Originally created 12/25/96

Friends look for season's meaning



The two silver-haired sat in their cars across from each other in the parking lot and slowly rolled down their windows.

"Wayne?"

"John?"

Two words "that spanned 50 years right there," John Howar said, laughing, as he sat at a kitchen table strewn with black-and-white photographs of skinny kids in bulky Army uniforms. He hadn't seen Wayne Lethgo of Martinez since the two left officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1947. But this year, they are spending Christmas together.

At the airport, at the bus terminal, people carrying bags dropped them to hug or nervously scanned the onrushing crowd for familiar faces, looking for some form of family to come home to for Christmas.

For Mr. Howar, 69, of Irondale, Ala., it would have been a difficult Christmas after his wife of 45 years died earlier this year. Instead, he is coming home to his military family, to a man whose career shadowed his own across the world, yet whom he never met again until Tuesday.

In Korea in 1950, when Mr. Howar and his unit were battling for their lives after landing at Pusan, Mr. Lethgo, 67, and his buddies were 10 miles away in a valley nearly being overrun by the enemy.

When Mr. Howar was wounded a few months later, he was sent to Kyoto, Japan, where he met a woman and married. Had he been sent to the other Army hospital in Osaka, he might have met Mr. Lethgo's wife, who was a volunteer there. Later in the mid-1960s, they were stationed a couple of hours apart in Germany.

Each would spend six Christmases away from family during his military career. At those times, Christmas was just another day in the Army, Mr. Howar said.

"We put duty right at the top of the list," Mr. Howar said.

"Well, we didn't have a lot of choice," Mr. Lethgo said.

"That's why we put it at the top of the list," Mr. Howar replied.

It wasn't until a classmate started organizing a reunion of the 1947 class that Mr. Lethgo even knew what happened to Mr. Howar, and learned of his loss, a loss he has been through himself. A Christmas card and a phone call later, Mr. Lethgo was in the parking lot to guide Mr. Howar home.

"It's been very difficult for me," Mr. Howar said quietly. "Out of the kindness of their hearts, they recognize the situation as being almost dangerous. And we're military, and that's a strong calling card."

"I told him he should not be alone at Christmas," Mr. Lethgo said. "I would think, had the shoe been on the other foot ..."

"The answer is yes," Mr. Howar said.

For other families, the demands of the military have meant long gaps between Christmases and learning to cherish the ones they have. Lorna Sackett, 26, learned that Tuesday when she walked out of the gate at Bush Field and bent down to hug her niece, Marissa, 7, who grabbed her hand and wouldn't let go.

Last year was the first time Ms. Sackett met Marissa or had seen her sister, Mary Lyons, for 12 years, as Mary's husband traveled around the world with the military.

On Tuesday night, they took down their stockings and wrote out lists of what they are thankful for, then passed the stockings to other members of the family to read aloud, a new tradition they hope to continue each year.

That sense of family is easier to find for Matthew and Kimberly King of Aiken, even if it means having to fly family in from Detroit and recreate the traditions they remember. Sitting with her daughter, Heather, 5, on her lap in the lounge of Bush Field, Mrs. King thought back to past Christmas traditions and came up with pirogis. The little potato- or cheese-stuffed dumplings had been a tradition in her Polish-American family, but it was always Aunt Jerri who made them, while scores of kids and relatives milled about the house. Tuesday night was her first try.

"Rolling out the dough is probably the hard part," she said, admitting she may have to call her aunt for pointers. Though it will just be her sister, Melanie, who is flying in to join the family this year, she and her husband are hoping to recreate those extended family Christmases they fear may be a thing of the past.

"It used to seem like a hassle getting everybody together," Mr. King said. "But now you miss it."