‘Dreaming of a Silent Night’

By Lori Gottula

“Gee, it’s Christmas Eve back home. I wonder if it snowed. They’ll be having a tree, Mom and Pop, and Sis, and young Jimmy. Maybe after supper Mary’ll come over for a while and help Mom wrap presents. I guess they’re thinking of me as I am of them.”

Those words were written by author Paul Gallico in an article commissioned by Esquire magazine in January 1944. The article accompanied a painting that was also commissioned, and was painted by Falls City native John Falter. The article and painting, titled In the Year of Our Lord,  will both be on display from Nov. 11 through Dec. 31st, (along with six other Falter paintings), at the Falls City Library and Arts Center. An art opening will be held the first night—Veterans Day—with a viewing at 6 p.m., and a gallery talk at 7. The event is sponsored by the Richardson County Arts and Humanities Council.

In the Year of Our Lord features an American soldier, identified only as Private Dill, looking out over the Palestinian city of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, 1943. Gallico’s entire article ponders what the soldier “might be thinking,” as he stands where Jesus was born. An M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle rests across the soldier’s shoulders, and a heavy backpack pulls on his weary body. The temperature in the area averages 51 degrees. A light wind whispers through the barren desert.

“This is the night when Christ was born,” Gallico wrote, of the soldier’s thoughts. “He lived right here. Men saw Him and heard Him talk. Maybe He once stood where I stand.”

He was a good guy. He wanted everybody to be on the square and give his neighbor a decent break. I guess maybe that’s really what we’re fighting for, why I’m here.” 

——

Private Dill could have been anyone. Maybe that’s why Gallico and Falter never fully identified him. He could have been a model for John Falter’s painting, a figment of Gallico’s imagination, or a composition of several men. He was an every man. He was every soldier who was away from home on Christmas Eve 1943.

He was Bill Schock. 

Falls City’s favorite journalist was a pilot in World War II, stationed at Grafton-Underwood Air Force Base in England. On Christmas Eve, 1943, he was returning from a “milk run” over France, (an unopposed mission that was turned back because of weather). He and his buddies had opened their presents when the gifts had arrived because each man operated on the assumption that he may not be around to do so the following day.

After the mission, Bill and his fellow pilots, co-pilots, navigators, and bombers sat around the lone stove in the barracks and talked about the next mission. No one discussed home. All thoughts were on the war, what would happen next, who would survive. 

“Home was too difficult to discuss,” Bill said in a recent interview. 

“Most of us figured we would never get back there again.”

Those same thoughts prevailed a year later, on Christmas Eve, 1944.  That night, Bill and his fellow airmen were being held 

as prisoners in Stalag Luft I, a P.O.W. camp near Barth, Germany. Bill had been captured when he and his crew had been forced to evacuate their aircraft during a mission over Marienburg, East Prussia.

“We had received Red Cross parcels the day before,” Bill said. “There was canned turkey, candied nuts, plum pudding, and applesauce.  Rather than rationing the parcels like we usually did, we stuffed ourselves the entire day. Then I went to Padre Mitchell’s carol service, and afterward, walked back to my room.”

It was cold in there. No, not cold, freezing. There was no heat. The men were all quiet. They lay on straw-filled burlap sacks atop wooden slats.They stared off into the past—thinking of Christmases prior. They thought of their families and what they would be doing at those precise moments. 

“I and my men were all worried that our families were worried about us,” Bill said. “But I just had to decide that there was no use thinking about home.”

I do remember one moment when all of the ‘kriegies’ in our barracks met in the corridor and started singing very emotional renditions of Christmas carols,” he said. “Silent Night was one of them.”

Across the compound, in one of the other barracks, Silent Night filled the air as well. 

It was there that airman Clair Cline, also a downed pilot, was entertaining his compound with a hand-crafted violin that he had made from bed slats and carpenter’s glue (which he and his fellow P.O.W.s had scraped off of the chairs). 

“As my buddies brooded about home and families, I began playing Silent Night,” he stated, in an article written for Guideposts magazine in January 1997. “As the notes drifted through the barracks, a voice chimed in, then others. Amid the harmony, I heard a different language. ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, alles schläft, Einsam wacht . . .’  An elderly white-haired guard stood in the shadows, his eyes wet with tears.”

Yes, the soldier in John Falter’s painting, and Paul Gallico’s accompanying article could have been anyone, or a compilation of everyone. Private Dill, standing at the foot of Bethlehem. 

First Lieutenant Bill Schock, lying on his bunk in a P.O.W. camp. Or airman Clair Cline, gently drawing his bow across his prized violin. Or even the German guard, whose unfamiliar words filled the cold night air. 

It could have been anyone, because all of them dreamed of the very same thing—a Silent Night, where all was calm, and all was bright.

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