Despite the monumental problems we face as a nation, the Christmas season can bring to each of us a profound sense of eternal peace and gratitude along with an opportunity for reflection on the many wonderful people who touch our lives. During this time of year, we tend to reflect more than at any other on gratuitous acts of charity by people of good will that reassure us and give us hope for a better world. We each are blessed by such memories and experiences. I here share a few of them from my own family that I hope will bring the spirit of the season to you, as they always do for me.
Greg Barsanti. A boy in his early teens in late 1950’s Chicago, Greg Barsanti was fatherless and worked with his brothers doing painting jobs to help support his widowed mom and her large family, including among his siblings an autistic brother. He was a popular boy with many friends. Unfortunately, the group he associated with one evening were far from models of civility and morality. A few in the group broke into a barbershop after hours and stole money from the cash register. Barsanti was there, although not the instigator. The crime was reported in local newspapers, and the owner of the barbershop was devastated because he could not afford the loss. Barsanti read the newspaper accounts but was fearful at the time that if he came forward he might be arrested. The fact of the crime gnawed at him year after year. Finally, well over a decade later, he decided to make things right. The barbershop had remained in business and the owner was the very same man robbed years before. Barsanti entered the barbershop on a busy day and discretely left a package containing all of the money that had been taken plus interest along with an anonymous note. The note contained an apology and an expression of hope that in some way repaying the debt plus interest years after the crime would recompense the barber and help make amends for the crime. Barsanti went on to have a family of his own but died prematurely of an aortal aneurism. He was possessed of great compassion, a redemptive spirit, and unending kindness.
Henry Kaminski. Henry Kaminski was an idiot savant. He loved numbers. Upon meeting a person for the first time, he would ask the person’s age and then mentally calculate their date of birth. He would also ask their street address. Upon hearing that information the first time, he would remember it for a lifetime. Kaminski liked the repetitious movement of the swings at Walker’s playground in Brockton, Massachusetts, and would swing there for hours. He met a boy there once named Ernie Emord and, as was Kaminski’s custom, asked Emord the date of his birth and the address of his residence. Upon hearing the information, Henry firmly locked it in his mind, reciting: “Ernie Emord, born August 3, 1926; lives at 33 Waldo Street.”
In 1936, at age ten, Ernie Emord made his way to Walker’s playground in Brockton, Massachusetts, hoping to join other boys in a game of baseball. At the time, Kaminski, who was about 20 but severely mentally challenged such that he normally associated with much younger children, was on the swings surrounded by a group of teenagers who were taunting him, cruelly making fun of his mannerisms, accent, and disability. Kaminski was in considerable distress and no boy in the park came to his aid. But upon seeing Kaminski mistreated in this way, young Ernie Emord could not stand by. He pushed his way through the crowd of boys, some younger and some older than he, stood next to Kaminski, put his arm around him, and then said to all present in a strong and clear voice: “If you have a problem with Henry, you will have to deal with me. I will deck any of you who lays a hand on him. Henry Kaminski is my best friend.” The boys looked at Ernie, realized that he was dead serious, and then dispersed. Kaminski was beside himself with delight. From that point forward whenever he saw Ernie Emord he would say not just “Ernie Emord, born August 3, 1926; lives at 33 Waldo Street” but also “Ernie Emord is my best friend.”
Katie Reardon Emord. Katie Reardon Emord socialized with the Irish ladies of Brockton, Massachusetts. She loved the Irish. Her husband, Vernon Emord, was a policeman. Repeatedly he would hear his wife tell others that she was Irish. It grated on him because, in fact, Katie Reardon Emord was born in Pontypridd, Wales, not in Ireland. One day he reproved her tenderly, saying, “Katie, you are not Irish. You were born in Wales.” She replied: “Well Jesus was born in a stable but that didn’t make him a horse.” That one liner silenced the critics. From that point forward Katie would not be questioned for her insistence that she was Irish. In an ironic twist, years later it was discovered that the Reardons of Pontypridd, Wales were in fact émigrés from Ireland. So, indeed, Katie really was Irish.
The girl no one would ask to the dance. When Jonathan Emord was a boy, the junior high school that he attended announced a dance. Everyone was expected to attend. His father, Ernie Emord, inquired who his son would ask. He then gave Jonathan a recommendation. Ernie said, “Why not ask a girl to the dance that no other boy will invite? It is nothing but a dance to you, my son, but for that girl it will be everything in the world.” Torn, Jonathan asked no girl to the dance but attended as was required (and, to his chagrin, danced as was required). Thirty years later in conducting research about his father, Jonathan discovered something that connected the event with one that occurred decades before.
