Illustration by G. Mark LaFrancis / Submitted to The Natchez Democrat
Illustration by G. Mark LaFrancis / Submitted to The Natchez Democrat

Archived Story

A Christmas Story: The Medals

Published 10:22am Thursday, December 26, 2013

Editor’s note: Each year, Natchez author G. Mark LaFrancis writes an original Christmas story and shares it with The Natchez Democrat readers. Here is this year’s story. LaFrancis is the son of a World War II veteran.

Back so soon?” Alex’s mom asked him.

“Yeah, Danny kicked the football over Mr. Scrooge’s fence.”

“Alex, I told you not to call him that. He’s Mr. Cooper. Not Mr. Scrooge.”

“Well, he’s Scrooge to us.”

“So, what are you going to do about the football?” Alex’s mom asked.

“Wait until Dad comes home; he’ll get the ball. He always does.”

Alex’s mom turned to him, and raised her finger.

“Not this time. You’ll have to get it yourself.”

Alex put his hands up. “No way, no way. Scrooge’s creepy.”

“And old, real old,” Danny said. “I heard what they say about old men.”

Alex’s mom looked sharply at Danny, “And what do they say? Remember now, your grandpaw is one of those old men and he takes you fishing all the time. And, He’s MR. COOPER.”

Danny squirmed; Alex did, too.

“That’s, well, different,” Danny said. “Pawpaw is a normal old man.”

“Yeah,” Alex said. “Mr. Scrooge …. I mean Mr. Cooper isn’t, well, normal.”

“Mr. Cooper likes his privacy, that’s all,” Alex’s mom said. “And he doesn’t like boys kicking footballs, or throwing baseballs, or tossing basketballs over his fence into his yard. So this time, you have to go and get your own ball. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Alex said. “C’mon, Danny.”

The boys left the kitchen and headed for the front fence that surrounded Mr. Cooper’s house. It was a brick house, one story, with a broad front porch. On the porch was a swing seat attached to the ceiling. The chain was rusted, and it appeared unused for years. In fact the whole house appeared run-down and neglected.

The boys in the neighborhood often said that Mr. Cooper’s house was so old it would fall down around him.

Alex and Danny stood outside the gate to Mr. Cooper’s house.

“Well,” Alex said to Danny.

“What?” Danny asked

“Go on in,” Alex said.

“What’cha mean. It’s your football,” Danny said.

“But you kicked it over the fence.”

The boys stood there, just staring at the house.

“Do you think he sees us?” Danny asked.

“I dunno,” Alex said.

“How ‘bout we both run in fast, grab the football and run out?” Alex asked.

“Yeah, real fast,” Danny said.

“OK,” Alex said, “On three.”

“One…two….three”

The boys opened the gate, ran to the back yard, slipping on the ice and snow.

“Where is it?” Alex asked. “Where’s the football?”

Danny said, “I can’t find it; there’s too much junk back here.”

They rummaged through the old furniture, turned-over benches and an old swing set.

“Danny, we gotta get outa here,” Alex said.

Danny said, “I found the football; it’s under this old grill.”

The boys pulled at the ball, trying to dislodge it from the grill, and finally.

“Oomph,” Danny said, gripping the ball. “Don’t know how it got stuck in there. Let’s get outta here … fast.”

The boys ran toward the front gate, Danny in the lead with the football.

Then it happened.

Alex slipped on a patch of ice and went head-over-heels and landed, thump, on his back.

“Aaaaagh,” Alex cried out.

Danny raced to his side.

Alex was dazed, and couldn’t speak.

“I’ll get your mom,” Danny said, running.

Alex lay on the snowy ground, staring at the sky, his back aching, his mind racing with fearful thoughts.

“What if Mr. Scrooge comes?”

“What if he captures me?”

“What if he…?”

A shadow fell across Alex, a long dark shadow, that of a tall man.

Alex shut his eyes tight, and began to tremble.

He felt a hand on his forehead.

“Son, are you OK?” the voice asked. “You had a mighty bad spill.”

Alex kept his eyes shut. He couldn’t speak.

He felt himself being lifted and carried.

He tried to call out, “Help, Help.” But his voice couldn’t get the words out.

He fell into unconsciousness.

Alex awoke.

He was on a couch in a parlor-like room with other couches,        pictures on the wall, rugs, old rugs, with musty smells. The ceiling paint was cracked, and the lights were dim.

Then, Alex realized he was in Mr. Scrooge’s — Mr. Cooper’s — den.

Dizzy from the fall, he tried to get up but couldn’t.

His arms and legs felt like they were made of cement; his head pounded.

“Heeelp,” his strained voice cried. “Heeeelp.”

A figure — a man’s figure — from the other side of the room approached him.

Alex shrunk back into the musty couch.

The figure held something.

“A club? A hammer?” Alex thought.

