Editor’s Note: Thelma Eckelkamp Kline, who grew up in Washington, daughter of the late Frank and Barbara Eckelkamp and a member of the St. Francis Borgia High School Class of 1950, submitted this story to Senior LifeTimes. Kline now lives in Laurel Springs, N.J.
It was Dec. 24, 1942, in my hometown of Washington, population 6,482.
Life was changing for everyone at that time. We were in our first year of World War II. Most of the young men in our hometown were gone — serving their time in the Armed Forces. The shoe factory in town was busy working overtime to provide shoes for the men in the Army.
I remember being 10 years old that Christmas Eve Day. I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and I told my mom and dad I was too old for dolls, but I really wanted one. I did ask for ice skates, and Daddy told me that he tried to buy ice skates, but because of the war shortages, he couldn’t get them for me.
He wanted to tell me that ahead of time so I wouldn’t be disappointed on Christmas Eve when we opened our Christmas gifts.
We knew everyone in town. All the grownups knew your mother’s maiden name. We rarely saw a stranger in the town. But on that day, Dec. 24, 1942 — 70 years ago — we met a family of five from another small town outside of Chicago, Ill.
I don’t remember their names. This family had a mother, father and three children. The oldest child was a handsome bright boy, about 7 years old. The middle child was a dark-haired girl with bangs wearing coveralls — looking similar to the girl who played Scout in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The baby was a little girl about 15 months old. She had dark blond hair and a cute pudgy face.
The family was traveling along Highway 66 to California, where the father was going to work at a shipyard.
Finally, there was work for everyone.
On their way, the mother, who was pregnant, started to hemorrhage. They stopped at The Diamonds on Route 66. Louis Eckelkamp took over helping them, called an ambulance to rush this mother to St. Francis Hospital in Washington.
The father and the three children followed the ambulance. The pastor of St. Francis Borgia Church, Father Erwin Huntsha, was notified of this family’s plight and he asked for help from the Knights of Columbus.
My dad was grand knight of the Knights of Columbus at that time, so our family became involved. My dad was at work for Union Electric, but he knew he could volunteer my mom’s help for taking care of the children while the father was with the mother at the hospital.
John McLaughlin, who was manager of Union Electric at that time, was able to go to the hospital to bring the kids to our home that Dec. 24 morning.
I still can picture those children coming to our front door. They were frightened and huddling close to each other. The 15-month-old baby was inconsolable, dressed in flannel sleepers with feet attached. She was holding a blanket and I remember she had a soiled diaper.
I loved babies, but that one smelled bad.
John McLaughlin looked relieved as he handed the baby over to my mom’s open arms. Mom was very confident about soothing a troubled child. The children arrived with just their clothes on their backs and a diaper bag with bottles and diapers.
The first thing Mom did was ask big brother and sister to stay with her to distract their baby sister and keep her engaged while Mom changed the diaper. I could not believe how the 7-year-old brother just seemed to know what would make his baby sister laugh.
Mom started barking out commands to my 14-year-old sister Erna and me. My sister had to make egg salad sandwiches for our lunch. My job was to keep the 5-year-old girl occupied. I took her upstairs to my toy closet, and she was immediately attracted to my favorite doll that was given tender loving care and still had her shoes, socks and looked almost as new as when I received her for Christmas two years earlier.
The children seemed to enjoy the lunch. I remember we were able to eat the Christmas cookies that Mom had hidden until that day.
Somehow Mom managed to get the baby to take a nap with her brother staying with her — and he also fell asleep. Mom was on a mission while they were napping. She took all the diapers and the sleeper and the underwear — washed them on the scrub board — and hung them on the radiators to dry. Later she ironed them dry.
No automatic washers and dryers existed then.
When the baby awakened from her nap, Mom had the two girls take a bath together — telling them that their mommy would see them all nice and clean. The 7-year-old wouldn’t take a bath, and Mom whispered to me “He’s embarrassed because he’s not wearing underwear.”
Finally, about 4 p.m., John McLaughlin came by the house to pick up the three children. He told Mom that Joe Lochirco was opening up his summer home (called clubhouse in Washington) getting it heated so the family could stay there during the mother’s convalescence. Arthur and Fred Mauntel and the Droeges were contributing food for their stay.
Mr. McLaughlin told Mom that Fischer’s Garage repaired their family car. He said that the car was in poor condition, and they would not make it to California in that car without his repairs.
I last saw the three children — smelling good and clean — happy to be on their way to see their mommy and daddy — sitting in the back seat of Mr. McLaughlin’s car — the 7-year-old boy holding his baby sister on his lap, and the 5-year-old girl holding my favorite doll on her lap.
I also heard Mr. McLaughlin tell Mom that Santa Claus was visiting the kids at Mr. Lochirco’s place that night. I thought, if I had known that I wouldn’t have given the girl my favorite doll, but it was time for me to grow up.
I never heard my parents talk about that family who came into our life that Christmas Eve Day, or brag about what they did. No one took pictures of the good deeds the town did that day. No one thought they were doing anything exceptional on that busy day before Christmas.
Helping out people who were down and out was just something you did, even if it wasn’t Christmas.
I’m hoping that this family, which was still recovering from The Depression, was able to obtain the American dream of prosperity, a good home and a good education for the kids.
I like to tell the story about my hometown and the good people who lived there in 1942, because if I don’t, no one else is alive to tell the tale
I also like to think that God smiled on that “Little Town of Washington” that Christmas night.