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The Children of Winter

William Edelen

Winter is blowing into Afghanistan. A very, very cold winter that defeated the Russians. Photographs from newspapers and magazines and television pictures are now showing the abandoned children huddling in snow to keep warm. Recent pictures from the Salang Tunnel, being used today by hundreds fleeing are enough to break your heart. I sit in my warm study...and close my eyes...and my mind becomes flooded with memories of another war with other children.

Christmas in Korea in 1951 with the children of winter and the profound effect it had upon my life.

I cannot tell you what a joy it is to allow these experiences to flood back into my mind...and to write them down to share with you in this season.

I was there again flying as an aircraft commander of a Marine Corps transport plane, a DC-3...the "gooney bird" as we called it. We had the responsibility of flying wounded evacuation. One of the most famous evacuation sites was a river bottom of hard packed sand, called Inje. We would fly up the canyon, only a hundred feet or so above the river, land on the hard packed sand, pick up the wounded, turn the plane around and take off again. The wounded were brought to us in the helicopters. The blood was not even dry on some of them. There was life and death in the more tragic dimensions.

The armies of North Korea were pushing south as if they were a mighty tidal wave, sweeping everything before it, including South Korean armies and civilians. The major southern city was Pusan at the tip of South Korea.

During this mass migration south it was estimated that the population of Pusan increased 10 to 12 times within a 30 to 60 day period. Can you imagine that in your own city? People were "existing" in cardboard box shacks, scraps of wood, clothing and whatever they could find to protect them from the weather.

During this migration, children were abandoned for many reasons. Parents became lost or were killed. Children were deserted due to the desperation of the mother, father or relative. For that reason it was estimated that there were about 9000 starving ... freezing, lost children in the Pusan and surrounding areas.

It is cold in the winter in Korea. Very cold. Temperatures of zero and sub-zero are common. I would see children going through garbage cans like rats. I would drive my Jeep down the road (all cuddled up in my nice Marine corps down coat) and I would look in the ditches at the side of the road and see bodies ... frozen bodies. They could be 3 years old or 10 years old. I would pass them still alive, walking barefoot with a gunny sack for dress or shirt ... bones showing ... skin purple. You could become calloused to it. Many did.

It became impossible for me to get the children out of my mind and emotions. Christmas was not far off and it was very cold. I wrote a two page letter to the very liberal Methodist church that I had grown up with in downtown Oklahoma City outlining the plight of the children. My letter was given to both major newspapers in Oklahoma City. The Senior Minister of the church used the letter as a text for his sermon. In the letter I asked for money and clothing to be sent to the Chaplain of my air base where I could start distributing it with the help of some Marine corps friends. Several tons of clothing arrived, literally.

Scattered around the countryside would be little one room shacks ... shacks they called "orphanages." Each building would have 25 to 75 children huddling together to keep warm. We would drive around in our Jeeps taking the boxes of clothing and passing them out to the children. You cannot imagine the faces of those children, the faces of joy and delight.

Now ... I want you to picture this scene.

We are in a room. I call it a room, although you could see daylight through the boards. We are surrounded by children. We are opening a box of clothing...and right on top is a USED MINK COAT ... a used Mink coat from America for a freezing Korean child. The contrast was beyond all known adjectives.

An older Korean girl came forward ... maybe 10 or 11 years old ... Her eyes were wide in wonder staring at this beautiful coat ... this used mink that was so gorgeous on that winter day. It was beyond fantasy for that young, tragic life. And as she slid her bone-thin arms into that mink ... and hugged it close around her ... tears rolled down her purple cheeks.

You do not forget a scene like that ... ever. It is imprinted on your mind forever. It is burned into your consciousness and into your sub-consciousness.

I am sure you will have no trouble understanding why that was the most memorable and joyful Christmas and Solstice season of my entire life.

We are in this Christmas season, you and I, with a roof over our head and with a full stomach (much too full) ... covered with warm clothing and surrounded by human beings who care for us.  Believe me, if that was all there was under the tree, just a note reminding us of that, it would be more than enough cause of joy.

"If I have stopped only ONE heart from breaking, I shall not have lived in vain." wrote Emily Dickinson.

In this Christmas and Solstice season and throughout the coming year may our hearts be open for that one other heart that we might keep from breaking ... and then this season will not have come ... and gone ... in vain.