“It was the recipe that won the war, Aunt Alma Dilla’s Christmas Poached Pears! One day I’ll tell the story of that, but y’all don’t have time to hear it so late, so I’ll save that for another day.” Walnut Macaroon said to hilarious laughter. The southern comedian finished his set, retired to his dressing room, and then to his hotel.
He laughed into the air as the first snow of December fell. “Aunt Alma Dilla, if they only knew how true that comment was.” He didn’t think anymore about it, as he kissed his bride of many years. Walnut changed into his wintergreen pjs, and went to bed.
The next morning however, he was reminded of the line by his oldest boy Ray. “Dad, you’ve been in show business fifty years. I’ve been your manager now for fifteen, and there’s one thing I have to know. What’s this story you keep hinting at over Aunt Alma Dilla? Why hint at it if you’re not going to tell it?”
Walnut smiled an odd smile, and set his coffee down. “Well son, it’s like this, I’m a comedian, I make my money telling funny stories. An while Aunt Alma Dilla’s story is precious, it’s not exactly funny. I’m afraid people wouldn’t understand, or be interested, but I mention her every Christmas season, out of respect, love, and gratitude.”
Lina Macaroon took her husband by the hand. “It’s also a very personal story for your Dad, including why he mentions her every Christmas. Perhaps this Christmas, he’ll share the story with all of you.” Ray looked at them both, knew that was as much as he was going to get today, and went back to his scrambled eggs.
They finished the tour, and everyone made their way home for Christmas. Ray and Ida, and their now grown sons flew in from Nashville. Clovis and Mae drove from Cleveland. Bobby, the Doctor flew in from Boston. Clovis’ son Rick, June, and their twins Roy and Mike made the trip from Virginia. Bobby’s girls, Ann and Jan came in from college in Atlanta.
It was a beautiful Christmas visit. A gorgeous tree, wonderful food, Christmas movies, and a lot of fun. Lina, after the last Elf saved Christmas, turned off the tv. She looked at her husband, and said “Now.”
He smiled, nodded, and told all the family to gather round. A comedian has two voices, the stage voice, and his everyday tone. A storyteller mixes a little of both, and Walnut was a storyteller extraordinaire.
The year was 1942, and war raged over Europe. A lot of families were separated by a greater purpose. One of those was a young woman named Alma Dilla. She was a scared twenty year old girl who wanted to fight the Nazi threat. Finding herself successful, she made it overseas to serve as a secretary in the military. She worked in the office of General Harry Jagger.
Paperwork hadn’t been Aunt Alma Dilla’s idea of defeating the third reich, and she found herself very depressed. It lasted for months, and worried General Jagger. He was a Grandfather himself, and had a granddaughter, Emma, very much like Alma Dilla.
His granddaughter was stationed in another part of the world, and he missed her. Alma Dilla became an almost adopted member of the family. He did his best to try and cheer the girl up, even running several potential candidates through the office as possible husbands.
Aunt Alma Dilla rejected every one of them. She wanted to marry, and have kids like everyone else, but marriage, had to mean something. It was more than just a wedding, just like serving to her, was more than signing papers.
The General had fought in the first war, and he knew better. He had once been cut off without supplies for two days. Now, his office was in charge of the supply line. They made sure the guns, ammunition, food, and gear got to the front. General Harry Jagger knew firsthand the importance of what they did.
He also knew not to try to talk the stars out of a young person’s eyes. Jagger tried to assign her the most exciting work available to him, which were supply list for agents in deep cover. He wouldn’t just have her copy them down, Jagger would add small comments as to how these may help an agent behind enemy lines.
Some things he knew, some he assumed , and others he outright guessed. He never lied, he would simply say, “Eleven replacement canteens are needed, they had been damaged beyond repair.” Then he’d make a comment like, “I wonder how many were broken over the heads of the enemy trying to escape.”
It worked for a little while, but by September, she was over the imagination of the General. Then, as can happen, a quiet teapot boils over with excitement.
General Jagger got a telegram from the White House. Aunt Alma Dilla rushed into the General’s office, and almost, almost mind you, failed to salute first.
The telegram explained that the General, a secretary, and three other men would leave for a classified location in two days. The General was to learn more when Captain Jackson arrived. Alma Dilla was grinning from ear to ear.
When the Captain showed up, The General took note of something. The first smile was at why the Captain was here, but the second was at the Captain. There wasn’t anytime to focus on it. The business at hand was too important.
“General, do you remember Fritz Schuster? I believe you knew him in college. You went to the same university.”
The General frowned. “I remember him Captain. How does he factor in this?”
“He’s our objective. If we can secure what he knows, we could win the war. To do that, you’ve got to convince him to join our cause.”
The General walked to the window. “Whatever problems between us, I can’t believe he would work for the Nazis. Fritz is a stubborn, hot headed, and honorable man.”