With the Second World War looming and bigotry, particularly against Asian Americans, reaching a fever pitch, a Chinese girl named Mae Chin who attended Brockton High School was shunned by others. A big school dance was planned. Ernie Emord was considered among the most eligible and handsome young men in the class. No girl in the school would likely turn down an invitation from him. Ernie was a unique person, however. He was deeply conscientious. He cared greatly for the underdog, and he despised injustice. The dance meant little to him, but he knew that the girls valued it greatly and would talk among themselves day after day about going to the affair and with whom they would go. He knew Mae Chin would receive no invitation to the dance. Without an invitation, she would remain home that night sorrowful that she was excluded. The thought of any girl being excluded troubled Ernie greatly. When the time for the dance approached, Ernie walked to Mae Chin’s home, knocked on the door, and when Mae Chin appeared, he invited her to be his date. She was overwhelmed and gladly accepted the invitation. The dance meant little to Ernie but he knew it meant the world to Mae Chin. A popular boy, Ernie’s generous heart helped bring about a change in the hearts of others. Word of Ernie’s choice of a date for the dance spread among the teenage girls. Suddenly girls who had never before spoken to Mae Chin engaged her in conversation.
The woman saved from rape. A woman came to the door and was greeted by my grandmother Katie Emord. She was familiar to my grandmother and was invited in for tea. When she entered the kitchen, she was introduced to me as a friend of my father’s and then sat down at the kitchen table. After a bit of polite conversation, she looked my grandmother squarely in the eye and asked with some trepidation, “Do you think he is old enough to hear the story, Mrs. Emord?” Katie hesitated for a moment. “I think so,” she said. And so the woman who I just me told me, a boy of 12, of a horrible and wonderful day in 1938 at the Colonial Theater in Brockton, Massachusetts.
She spoke with hesitation and with occasional tears but related the whole story. She had just finished watching a movie at the theater, she said, and was walking down by the stage exit on her way out when suddenly a large man leapt upon her, forcing her to the ground and attempting to rape her. She could not stop the man. She screamed but he muffled her cries. Then, suddenly, from out of nowhere a teenage boy jumped on top of the large man, flipped him over, and began pummeling him with powerful, precision blows to the head in a seemingly endless barrage. The man was knocked unconscious by the boy and lay a pool of his own blood. The boy helped the woman to her feet and inquired about her condition. She was bruised but not seriously injured. The police were summoned and arrived quickly to arrest the man and take him to prison. “That boy,” said the woman, “saved me from a rape. That boy,” she said, “was your father.” “I will never forget what your father did for me,” she continued and then she wept silently as my grandmother provided her with a hankerchief.
Pat Demers. Pat Demers was a stable mate of my father’s when the two boxed professionally in Brockton, Massachusetts. Pat fought many fights and suffered various related medical conditions from the injuries he sustained, injuries that proved incapacitating. My father loved Pat Demers. Years after they had been apart, my father having served in the military overseas, he returned to Brockton and asked where he might find Pat. He was told he would find Demers at a retirement home in Brockton. Ernie was surprised because he and Pat were of comparable ages and neither was old enough to go to a retirement home. Ernie entered the retirement home and found Pat’s room. Pat looked so different to him. Pat was largely disabled and spoke with a thick tongue that boxers refer to as being “punch drunk.” He was destitute with no family members left to help him pay for care. The sight of Pat, who had once been so strong and beautiful, in a disheveled state and poverty stricken shocked my father to his core, but he did not let on to Pat how he felt. He reminisced with Pat about their friends and experiences. He then hugged him, and before he left reached into his bill fold and removed from it every dollar he had. He put the money in Pat’s pocket. “You need this more than I do,” he said. “I wish I had more to give you.” Pat smiled with gratitude but was ashamed. “I love you, Pat,” my father said, and then left. Pat died a short time thereafter.
Racist Quartermaster. It was 1965, and Ernie Emord had just been reassigned from Alconbury Royal Air Force Base (Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom) to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois where he received a promotion to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the General. His family would soon occupy quarters on the base, and Emord reported to the base quartermaster for an assigned residence. The quartermaster looked at Emord and said, “I have one place available but I think you will want to wait to get another.” “Why is that?” asked Emord. “Because there is a black family in the house next door,” said the quartermaster. Without missing a beat, Emord (who happened to be married to Jeanette Emord, a Caucasian), said, “That’s perfect. My wife is black.” The stunned quartermaster turned pale and then quickly assigned the Emord family to the residence next to the black family.