“Here, here’s some hot chocolate,” the figure said, extending a mug. “You’ve had a nasty fall.”

“Sorry I don’t have any of those little marshmallows,” the man said.

“Oh, and here’s your football. Your friend dropped it on his way out the yard.”

Alex sipped the chocolate, fear began to melt away.

“I’m Mr. Cooper, you know?” the man said. “I know you boys call me Mr. Scrooge. Oh, I know. I see your looks as you walk by. You see, I’ve lived here alone for so many years, I don’t have many friends. Your Dad comes by once in a while to get your baseballs or basketballs or footballs.”

Mr. Cooper said, “You’re free to go.”

Alex jumped from the couch.

“Uh, thank you,” Alex said, bolting out the front door.

Danny was waiting. “Oh, man, I thought he captured you … turned you into some weird creature or somethin.”

Alex laughed, “I’m still me. Mr. Cooper didn’t turn me into anything unnatural.”

“You saw him?” Danny asked. “You actually saw him.”

“Yup, and he gave me hot chocolate.”

Danny looked intently at Alex, waving his hand in front of his friend.

“How many fingers do you see?” Danny asked.

Alex said, “Put your hand down. I’m OK.”

That afternoon, Alex described the room, the couches, the carpets, the paintings on the walls, the pictures of young and old men and women. He told Danny, “It was like a museum.”

“Did you hear any blood-curdling screams?” Danny asked.

Alex punched Danny on the arm. “No, no screams. I mean, he was nice.”

Alex and Danny parted.

In the days to come, Alex couldn’t forget his experience in Mr. Cooper’s home.

Alex confided to his parents.

“Oh, Son,” Alex’s father said. “It’s no wonder Mr. Cooper helped you. He’s a true hero.”

“Huh?” Alex asked.

“Oh, sure, Mr. Cooper was in the Marine Corps during World War II, the war that tore our world in two. He was in this battle, the Battle of the Bulge, when many soldiers froze to death. He kept on fighting, and fighting. He’s a hero, trust me.”

Alex and his dad sat down for a long talk about World War II. Alex learned that his grandfather was a Seabee (Construction Battalion) sailor in the Pacific Theatre, carving landing strips from jungles, often being shot at, and enduring long, hot days and diseases.

Alex learned even more about World War II when his father took him to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

There, they were greeted by a rickety gentleman, like Mr. Cooper, who talked about his service in the freezing winters of Europe. Alex thought of Mr. Cooper shuffling around his dark, museum-like house.

Alex said, “I never knew. That explains the medals.”

Alex’s Dad asked, “What medals?”

“The ones in a box on the table in the parlor. I took a peek when Mr. Cooper wasn’t watching.”

Alex described how the medals were tarnished, torn and dusty.

“Hmmm,” Alex’s dad said.

Alex smiled at his father. “I know what you’re thinking.”

His father smiled back.

“I know someone up in the Senator’s office; I bet he’d be willing to help,” Alex’s dad said.

And there, at that spark of a moment, Alex’s life changed forever.

Alex and his father dove with full fury into the mission of giving Mr. Cooper new medals.

“Mr. Cooper’s son lives somewhere in Indiana,” Alex’s dad said. “We’ll need his help.”

Instead of living in fear of his neighbor, Alex felt sad Mr. Cooper lived without friends. Alex shoveled Mr. Cooper’s walkway, brought his paper from the curb to his front door and waved as he passed by. Often, Alex visited with Mr. Cooper, listening to stories of his youth fishing and hunting with his father. And often, Alex stared at the box containing Mr. Cooper’s medals. “What’s in here?” Alex asked.

“Not much,” Mr. Cooper said, snatching the box from the table. “Just old memories.”

Winter roared into the neighbor
hood and Christmas was coming fast.

Alex was becoming anxious that the plan he and his father concocted would not happen in time.

“The Senator’s office promised me we’d get them in time,” Alex’s father said.

Each day after school, Alex ran to the mailbox, hoping for the letter from the Senator’s office. The days to Christmas were running out.

He became anxious, so he spent more time with Mr. Cooper. Alex bravely asked the question that had burned in his mind.

“Mr. Cooper,” Alex said.

“Yes, Alex,” Mr. Cooper said.

“Was it … was it … awful … I mean … in the war?”

Mr. Cooper sat on the couch next to Alex, his hands trembled. He sighed heavily; his old frame stiffened.

“Young man,” Mr. Cooper said. “There are no words created to describe …” Mr. Cooper looked to the ceiling as if to the sky. Tears slid down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Mr. Cooper said. “An old man crying like a baby.”

Alex reached out to Mr. Cooper’s hand.

“I’m sorry, too.”

The two of them sat on the couch with sighs and emotions flowing through each of them.

Then, Alex picked up the box on the table, the one he peeked into, the one with the medals.

“What’s in here?” he asked of Mr. Cooper.

