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The Christmas Star: Italy, 1943

By Stan Scislowski

From the author of NOT ALL OF US WERE BRAVE about the 5th Canadian Armoured Division

At midnight we were on the move again, with at least five hours march yet to go. If we thought the going had been tough on the first half of the march, we were soon to find out by comparison with the last half, we had up till now, taken only a leisurely stroll through the park.

Marching in daylight is so much easier than any night march. In daylight a man can see where he’s going and rarely, if ever will  run up the backside of the man ahead, tread on his heels, stumble on a rock, or make a misstep. A night march, on the other hand, almost without fail, ends up being a test of one’s patience and endurance—mainly patience. As always is the case when this happens, the night resounds to the angry  shouts of men cursing each other for one reason or another. Such was the case on this particular night.  We were so vocal, that if it had gone like this at the front, the enemy would have heard us coming from 10 miles away.

After two hours of fighting our way through a scrubland wilderness, we found ourselves slogging along another bone-dry riverbed. Fortunately for us the stones in this one weren’t quite as large as the rocks we’d been tripping and stumbling over earlier. After about two hours of groping our way through the inky darkness, the column entered a deep cleft in a mountainside, a cleft so deep and so narrow we could just barely make out the starlit sky above us.

Through this cleft ran a trickle of water bubbling over a base of rounded stones. After  a couple more hours of groping and stumbling and cursing our way through the subterranean passage we were pretty well worn out. Legs felt like rubber not muscle and bone, while ankles throbbed from the punishment of stepping on the smooth stones of the watercourse. Shoulders ached under the irritation and pressure of webbing, while the inside of our thighs were rubbed raw by the coarse, woolen khaki of our trousers. As the hours dragged on, we kept going and going and going till I thought we’d never stop. I couldn’t see us being in any condition for any simulated assault of a hilltop, come daybreak.

Although I've never been a devout churchgoer and hardly ever uttered a prayer except in a rude and unpracticed way, a religious feeling swept over me in the two hours before first light. Straight ahead in the narrow segment of southern sky visible in the great cleft in the mountain we were slogging our way through, my eyes locked onto a bright, twinkling star. Had it not been only two days before Christmas I would not have thought anything about it.

On this occasion, however, being so close to Christmas I got to thinking about the night when Jesus was born in the manger at Bethlehem and how the three wise men traversing through the cold desert night by camel were guided by a star to where the Christ child lay. So, I fixed my eyes on that star, and all through the last leg of our trek I never took my eye off it.  My thoughts on that night of nights focused on the holy birth. And, would you believe it? I no longer felt weary to the point of dropping?  Rather, I  felt strong and fresh enough to go another three hours. Just concentrating my thoughts on that holy night of close to 2000 years ago, and keeping my eyes on the star had a remarkable effect on me.

Strange, but true!      


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