Time. Jonathan Emord was 11. A somewhat older teenage boy repeatedly said to Emord that he wanted to fight him. Emord was fearful that the older boy, who was much bigger and stronger, would pulverize him, so, very much embarrassed at his fear, he turned to his father, a professional boxer, for advice. “Don’t worry, my son,” said Ernie Emord with a smile, “the worst that can happen is that he will kill you, and that’s not that bad.” Jonathan thought about that for a moment and realized the humor had an underlying meaning. It was not so bad to lose a fight, probably worse to be afraid of defending yourself. Ernie Emord continued, “Invite the boy over to the house and tell him I want to schedule the fight.” I did just that. The boy arrived and my father talked to us both. “I think its fine that you want to fight my son, and my son is willing to do it, but I have concerns that rules be followed. You aren’t opposed to following rules, are you?” he asked the older boy. The boy answered hesitatingly, “I guess not.” “Good,” said Ernie Emord, “I will arrange a boxing ring in the back yard. I will be the referee. When I say time, everyone must stop, because I will keep the time.
If anyone does not abide by my rules, they will have to deal with me. Got it?” We both nodded our heads. The day arrived for the fight. In the back yard my father set up an impromptu ring. The bigger boy came in and my father wrapped his hands and put boxing gloves on him. He did the same for me. “Remember,” he said, “when I say time you must stop boxing.” “Okay” we said. The fight was on. At the start, the bigger boy got the better of me, but just as he began to land a few significant blows, my father said, “Time.” The older boy looked puzzled. “I thought you said that these were three minute rounds?” he asked. My father looked at him and said, “You agreed that I would be the time keeper; do you want to fight with me or my son?” The boy quickly said, “Your son.” Then the fight was on again. The time remained rather short for the first several rounds. At first the boy’s arms were so much longer than my own, that I could not get a punch in edgewise. Then, as the rounds wore on, he started to drop his guard, and when he did I started landing punches. My punches did not appear to hurt him, but I was landing them nonetheless. As long as I landed punches, there was no call of “time.” Then, suddenly, after a few rounds of me landing punches, my father said we had reached the last round.
With the fight over, my father said, “based on the number of punches landed, it is clear to me that my son Finnegan has won this fight.” The older boy was incredulous. “That’s not fair,” he said, holding back tears. “And it is not fair for you to pick on a boy a lot younger than you are,” Ernie Emord responded. “Let it be a lesson to you,” Emord continued. “If you ever again pick on a boy that much younger than you, and I hear about it, I will ask you to invite your father over to discuss the matter, and I will deck him right in front of you,” he said. “Until then, I will be certain to let the other boys know that my son beat you in this fight, and I do not want to hear you complain about the fight. Got it?” “Yessir,” said the older boy.
You can watch as ‘Yella’ eats the boy. On Christmas day 1971, Santa brought Jonathan Emord, age 10, a beautiful yellow ten speed bike. Jonathan put the bike on the front porch. The next day, it was stolen. Mortified, Jonathan apologized to his father for not taking better care of the bike. I should have kept it inside or locked it to a pole, I told him. “Don’t worry, my son,” he said. “We are going to find that bike.” I could not imagine how. There were hundreds of children in the neighborhood, and it would be all but impossible to find the culprit. That day my father left the house with our golden Labrador retriever, named “yella.” Yella was an English lab (a grandson of “Old Yella” in the original English production of the film) and was as gentle and kind as they come.
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With the dog on a leash, Ernie proceeded to talk to dozens of kids in the neighborhood. He told each one the same story. “If you tell me which boy stole my son’s bike, I will let you watch as I tear that boy into little pieces and then feed each piece to my dog. What do you think of that?” Horrified, the children would agree to the deal and then my father would tell them where he lived and invite them over as soon as they had a name for him. Each day over the next few days my father would take the dog for a walk looking for new kids to inform. One morning about a week later when I left the house to go play with friends I saw on the porch exactly where it had been before that beautiful ten speed bike.
The richness of our lives is defined not by the wealth we possess, not by the status we attain, but by the people we touch. I have been blessed to be surrounded by people of remarkable character, integrity, and love. In the stories of their lives I find the true spirit of Christmas and am forever grateful for each memory.
© 2011 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved