Four elderly men stood before me. They had asked to talk to me and I was very, very nervous. One of them was shaking with emotion and all I could think of was somehow I had offended them with something I had written in the play they had just seen.
Let me explain.
In 1993, I was the director of the drama ministry at Brookwood Baptist Church. We produced four dinner theaters a year and my staff liaison requested we sell season tickets for the 1994 season. I was growing tired of writing, directing, and producing plays with a rural flair. I wanted something more modern and urban. I decided on the three plays leading up to our holiday dinner theater for 1994. Then, I wrote down a simple explanation for the fourth play, “The Night Gift”. It would take place in an urban setting, a newly constructed high rise in downtown with a penthouse office. The members of that office would find themselves stuck in the penthouse office on Christmas Eve and in the process discover they didn’t get along as well as they thought. That was it. A simple story. I would worry about the details later and write the play sometime during the summer of 1994 in time for the holiday dinner theater.
My good friend and our best actor, Larry Robison, asked me to write him a bit part as an old curmudgeonly gentlemen like Waldorf and Statler of the Muppets. You know, the two old men who sit in the theater box seats and insult the cast of the Muppets show. I created four elderly founders of the company that built the high rise. Larry would play Mr. Collinbird (the others were Mrs. Partridge, Mrs. Turtledove, and Mr. Frenchhen). At a pivotal point in the play, I wanted to change the mood from humorous to serious. Up to that moment, Mr. Collinbird had been hilarious and frankly, senile. The members of the office began to share their most memorable Christmases. When it came to Mr. Collinbird, everyone was expecting another silly story. Instead, he began to tell a very moving story about his childhood.
Mr. Collinbird told the story of Christmas,1941 when his father did not return from Pearl Harbor. The young boy went out into the woods and cut down the family Christmas tree on his own. During the tale, Larry became the young Collinbird and I came out on the stage dressed as his father with blood on my chest. I told my “son” he was now the man of the house and I would not be coming home for Christmas.
It was a simple five minute scene meant to change the tone of the play and to catch the audience off guard. They would be expecting Collinbird to be silly but instead they got a very poignant moving story of the child who became the man. After the first night’s play, Larry came up to me and said there were four men who wanted to talk to the author of the play. These were the four men who now stood before me. The trembling man wiped at his eyes and this is what he said:
“I wanted to thank you for honoring the men who fought in World War II. We are World War II veterans and I was at Pearl Harbor. Thank you for honoring us on Veteran’s Day.”
I was stunned! It suddenly hit me that this was Friday, November 11th, the original date for Veteran’s Day! I never intended to honor WWII veterans but God had different plans. God knew who would be there that night and God knew they needed to be honored by the simple scene in this play. The play was performed for two nights only and as impressive and shocking as the first night’s response was, I was not prepared for what happened the second night.
After the play, Larry escorted an elderly woman up to me and introduced us. She also wanted to meet the author of the play. This is what she said:
“My brother died at Pearl Harbor and I have been mad at him and mad at God ever since. Tonight, you helped me to say goodbye to my brother and to find peace with my Maker. Thank you!”
Later, Larry and I spoke about these people and their testimonies. Larry encouraged me to write the story of that young boy in 1941. He asked me where the idea of cutting down the tree as a rite of passage to manhood had come from. I shall share that tomorrow! For now, I want you to stop for a moment and think of someone you know who has fought in our military.
This coming Monday is Veteran’s day and 19 years ago, I realized how truly important it is to honor and remember the sacrifice of our men and women in the armed forces. Much has happened in the world since then and the number of war veterans has exploded. It would be a number of years before I fulfilled my dream to take that boy’s story and tell it in its entirety. In 2005, I wrote and produced “The Homecoming Tree” telling the story of the young Mr. Collinbird. The story was based on my parents’ lives during WWII. They lived in a boarding house atmosphere and their relatives came to stay with them as the war unfolded. I hope to soon complete the novel based on that play and to fully honor the memories of my now deceased parents. But, for now, I want to encourage you to honor our veterans this coming Monday. Thank them for their sacrifice to give us the opportunity to live in freedom!