Marines conjure up the ghost of Christmas yet to come

Air Force Master Sgt. Ebenezer Scrooge, in his preredemptive days, shuffled past the kettle outside the Walmart base exchange at Whitehall Air Force Base when a man asked if he'd like to help make provisions for the poor.

"Are there no prisons?" Sgt. Scrooge grumbled.

"They'd rather die," the man said.

"If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population," snarled Scrooge, kicking Tiny Tim and his ukulele right into the gutter. Or was it W.C. Fields giving the boot to Baby LeRoy?

That settles it. No more sardine and guacamole sandwiches before going to bed during the holiday season. My dreams are weird enough when I'm wide awake, although I partly blame The Morning Call for its front-page splash on Wednesday.

The story focused on Salvation Army volunteer Lori Jean Murray ringing a hand bell next to her Christmas kettle outside the Walmart in Whitehall Township, and it reported that collections were down 15 percent, compared to last year.

"Lots of mommies and daddies out of work," Murray was quoted as saying. She knows about tough times, having been a homeless and desperate single mom when the Salvation Army helped her out.

Murray, of Bethlehem, had warm words for shoppers who toss money in her kettle. "The people give and they give," she said, "Even when they don't have, they give."

Nevertheless, collections are down, the story said. Salvation Army Maj. Roger Duperree of the Allentown center felt one reason might be the increased use of credit and debit cards, meaning people have less cash. "It's been a very tough year," he said.

It was too late to nag readers about doing more for this Christmas, but I went to see Duperree anyhow. Despite the meager collections, the center had managed to plan a brighter holiday for 1,750 families around the Lehigh Valley.

Dozens of black garbage bags lined the floor of the center's auditorium, which doubles as a worship center or soup kitchen at other times — each one filled with toys and each with a numbered tag. "Sacks. They're like sacks on Santa's sleigh," Duperree corrected me when I said "bags."

Then I heard yelling from a hallway. Why, I asked a Marine wearing a fancy-pants class-A uniform, are you yelling?

"We're told to," smiled Staff Sgt. Daniel Smith, one of four Marine volunteers from the Allentown Reserve Center, where they are assigned to train reservists.

One Marine would check the number on a slip held by a parent who previously had been screened by Duperree's people and who came to the center to pick up toys for Christmas. Then the Marine would yell that number at the top of his lungs. Another, in the auditorium, then yelled the number as he found the matching bag and brought it to the parent. They sounded like angry drill instructors in "Full Metal Jacket."

I am a former Air Force guy (we airmen and the Marines did not get along especially well in saloons) and I asked one of the yellers, Sgt. David Wright, where the volunteers from the Air Force were.

"You know, we wonder that all the time — on the battlefield, too," laughed Wright, who spent two tours of duty in Iraq. Then he said maybe I shouldn't print that quote.

Too late, I said. It's already in my notebook. Besides, Air Force guys deserve a good swift kick in the rear for letting Marines do all the volunteering at the Salvation Army center. Bah! Humbug!

I often praise the Salvation Army for reasons other than making holidays happier for needy children. I learned in the military and as a journalist that when there is an emergency — from floods in Louisiana to a mine disaster in Schuylkill County — it is the Salvation Army that shows up to help, a point often supported by other former GIs.

So I have a warm spot in my heart for the Salvation Army, especially on Christmas.

We Air Force types, however, failed to get off our duffs to help needy families this Christmas. I hope we find redemption before I get a visit from the ghost of Christmas yet to come — and I bet we can do it without all that confounded yelling.

God bless us, every one.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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