- Van Gogh cuts off his ear
- Rosa Parks gets arrested
- Rock group Led Zeppelin disbands
- The national flag of Canada becomes the only world-flag with a leaf
- The Simpsons television show debuts
- The Endangered Species Act goes into American law
- Flight 19 disappears in the Bermuda Triangle
- The infamous ‘chad’ debate is resolved, designating George W Bush as president.
- Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ performed for the first time
- Earthquakes in Hengchun (2006), Indian Ocean (2004) and Bam (2003) happen on the same calendar day.
- John Lennon murdered in front of his NYC home
- Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate re-opens, unifying East and West Germany
- Small pox declared ‘completely eradicated from nature’
- George Washington crosses the Delaware River
- ---and, one that makes me smile – Edward VIII abdicated the royal throne for his American Sweetheart, Wallis Simpson.
However, of these and the many other worldwide events that did not make this list, the one that best defines the month of December for me is the one event that affected me the most.
1976. The burning of the Keetch farmhouse.
I remember the day well. Our sixth grade class was all a-buzz. It was Friday, December 17 and, within four hours, our official Christmas party would start. It was snowing outside, Christmas vacation was just around the corner, and there was not a single problem in my 12-year-old world.
Until 9:45 that morning.
The crackle of the intercom box alerted the classroom that Joe Keetch was to be sent to the office. A chorus of hushed sniggers and “awww – you’re in trouble” washed over us fidgety students and instantly turned into groans as Mrs. Chappa felt it was important to assign us an extra page of fractions.
As I watched my good friend and next-door neighbor (the nearest one by a quarer of a mile) trek off to the office, I wondered what was going on. Joe was not one to cause trouble. On the contrary, he was easy going, blended in with the crowd, and never crossed anyone. In fact, he was the type who always tried too hard for people to like him.
The mystery would grow deeper as, within fifteen minutes, Joe returned, his head slunk down as he walked into the coat room and returned with his jacket and boots. Mrs. Cadieux, who accompanied Joe back to the classroom, motioned for Mrs. Chappa. After a brief, whispered conference, our teacher nodded, went over to the class Christmas tree, picked out Joe’s ‘secret Santa gift, a sock full of candy and her gift to him. When he looked up, his expression was blank and his eyes red and wet with tears. He was ushered out of the classroom. This time, our young voices rang out our confusion, shouting out ‘bye’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’
When the door closed behind our teacher, we ran to the windows and watched as she walked Joe out to Deputy Benac’s police car. His younger brothers, Duncan and Larry-Kevin, were already waiting for him inside. Mrs. Chappa gave our classmate a hug and then wrapped her arms back around her plump frame, trying to keep some warmth in her body. She watched the car take off, turned, and headed back to the classroom. We, of course, scrambled back to our seats, noses down and pencils scribbling, sneaking sideways looks at our tablemates.
It was after our first recess Mrs. Chappa decided to tell us what had happened.
“Joe’s home caught on fire this morning. There is nothing left.”
A collective gasp went through our class. Since I was his nextdoor neighbor, I knew his Dad was a farmer and his mom stayed at home with two of his little brothers. “Did everyone make it out? Was it just the house or the barn too?”
Mrs. Chappa smiled. “Everyone is fine. I don’t know about the barn.”
Other questions flew. “What started it?” “Did they have a place to stay?” And, the big one on every student’s mind – “What will they do for Christmas?”
“The firemen say it was faulty Christmas lights. I think they will be staying at a hotel until after the holidays, and then the five brothers will be split up between relatives. As for Christmas, I don’t know what they will do.”
Needless to say, this had put a damper on the classroom Christmas cheer.
By lunchtime, the Keetch’s predicament had burned through the school like wildfire (sorry). It was something that not only affected our 6th grade class, but Duncan’s 4th grade class and Larry Kevin’s 2nd grade class. And, with Christmas vacation starting the next day, there was no time to start a clothing, Christmas present or household drive. If something like this were put off until school resumed, it would just not be the same.
So, at lunch time, me (the class treasurer), the class secretary, class president and the captain of the safety patrol held a powwow. We skipped class and went straight to the principal’s office. Because I had the biggest mouth, I was the one to explain things.
“We could take a class vote. All of our presents and candy can go to the Keetch’s. We could give them our class Christmas tree, too. And we have over $300 from the football game cookie sales. We don’t need a class trip to Mackinaw Island when we could help the Keetch’s this Christmas.”
Mr. Brooks sat back in his seat and looked thoughtfully at the four of us. (I think I shook the most, as that was the first time I was ever in his office and NOT in trouble.) Finally, he broke the silence. “Does Mrs. Chappa know you’re here?
We shook our heads, no.
He scribbled something on a pink slip of paper and called in Mrs. Caudiex. “Please escort these students back to their class. Stay there and have Mrs. Chappa come to my office. Pronto.” Leaving the office, I heard the feedback of a microphone as Mr. Brooks called for the 4th and the 2nd grade teachers. I exchanged guilty glances with my fellow classmates as we followed the office secretary back to our classroom.
To make a long story short, based on our idea, each teacher in the school (a northern class D, K-12th grade was 500 students) polled their classes on how they wanted to contribute.
The result was unbelievable.
I don’t know how many classes donated all their presents, Christmas decorations or party treats.
I don’t know the effort took to keep the gymnasium open until nine pm that night, setting up a donation drop off for clothes, furniture, and other household items.
I have no idea the how, in the limited time, the school reached out to area businessmen. They were able to help by donating a house so the family of seven could stay together (complete with their dogs and cats) while working on clearing the burnt house and rebuilding a new one, big enough to fit the growing boys and keeping in mind it was a farm house.
I DO remember that each class that had a treasury for class trips donated nearly $4,000 dollars to help this family.
And, it all started with four twelve year olds with an idea at lunch time.
This is what Christmas is all about. Giving. Sharing. Helping your fellow man.
I wish we could remember that all year long.
A Christmas dedication to Joseph Lawrence Keetch – 1965-1989 – friend, brother, and so much more. See you on the other side, buddy.