The Captain took out a photo. “He’s not working for them willingly. Fritz Schuster is doing what is necessary to save his son’s life. The SS are holding Johann Schuster as a bargaining chip.”
General Jagger looked at the picture. “Just like him, he has his Dad’s eyes. I can’t ask a man to give up on his child Captain. I hope you have another plan.”
“Actually General I do. I’m not asking Fritz Schuster to risk his family. I am asking you to risk the possibility of ever seeing yours again, if we fail that is.”
Captain Jackson showed him the plans. “We meet in Vienna for two days. If we succeed, we get Schuster and his son out and safely to London. If we can’t, then everybody loses.”
“The Germans were given papers with your picture on it. They say you’re an art dealer with stolen merchandise the Germans really want. They know you as a Belgian art dealer, called Lucas Alles.”
“Although they assume it’s an alias. They don’t know you’re working for us, they just think you’re a dishonest crook. They never trust anyone. They don’t care, they just want the black market art they think you have.”
The General rubbed a suddenly very tired forehead. As he shook the Captain’s hand he sighed. “Running from Nazis. What a way to spend a Christmas.”
Aunt Alma Dilla finally figured out an excuse to get into the room. “General can you sign these requisitions? If we’re leaving soon, we’ve got to keep this place going without us.”
“Whoa young lady, you’re not going. It’s a dangerous mission, and I’m not about to risk your neck too. I’m sorry but you’re staying here.”
The two of them stood there, sizing each other up. Each trying to anticipate the other’s move. General Jagger knew she wouldn’t try tears, or anger. There was one tactic, and he thought he was ready for it, he wasn’t.
“General, you didn’t ask, I’m volunteering. I chose to serve my country, and I’ll do so wherever I’m needed, and the fact is you need me. You’ll need someone to act as your granddaughter, and who else knows you well enough to pull it off with little notice. Just call me Emma.”
He could have made a big deal about her listening in, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Besides, he knew, if he didn’t agree, she might get killed trying to follow on her own. “You know the risk. It’s a suicide mission. It’s crazy.”
Her eyes gleamed.“It is, but, isn’t it exciting! Besides, someone has to make sure you’re safe General. You need me.”
“Captain, Alma Dilla, let’s get something clear. If I do this, I’m in charge. I’ll run the operation, not my Chief Of Staff, or a Captain that wandered in from Washington. Dismissed, both of you.”
He managed to hold his laughter til they were both out of the room. “That Captain doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. I hope I do, I hope Fritz will understand.”
Their cover was pretty bold. The old saying about hiding in plain sight was still true. Alles’ letter told the SS that he would go as far as Vienna, but not Berlin. If they wanted his merchandise, they’d meet him halfway.
Aunt Alma Dilla would be his granddaughter Emma. Captain Jackson would be his Secretary, Miles Charron. The General decided not to take the other two men, even though the Captain disagreed.
“Captain, if we take them with us, it will give the Germans an excuse to be even more suspicious than we can afford them to be. I’m supposed to be a salesman, a greedy, unscrupulous man who is willing to do business with anyone. That kind of man wouldn’t purposely risk traveling with a crowd. It makes him a bigger target that way.”
“With all due respect General, it’ll be a lot easier to get the Schusters out with them, than without them. I can only shoot so many at one time. So can you. Why make Alma Dilla do all the work herself?”
General Jagger smiled. “No deal, and you’re going to be surprised Mike. That girl would hit Hitler in the nose if she got within a hundred feet of him.”
The Captain was already impressed, but not ready to admit it. “What if she only got within five hundred feet? What would she do then.”
“We can’t let that happen. She’d shoot him between the eyes. I won’t let anyone hurt that girl, not even inadvertently by making her kill him.” The General let his eyes linger on the Captain just long enough to make him a little nervous.
The trip to Vienna went as smoothly as it can when walking into a vulture’s nest. Fritz was being housed at the same inn that Lucas Alles was to meet the SS agent, Major Sauer. Johann was being held somewhere close, but no one knew where.
Fritz was introduced as a “dinner guest” of Major Sauer. If he recognized the General, he didn’t let on. The Major quizzed Lucas about art throughout the dinner. The General’s college courses came in handy, thanks to his tutor.
When the coffee was served, the Major suggested having it on the terrace. A messenger arrived with a message from Berlin. The Major excused himself.
“You almost botched the question about Michelangelo. You always struggled with the dates. Why are you here Harry?”
“To get you and Johann out. I know I’m not the one you would have chosen, but I hope you’ll let me try?”
“Harry, if it would save Johann, I’d even accept help from my cousin Hans. You’re a little better, but not by much. What’s the plan?”
While they were talking, the Captain and Emma were strolling through the garden. The General had surprised them both by hinting to Sauer that they were engaged. Now they had to act like it.
