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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 24, 2004

'Soldiers' of salvation

 •  Merry Kurisumasu, Mama

By Richard Compson Sater
Special to The Advertiser

The Honolulu Advertiser Holiday Fiction Contest, an annual celebration of literature and the season, this year drew 178 entries. Writers ranged from keiki to grandparents, and entries came in the form of poetry, prose and even the odd illustrated manuscript.

Our winner is Maj. Richard Compson Sater, an Air Force Reservist with 18 years in the military. He returned from seven months of duty in Afghanistan in April and was assigned to Pacific Air Forces at Hickam Air Force Base as public affairs officer in May. He has taught English at a college level and has been an announcer for public radio as well as a journalist, salesman and bartender. His home of record is Millfield, Ohio. His interests include old movies, music, travel and good literature, and, he writes, he intends to be a writer when he grows up.


John T. Valles • The Honolulu Advertiser

He might have been a figure in a snow globe, violently shaken so that the flakes whirled inside, frantic. Skinny and severe as a pocketknife and folded hard against the frigid night, he shivered under the pale gleam of the street lamp overhead.

The storm had caught him unprepared and improperly dressed for his task: guarding a red kettle chained to a tripod, a hundred yards from the mall entrance, this last night before Christmas.

Instead of ringing a bell — The Salvation Army collection-pot tradition — he had rigged a portable cassette player to do it for him. At his feet, the volume turned up high, the tape deck rang out a monotonous jingle louder than the real thing could be.

He'd recorded the cassette partly as a joke, because he thought the gimmick might give him a bit of an edge. All things being equal, it might have. But not on a night like this. The wind howled and he was of a mind to howl right back, railing against the season in general and himself in particular.

Across the parking lot, he watched the National Bank sign blink on and off, alternating time with temperature. Since he'd come on duty, he'd watched the mercury slide nearly 10 degrees, lodging in the mid-20s as the 8 o'clock hour crawled slowly past.

A carpet of white covered the asphalt, its luxurious pile thickening by the minute.

"Should have brought a hat," he muttered to himself. "Should have brought some gloves, just in case.

"It's winter, stupid."

But he'd contracted to remain at his post until just past 9 when the stores closed, and his word was his word. So there he stood, soldiering.

The holiday season generally shamed him into wanting to help those less fortunate than himself. Every year, come Thanksgiving, he volunteered a night or two each week to man one of the kettles in town. The harried staff at The Salvation Army headquarters had come to recognize him; the local captain and major seemed grateful for his persistence (though he studiously resisted their urging that he enlist).

By now the annual bell-ringing was habit, but it no longer satisfied the unexplained hunger he felt. He couldn't believe, by his own reason or spirit, that his once-a-year goodwill gesture would erase his other sins, but he didn't know what else he might do to quiet the war cry. Why, as he grew older, did he seem more sullen and resentful of the harnesses of his life?

What am I doing here? I have no charity, he thought, bitter. He shut his eyes to the sting of wind.

"Good heavens!"

A young woman's voice yanked him from his musings, and he opened his eyes to see her — and blinked in some disbelief. Even dressed against the cold, she appeared unspeakably beautiful, or else the dim light was unspeakably kind. She was burdened with last-minute shopping bags and an additional armful: a small child.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" the woman said to him. "Why don't you stand in the entryway of the mall?"

He shook his head. "Management said no. New policy or something. No soliciting of any kind. Too confrontational for the customers." He'd been taken aback by such a position, but the mall manager would not be moved — and so they'd negotiated this as a pale compromise.

"I think that's just despicable," the woman said. She peered into the kettle with its thin layer of coins and bills. "You're not doing very well, are you?"

"Nope," he said. For her sake, he wished he had done better. He wanted her to think well of him. But frantic shoppers had other things on their mind this night.

She suddenly caught sight of the cassette player at his feet, still testifying with its tape of the monotonous tinkling bell. And she laughed, like music. "Your idea?"

He nodded, sheepish. "Just lazy, I guess."

She shook her head. "Oh, no. It's brilliant."

Carefully, she set down her bags, balancing the child, but suddenly it wanted to get down or get up or just move, and finally, she surrendered and pushed the child at the man, with "Here, hang on to him just for a minute, would you please? While I get my purse."

Startled (and with no other choice), he accepted the bundle.

He had never held a baby before and wasn't quite sure how to do it. He didn't want to hurt it, so he gripped its sides and held it away from him, as if it were a basketball or bundle of laundry.

The child might have been a year old or more or less; the man couldn't tell. Sniffling from the cold, nose running, the child held a half-eaten candy cane in a sticky, mittened hand. And these two strangers stared at each other, solemn, equally surprised at this turn of events.

The woman found her pocketbook buried in one of the bags and produced a zippered coin purse, fat with change. She dumped the contents into his kettle. "Not much, I'm afraid," she said. "Maybe $3 or $4, though. It's just about all I've got left."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"You're welcome. My dad always told me never to pass a kettle without putting in something for the less fortunate. And you," she said, ferocious, a finger to his chest for emphasis, "deserve some kind of campaign medal for being out on a night like this." She paused. "Where on earth is your hat?"

He shook his head. "Didn't think to bring one."


He shook his head again.

"Don't you listen to the weather forecast? They've been warning us about this storm for the last two days. We're supposed to get six or seven inches of snow tonight."

Under her third degree, he hung his head. In his hands, the baby gurgled and kicked, merry as holidays were supposed to be, unconcerned.

"Honestly," she said more to herself than to him as she rummaged again in her shopping bags. After a minute's search, she pulled out a flat, narrow box and handed it to him. "Here," she said. With something like relief, he handed over the child in exchange. "I think you'll appreciate these more than my husband will, so you take them."

He opened the box and found, wrapped in white tissue paper, a pair of dark leather gloves. He started to say no, thanks, he couldn't; but he caught her eyes, shining, and he shut his mouth. A gift requires two, and one must receive.

"I hope they fit," she said.

He pulled one on and then the other. Lined with fur, soft, warm, the gloves were a little large; suddenly, he felt like a kid again, when Christmas presents were for growing into. And he was grateful for her impulse, overwhelmed by her generosity to a stranger.

"They're fine," he said. "They certainly are. Thanks." He summoned an uncertain grin, rusty for lack of use.

"Merry Christmas, then," she said.

"And the same to you, ma'am."

He helped her pick up her bags, one at a time, and balance her load. He wanted to say something more than thanks, but he could not find the words. With a cheerful goodbye, she stepped off in the direction of her car. In seconds, she vanished into the swirling white.

Even as the snow raged harder, his own storm seemed to subside, as if all were suddenly calm, and all bright.

When the bank clock read a quarter past 9, he turned off the cassette player. Without a second thought, he took out his wallet and emptied it into the kettle too, then folded up the tripod and loaded all of it in the trunk of his car.

Gingerly, he nosed the vehicle out of the slick parking lot, surprised to find himself — at least for now — purchased and won, whistling an old carol, still grinning.

• • •

Our judges for the annual Honolulu Advertiser Holiday Fiction Contest included assistant features editor Wanda Adams, who made the first cut and served as a tie-breaker judge. Final judges were features editor Elizabeth Kieszkowski; writer, artist and Advertiser columnist James Rumford of Manoa; and publisher Jane Gillespie, who founded the Beachhouse press, which publishes children's fiction in Hawai'i.

In addition to our winner, Maj. Richard Compson Sater, this year we named a runner-up for the first time. She is Janet Shitabata of Ho-nolulu, whose story, "Merry Kurisimasu, Mama," is about an immigrant family's efforts to afford a holiday celebration and how they come to understand its spirit. Shitabata said the win encourages her to continue writing — which is just what we intend with a contest like this one. You can see her entry here.

Sater wins a $100 award from The Advertiser.

In addition, Sater receives a $100 dining certificate to L'Uraku; Shitabata gets a $50 dining certificate.

L'Uraku, the contemporary Euro-Japanese restaurant on Kapi'olani Boulevard near Pi'ikoi, served as prize sponsor for the Holiday Fiction Contest, donating first-place and runner-up gift certificates.

The restaurant is known for good food in a comfortable atmosphere, with choices for different ages and tastes. A popular feature at L'Uraku is the Weekender Lunch, served on Saturdays, Sundays and select holidays: $16 for a four-course menu. Also praised are the contemporary kaiseki dinners — multicourse dinners held periodically that interpret the classic seasonal Japanese menu in a nouveau manner.

L'Uraku's kitchen is under the direction of sous chef Edison Ching and kitchen manager Kawika Cahill. L'Uraku is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Reservations: 955-0552.