Mr. Cooper wiped tears from his eyes and cheeks.

“Oh, just my old medals,” Mr. Cooper said. “Nothing special.”

“Can I see?” Alex asked.

Mr. Cooper opened the box.

“What’s this for,” Alex asked.

Mr. Cooper laughed.

“Got shot.”

“That’s funny?” Alex asked.

“Yup, got shot in the butt,” Mr. Cooper said bursting into laughter.

Then Mr. Cooper lowered his head and said, “My buddy got shot in the head.”

“Sorry,” Alex said.

Then, one by one, Mr. Cooper explained the other medals: for bravery, for service, for sharpshooting, for special achievement.

“That was so long ago,” he said looking at the clutch of medals. “So long ago.”

Mr. Cooper stuffed the medals into the box, and handed it to Alex.

“Want ‘em?” Mr. Cooper asked.

Stunned, Alex said, “What? Me? No way. You’re the hero. They’re yours.”

Mr. Cooper said, “Naw, Son, no one knows about that war anymore. No one cares.”

“I care, Mr. Cooper, I care,” Alex said. “And I can’t take these medals, no one can. They’re yours; you deserve them.”

Two days before Christmas, the delivery Alex and his father had hoped for arrived.

“Wow! Look at them,” Alex said, as his father unwrapped each of the medals. “Mr. Cooper will be so surprised.” They had ordered all of Mr. Cooper’s medals and had them mounted in a special box. Alex sighed and said, “I hope he likes what we’ve done.”

Alex wrapped the special box and placed red, white and blue bows on the wrapping.

Christmas morning came. Alex and his father knocked on Mr. Cooper’s door.

He shuffled to the door.

“Mr. Cooper, will you share our Christmas morning with us?”

“I…I…,”

“Please,” Alex pleaded, extending his arm, saying, “I’ll help you.”

“Son,” Mr. Cooper said, “I can walk by myself. I’m tougher than you know.”

The two shuffled through the snowy walk from Mr. Cooper’s house to Alex’s, with Mr. Cooper’s slippers scraping along the pavement.

“We have a big dinner, too, Mr. Cooper, with turkey and dressing, and cranberry sauce … mmm.”

They arrived at Alex’s house.

And there in the parlor in front of the Christmas tree, was a gathering that made Mr. Cooper gasp.

There were his sons and their wives and grandchildren.

“Merry Christmas!!” they hollered. “Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Cooper almost collapsed; Alex and his father caught him and set him in a chair.

Mr. Cooper’s family embraced him with hugs and kisses.

He trembled and cried.

“Mr. Cooper, you have become a part of our family, and our son Alex wanted to give you a special gift,” Alex’s dad said.

Alex stepped up to Mr. Cooper with the boxed gift.

Mr. Cooper’s old hands shook as he carefully peeled back the paper.

“Keep going,” Alex said, encouraging Mr. Cooper.

The paper fell from the gift. There before him was a hand-crafted wooden case with new, beautiful medals, those he earned defending the world in World War II, all in magnificent array.

“I … I don’t know what to say,” Mr. Cooper said, staring at the gleaming display of medals.

Mr. Cooper’s sons and wives and grandchildren gathered around him, embraced him, and shared their gifts for him.

“You did good, Son, you did good,” Alex’s dad said, putting his arm around his son’s shoulders.

That day, that time, seemed to stand still for Alex as he witnessed a hero earning his medals for a second time.

The next day, Alex helped Mr. Cooper hang the case with medals on a wall in Mr. Cooper’s den. In the years that passed, Alex and Mr. Cooper became close friends; they talked often of World War II. Alex learned about patriotism, sacrifice and bravery.

He learned that Mr. Cooper’s unit was among the first Marines to free the Holocaust victims from the concentration camps. “Those poor, poor people suffered so much … so much.”

Alex grew into a young man, and decided he, too, would serve his country, like Mr. Cooper did. The day came when Alex was headed to Marine Corps basic training.

He stopped by Mr. Cooper’s house.

“Sir, I’ll miss …”

Mr. Cooper stopped Alex.

“I know; I know.”

Mr. Cooper said, “I have something for you.”

He returned with a medal, no, not earned for valor, but for protection.

“Here’s my Saint Christopher Medal. My father gave it to me when I left for the service. Saint Christopher watches out for those who travel,” Mr. Cooper said. “This is yours, now.”

“I … I don’t know what to say. Thank you, thank you so much.”

The snow drifted down and dusted their shoulders.

“Better get in, Mr. Cooper. It’s cold out here,” Alex said.

“Son,” Mr. Cooper said, “I’m tougher than you know.”

They laughed and shook hands.

Then, Mr. Cooper stood erect and presented his best salute to Alex.

Alex returned the salute, made an about face, and with tears streaming from his cheeks, marched smartly down the walkway.

(c) Copyright 2013 G. Mark LaFrancis, Natchez, MS