dyke skip as he winked at him. Ted was still snickering, earning him a glare from Ed.
Ted cleared his throat to collect himself and changed the subject. “So are you ready for your final story, Ed?”
Ed was conflicted. He knew there were only three stories, but a part of him wanted this new routine to carry on. Well, if he only had these three days of stories, he’d enjoy them fully. Even if they were sad stories, really, there was something life-giving about them. Or maybe it was Ted. Whatever the case, he was happily soaking it all in.
Ed had a lot of questions, too. “Did Tibor ever get the Medal of Honor? Did he get to go home after that huge mission saving the hill?”
Ted’s eyes met Ed’s. “No, his story continues in Korea. He’s not done yet.”
“Oh boy,” said Ed. Half nervous at the ominous sound of that, and half excited.
Ted sat back and inhaled deeply, collecting his thoughts. “Tibor’s unit kept fighting. At one battle, a good friend, his commanding officer actually, was wounded. That same God-awful sergeant who hated Jews and was basically a sadist, wanted to leave the man for dead. But Tibor ran back for him and carried him to safety. Later, on October 30th, 1950, the Chinese attacked his unit with a massive assault. They all fought hard. Even though he was a rifleman, Tibor manned a .30 caliber machine gun, the three previous gunners all casualties. He manned it through the night and the next day until his ammunition was gone. His steadfast stand slowed the enemy and once again most of his remaining unit was able to evacuate the area. But this time, Tibor was wounded. He was captured by the Chinese along with a few other wounded men from his unit including his commanding officer, the one he’d gone back for.”
At this Ed’s inhaled sharply. He wasn’t expecting that. “You mean to tell me, Tibor survived the Holocaust and then he was a prisoner of war? Again?” His own voice cracked with emotion.
“Yes. But you see, he was taken to a camp the Americans called Death Valley.” Ted’s face grew grim and his voice took an intense, almost savage tone. “Tibor had been trained like no one else on how to survive a death camp.”
Ed’s eyes widened. Ted’s eyes were filled with a black fire as he carried on with his story. “So he taught them. Even though he’d had shrapnel in his hand, chest and leg, he taught them all how to survive. He found a way to sneak out of camp and would steal food from local farms. He would remind them all of the families back home praying for them. He taught them how to not give up!” He clenched his fists trying to show with his own muscles that Tibor could and would help them survive, he would make it happen. Ed felt that his own strength was being filled up by Ted’s passion. It felt like the waves of heat from a fire.
Ted continued, “Tibor would pick the lice from the other prisoners’ hair. He carried sick men to the latrine…” He paused, thinking and considering. Then he softly murmured something that Ed didn’t understand, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.”
After a moment, he cleared his throat and went on. “And he helped give what medical help he could. He even found some soju,” said Ted with that same sparkle of mischief.
“What’s soju?” asked Ed.
“Think Korean moonshine.”
“Hah!” laughed Ed. “Outstanding!”
Ted said, “Yes. Like gasoline. But it disinfected some wounds. Hurt like hell, but still… And a little swig here and there was good for morale.”
“Of course it was,” said Ed.
“And Tibor buried the dead. That winter in ’50 / ’51 was brutal. Everyone was freezing and scared to death. He’d say the Kaddish over the dead. Jewish or not, the words of the Prayer of the Dead were right. And you know what, Ed?”
“The Chinese offered to send Tibor back to his home country of Hungary once they learned that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and was in fact from a country that was their ally.”
“He wouldn’t go,” said Ed, certain of it, shaking his head.
“No, he would not,” said Ted. He laughed, “He told them, ‘No, they tried to kill me there, too. I stay with my Americans.’”
“So did he survive?” asked Ed.
“Yes. In 1953, he was suddenly sent home in a big exchange of sick and wounded soldiers.”
“1953?” Ed exclaimed.
“Yes, two and a half years of hell,” said Ted. “But he lived.”
“And that commanding officer that was his friend that he went back for? Did he survive?”
“Yes, they both were in Death Valley together and both survived.”
“When did they give him the Medal of Honor? He deserves several by my count…” said Ed.
“Oh. Well. He never did,” said Ted.
“What do you mean?” asked Ed incredulously.
“Nope. Anyway! That’s your final story, Ed. Did you enjoy them?”
Caught off guard and with so many questions firing through his mind like one of Tibor’s machine guns, all Ed could do was stutter. “But.. Well, wait. How… Um…”
Ted hauled himself to his feet and gathered his bag. “But you didn’t tell me how you became the Jewish Santa Claus!” exclaimed Ed, suddenly desperate.
