Thursday, September 23, 2021

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Political Mercury

Rejoicing the freedom to sing ‘Silent Night’ in a peaceful Iowa



One of the more inspiring Christmas stories I’ve ever heard doesn’t involve Tiny Tim and a bunch of lame ghosts.

Or Jimmy Stewart and a town called Bedford Falls. (With apologies to Denison native Academy Award-winning actress Donna Reed.)

Or that kid who wants a BB gun.

That’s fiction.

Prep Iowa

Maybe it’s all the yellowed papers I’ve gone through to research some recent history minded stories, but my heart this holiday season goes back to Christmas Eve in 1944 in war-torn Europe — on a train full of Allied prisoners of war.

The real meaning of this holiday never seemed more clear to me than it did in historian Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Citizen Soldiers.”

This Christmas story concerns Private Vonnegut.

After his fighting group was forced to surrender, the Germans marched the POWs some 60 miles to Limburg. There, they were marched to railroad yards and loaded on to 40-and-8s, French rail cars from World War I designed to hold 40 men or eight horses.

There was no water, food or sleep, Ambrose wrote.

In Vonnegut’s car, half the men had to stand so the other half could sleep.

There they stayed for days, according to Ambrose.

In one of those cars, a man began singing.

“He obviously had a trained voice; he was a superb tenor,” Private George Zak recalled in the book.

He sang “Silent Night.”

Soon, others in the car took up the song.

It spread through the cars.

The German guards even joined in.

But suddenly, in the middle of the song, the air-raid siren went off. The Royal Air Force started bombing the train, not knowing it carried Allied prisoners of war.

Many men died.

Eventually the bombing stopped.

“Hey,” someone called out from one of the railroad cars. “Hey, tenor, give us some more.”

A voice from the other end of the car responded: “He ain’t here. He got killed.”

“So it went on the Western Front during the Christmas season of 1944,” Ambrose wrote.

With brave Americans again giving life and limb this story is particularly timely, and should give us all pause as we have the free voices to sing “Silent Night” in our Iowa homes.




On a lighter note… maybe…

One of the more amusing (OK to me) Christmas stories involves some fraternity guys a friend claimed to know back in the 1980s.

I’ve always believed this story to be an urban legend so don’t get too offended, as this likely never happened. But here it goes:

It seems said fraternity members, doing what men with Greek letters on their sweaters do, got into trouble with some mix of booze and university administrators.

I can’t really describe the event because as the famous line in the movie “Animal House” goes: “Acts so profound and disgusting occurred that decorum prohibits my listing them here.”

In an effort to get some redemption in the eyes of the administrators (err, stay on campus for the next 12-keg bash), the members of this fraternity reportedly sponsored a Christmas party for disadvantaged kids.

All went well until some of the more incorrigible members of the frat staged either a very cruel or highly amusing stunt, depending on your worldview.

As one of the frat members popped out of a fireplace dressed as St. Nick another guy produced a rifle-style stage gun and shot Santa in front of the kids in a mock assassination.

Many of the kids, thinking this Santa business was a joke anyway, thought the incident was great fun, while others were inconsolable (especially the ones from North Korea).

One assumes the administration made sure the kegs ran dry at this fraternity for the rest of the school year if not in perpetuity. CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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