“No candy,” Mom always said. “Dad wants to send them something they can use. Get a can of beans or a little saucepan or maybe a nice handkerchief for the little girl. And make sure you’re back in time for dinner.” We were eight or nine, my twin brother and me, off and running for the bus to town, each of us clutching a silver dollar. Every November it was the same ritual. Buying Christmas presents for The Box.
Though desperately ill, Dad himself took responsibility for wrapping everything and taking it down to the post office. He’d whistle as he worked, he was always whistling no matter how bad the pain, but sometimes he would curse too when the sticky tape stuck to his fingers. “Damnit!” By the time he was done The Box had grown heavy and I’d see him buckle a couple of times as he carried it out to the car, but Mom knew this was his mission and his alone, so she always left him to it. She was a tough old bird, but she wept more than once at the sight of him. Once tall and strong and happy and loud, a ginger-haired salesman and the life of the party, now diminished and bent, struggling to send off an anonymous box of gifts all the way across the oceans from New Zealand to Germany, to the family of the man he had killed in battle.
He had a rough time of it in the war. One day I unearthed the official history of his battalion and read how he came to be decorated. It happened in Egypt. 1941. His platoon of 30 had been cut down to just six men, several of them wounded. When one of Rommel’s gigantic Panzers lumbered towards their trench, he crawled out from safety and slapped a sticky bomb to the tank’s vulnerable underbelly as it rolled above him. Not long after that he was badly wounded in the battle for Sidi Rezegh in Libya, the bullet went right through him, finally escaping, maximum damage achieved, through his thigh. The few who made it back home to New Zealand with him used to tease him about what he said to the chaplain who crawled out to give him the Last Rites. “If you don’t get your bloody arse down Padre, I’ll be giving them to you.”
Before Egypt and Libya there had been Greece, and Crete. As little boys we would ask him to tell us about it, but he never would. “Only the cooks talk about it,” he would say. “The rest of us keep it to ourselves.” Once someone came up to him, thanked for…