Ted paused and smiled with a deep peace in his dark eyes. “Didn’t I? Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, my friend.”
He left a bewildered man on the orange and black barcalounger. Ed was buoyant with an energy and love that he hadn’t felt in a long time. And yet his heart was crestfallen at the same time. Such devotion, such service for his fellowman. Yet how did his country’s leaders not acknowledge that?
That night at supper, Ed had a lot to think about. There was something to that saying that Ted spoke, once to himself, and once out loud. How could he find out about it? He could barely make the guttural sounds of those words. He felt someone sit down at his table.
“It looks to me as if you’ve finished your three stories with Ted,” said Rupert.
“But… But…” stuttered Ed. “How did you know it was three stories?”
“Oh… I’ve been here longer than you, Ed, buddy. I had my time with him, too.” Ed took a good look at his friend Rupert. He was such a happy-go-lucky guy, yet at this moment he was contemplative, his fist under his chin as he considered his thoughts.
“Say, Rupert. Do you know what that saying is that Ted says? It sounds like ch-zack, ch-zack or something.”
Rupert’s eyes crinkled with a kind smile. “Yes, I know that saying. He said it to you?” Ed nodded. “Hmmm. Yes, that makes sense…” Rupert sure was in a ruminating kind of mood.
Ed frowned. “Well aren’t ya’ gonna’ tell me what it means?”
“Well my friend, you’ll figure it out when it’s the right time. But I can tell you this. I believe it’s the reason why our friend Tibor is the Jewish Santa Claus.”
He got up and tottered off before what he said really sank in. Good Heavens. Ted is Tibor. Well of course he is, you idiot, he thought to himself. But there was still part of him that wanted this man, this man who had become more than a friend, to not have been part of all those trials. And not even recognized for his heroism in the midst of the worst kinds of hell. Yes, he was more than a friend, he’d become a confidant. He’d somehow broken through his prickly resolve and even bitterness and… strengthened him. Yes, that was it. He felt stronger for having known Ted.
Ed suddenly leapt from the table, knocking his chair backward.
“Whoa, whoa Ed! Where’s the fire?” exclaimed an amused Rupert, who happened to be sitting at the table next to him.
“I have to make a call!”
Ed heard him snicker and say to Sally next to him, “Pretty sure Ron or Joan are on their way over.”
“What?” said the sweet but almost deaf Sally.
“Never mind, my dear. Let’s go dance.”
The next day, Ed waited in great anticipation for Ted to come. He’d made his call and his palms were all sweaty. He had Ted’s chair set, with cookie and coffee, and today he had his own little box wrapped in gold sitting proud and ready to be shared.
But Ted didn’t show up. After a couple of hours, Ed finally left his black and orange station, and dejectedly walked to the dining room for supper. He didn’t talk with his friends and he barely slept that night. Was this it? Was Ted done with his stories and visits? He needed to talk with him. At least one more time.
The next day, Ed anxiously sat on the edge of his barcalounger. The extra chair, cookie and coffee forgotten. It was unbearable waiting. Talk about a watched pot not boiling! He was so tired from missing so much sleep last night. But he would not sleep. Not this time. He hoped.
His faithful waiting was rewarded by a door opening and in walked Ted, his smile as warm as ever. “Well look at you, Ed!” Before he could banter any further, Ted had to brace himself, because Ed tottered over to him at a reckless speed. His cane waving madly, Ted didn’t know what to do. “Uhhh…Ooompf!” With the force of a freight train, Ed had wrapped Ted in his big, bear-like arms. He was wobbly, but quite a large man. Ted had to try extra hard to not be knocked right over. “What is this, my friend?”
Releasing Ted, Ed stepped away, relief that Ted showed up coursing through his veins. “Let’s sit, Ted. I, uh, didn’t get you coffee today. Hm. Uh. Maybe…”
“No worries, my friend, I am not in the mood for coffee today anyway. Thank you. Let’s sit.”
Ted let Ed get situated and patiently waited for Ed to collect himself. After a big exhale, Ed sat forward clasping his hands as his elbows rested on his knees. “You know, Ted, I appreciate more than I can say, you spending this time with me. You’re uh… You’re Tibor, aren’t you?”
“Yes, my friend. But I haven’t gone by that name since I joined the army. My army buddies quickly named me Ted. Sometimes Tibor seems like a different person. A different world, yes? Say, Ed, you look different today as well. You’re smiling.”
“Bah!” laughed Ed. “Yeah, well, I guess I haven’t done much of that lately. It feels good,” he said gruffly. “I have to tell you something. I made a call. I’m not sure how it’ll work out, but I had to do something.”
