It was Christmas 1967 and our country was in the middle of the Vietnam conflict. Thousands of families had sons and brothers serving their country far from home.
This family was no different as they prepared for Christmas missing their son and brother, Jeff, who was serving as a Marine on the front lines in the jungles of Vietnam. He was the oldest of three brothers and had joined the Marines right out of high school.
For the past 11 months, Jeff was on the front lines, the DMZ, in Vietnam. He had witnessed many of the atrocities of war and his family prayed for his safety daily. After months of deplorable conditions in the jungles of Vietnam, Jeff became ill with a parasite that had entered his body. Not recognizing the effects immediately, he began to lose his strength, eventually losing more than 60 pounds from his healthy 170-pound frame.
The last word his family received was that he was being evacuated to a military hospital ship to find out what was causing the condition and to receive treatment. It appeared that his condition would take several months to stabilize. His parents continued to pray for his speedy recovery as they prepared for this Christmas holiday with their other five children.
Three days before Christmas, the telephone rang and the youngest of the three brothers, 11-year-old Jon, answered the phone. On the other end of the line was his older brother Jeff. Jon’s heart pounded with excitement. He asked Jon not to say anything to the rest of the family, but to have Jess, who was one year younger than Jeff, call him as soon as he got home and gave Jon the phone number. Jon was true to his brother’s request and kept the secret and gave the number to Jess.
When Jess called the number, he learned that Jeff had just arrived at a military hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, not far from their home in northern Arkansas, and had received permission to go home for the holidays. Jess made arrangements to pick him up and bring him home.
Jess confided in Jon what he was going to do. He told him it was his duty not to tell the family what was going to happen but to get them prepared for a special Christmas surprise they would never forget. What a burden this was for an 11-year-old boy to carry. His excitement was hard to contain, but Jon knew he must be true to his word to complete the Christmas surprise.
The family was told that a special gift would be revealed on Christmas Eve as Jess had gone to pick up the gift. All day long, Jon’s three sisters and parents were trying to guess what the Christmas surprise would be. There were guesses of a new puppy or kitten or other gifts that they had dreamed of. The excitement level was so high and Jon could hardly contain himself, as he was so excited to see his Marine brother. Jess arrived home and asked Jon to take the family into the hallway while he got the surprise ready. Jon stood guard as Jess set up the family room with a big box to conceal the much-anticipated surprise. Jess was ready, and Jon escorted the family in.
Just as Jess got ready to open the box, Jeff in his military uniform walked into the room. In disbelief, everyone screamed with joys of happiness, and tears streamed down everyone’s face. Mother got the first hug, which seemed like an eternity, as she held her hero son in her arms. This was the best Christmas gift ever as a son separated by war from his family was reunited with those he loved and who loved him.
Shining tinsel and brightly colored packages could not overpower the love and joy this family felt with this special Christmas surprise. This story has special meaning to me, not only because it reflects the true meaning and purpose of the season, but because I was the 11-year-old brother who had to keep this special Christmas surprise secret for what seemed like forever.
This memory was so overwhelming to me that it has been imprinted in my mind as one of the happiest Christmastimes of my entire life and one that I will never forget. I have no recollection of what presents I got that Christmas, but I do have recollection of what gift I received.
Editor's note: For more than 100 years, the Deseret News has published original Christmas stories, eventually starting what is known as its annual "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest. This is the first of seven stories to be highlighted this holiday season.