“Who did you call?” asked Ted, curious.
“Oh… an old pal of mine. Ronnie.”
Ted’s eyes were shifting all over the place trying to figure out who this Ronnie was, why Ed looked so mischievous, and how it all fit together. It hit him. “Ronnie,” he whispered. “You didn’t.”
Ed’s eyes glittering with amusement, “Oh yes I did. I don’t know how long things will take. You know how slow the army moves…” Ted’s eyebrows raised, his mouth falling open. But before he could say anything else, Ed handed him the gold package that was sitting next to him on the little table. “You should close your mouth, Ted. Flies will fly in.”
“How exactly high up in the army were you?” asked a now suspicious Ted.
“I made colonel, but more importantly, I made friends with our current Commander in Chief.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Not too shabby, huh? But don’t tell Rupert.”
It was Ted’s turn to laugh. “You are a funny, special man, Ed.”
Ed nodded to the gold present. “Go on. Open it.”
Ted looked at the gift, his eyebrows knitting in concern as he assessed the gift and opened it with great care. “No. No, Ed. I cannot take this.”
“Sure you can. It’s mine, so it’s mine to give,” he said resolutely folding his arms over his chest, like the stubborn bear that he resembled. “Listen, Ted. Think of it as a promise, as a temporary gift to show you that the army is indeed grateful for your service. I am grateful.”
Ted looked at the medal in the box, and with one finger he traced the star and golden eagle at the top. “It really doesn’t matter to me; I did what I did because I wanted to.”
“I know. But it matters to me. It really does. Here, stand up, soldier!” he said, his voice suddenly commanding and reminiscent of his years of service and high rank in the army. Ted couldn’t help but stand up, at attention. In his strong voice, Ed said, “This will one day - we will make certain of it - be given to you in the proper protocol by the Commander in Chief himself. But in his stead, until that day, I award you, Tibor Rubin, this Medal of Honor, the highest honor of the U.S. military, for your many personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.” As he said these words, he carefully pinned it to Ted’s shirt and then gave him his best, sharpest salute. Ted saluted back. Then he had to brace himself again as he received another bear hug and giant slap on the back that threatened to knock the wind out of him.
The two good friends sat and talked for hours that day. About family, friends, life in California, and even a little about how Ed got to know Ronnie Reagan. As the day wore on toward evening, Ted needed to get going.
“Thank you so much, my friend. This has been quite a day indeed.”
“One last thing, Ted,” said Ed. “So… going back to being the Jewish Santa Claus. You do it for the same reason you went back for your commander, held the hill in Korea, and the same reason you helped your mates in Death Valley, don’t you?”
“Yes, Ed,” said Ted as he put on his coat and eased his hat onto his head. “It is the same reason and it was taught to me at a young age. It’s the very cornerstone of my life.” He got to the door and put his hand on the handle as he turned back to his friend Ed. “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.”
Ed smiled, knowing he was right. This was why Ted was the Jewish Santa Claus.
Ted returned the warm smile and said, “At the end of reading a book of the Torah, we say this saying. It means, ‘Be strong, be strong, and strengthen your friends.’”
IN REAL LIFE
Tibor Rubin and his story are not fictional. My rendition of this friendship is fictitious, although Ted’s generosity to Veterans homes is actually a fact, and he really did earn the moniker of The Jewish Santa Claus. The accounts of Tibor’s acts of bravery are accurate and happened in real life. Ed is a nod to Ted’s many comrades who nominated Ted for the Medal of Honor countless times. It took a reunion of Ted and his mates where they learned he had never received the Medal. They made more inquiries and found out it was indeed that sadistic sergeant that had held up the Medal of Honor. Congress acted to make the army finally move after 30 years from Ted’s discharge, and 14 years after Congress said he deserved the honor, and at last give Tibor Rubin this highest honor, presented by President George W. Bush on September 23, 2005.
I’d like to thank my dear friends for their help on that moving Jewish saying, and for inviting us to your son’s Bar Mitzvahs. We loved celebrating with you, and obviously you inspired me. Thank you so much, Liz Aizer and Heather Greenberg. This short story is a new chapter for future renditions of The Christmas Journalist. For more fictional short stories that tell the very real origins behind holiday traditions woven into a modern day novel, check out in digital or print: https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Journalist-journalists-pursuit-traditions/dp/0989236048/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485442408&sr=8-1&keywords=the+christmas+journalist
For more on Tibor, check out his full biography: https://www.amazon.com/Single-Handed-Inspiring-Rubin-Holocaust-Recipient/dp/0425279766/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1485442000&sr=1-1&keywords=single+handed+book