“I wonder why he said that Emma? It’s difficult enough faking an accent God and my Momma didn’t give me. What about you?”
“I don’t mind. It was the General’s way of trying to push us together Captain. He’s been hinting at it ever since you showed up. I don’t know why, you’re too busy to worry about all of that.”
“Love can get in the way can’t it? Usually ends up complicating things. Of course you’ve probably dealt with all that before as beautiful a woman as you are.”
“If I had Captain, you wouldn’t know it, not until I wanted you too. Right now, I’m more interested in what’s happening on the balcony than anything else.”
The Captain tried to hide his bruised ego.“Well you’re very level headed. My guess is the General is making his pitch to Schuster. We’ll know soon enough if he accepts.”
After coffee, the General asked Emma and and her fiancé up to his room. He was in his pajamas and robe when they got there. “Relax you too. The engagement gives me an excuse to have you both here. Captain, you’d be the odd man out otherwise.”
“The Germans understand a pretty girl and a young man. Fritz said yes. He has no idea where Sauer is keeping Johann. Mike, I know you’ve got contacts in the village, I’m guessing those two agents I wouldn’t let you bring. Have them work on our exit plans, and the next time I give an order, listen.”
The Captain smiled. “Yes sir. I’ll signal them at midnight. Once we have the Schusters, what’s your plan?”
“You’ll know when I’m ready, both of you will. In the meantime, this art expert is going to bed. I suggest you both get some sleep as soon as you can. They’ll be very little on this mission.”
The General wasn’t able to follow his own prescription. Harry tossed and turned most of the night. He kept dreaming of a young German girl, and another Captain. One who broke his heart by marrying another man. As well as disappointing her family by sacrificing a prestigious future.
At four in the morning he gave up, and found himself in the garden, but wasn’t the first. Fritz was walking too. “They let you roam without your escort Fritz?”
“They know I won’t leave without my son. I can’t sleep knowing he’s in danger. Who is keeping you up?”
“We both know the answer to that. Do you still blame me? I did everything I could? I was going to ask her that night.”
Fritz frowned. “Blaming you was easier than admitting that it was never your fault to start with. Nadia loved, and loves Eric. Even if you had proposed first, she would have still turned you down. She’s happy with him.”
“Nadia was a genius. She could have won the Nobel prize, instead she married an actor. They can barely afford clothes, but they’re rich in laughter. My sister made the right choice for her, even if I did not approve.”
“Thank you Fritz. It did work out for the best. I found out a year later that the true love of my life was born a few miles from me. Nadia and I weren’t made for each other. She and Eric, and me and Rosemary were.”
“Is that formula of yours as dangerous as they say? Could it give them the edge to win the war? Do they have any of it already?”
“The Nazis are greedy, any advantage they see, they’ll try to take. It’s nothing life threatening like some of their pursuits, at least not directly. It’s could enhance the German machinery, honestly I don’t know how much it would enhance their efforts, but they believe it will.”
“They asked, I said no, and they kidnapped my boy. Now I’m stalling to keep him alive. So far, they have nothing.”
“Fritz I’m working on a rescue, but I’ll need your help. It’s dangerous, but I need you to strong arm Sauer. Tell him the only way he gets your formula is if he brings Johann here tomorrow night. He’ll threaten you, but as long as it’s not written down, he’ll cave.”
Schuster agreed, and the General hurried back upstairs. He woke Aunt Alma up and gave her orders for that night. Then he went to the Captain’s room and gave him orders too.
That morning at breakfast, the General went into his act. He told the Major that he owed his party a special Christmas gift, and as they would be traveling Christmas, tonight would be a holiday celebration for the family. He asked the Major, and his guests to join him for a feast.
The Major, amused at what he viewed as a pompous and comical man, agreed. He even offered a driver to take the man and Emma shopping for supplies. This was also his way, he thought, of keeping his eyes on them.
The General put his all into the charade. They bought a goose, cranberries, and all of the fixings, including walnuts and pears. Aunt Alma Dilla whispered to the General about a recipe idea. He smiled, nodded, and after collecting a few ingredients of his own, they left the store.
The Major decided to see how far his patsy would go to sell his goods. He offered them a tree, and decorations taken from the village, if the man really wanted a festive Christmas. The General just smiled, and set his two “soldiers” to cooking, decorating, and preparing.
While this was all happening, Fritz asked to speak with the Major. “If you want my formula, you will bring my son here tonight. I warn you sir, I know who I’m threatening. Now know who you are threatening. I am a man who is willing to either rescue his child, or die beside him. It is your choice.”
The Major smiled. “Herr Schuster, I would personally prefer the latter, but my superiors want what you know. I don’t believe we need you. Still, it would be good for me to present what you know to them.”
“All right. I will bring your son tonight for the party, and after you will give me what I want. Otherwise, you and your son will meet your end together, just as you asked.”
Mike helped Emma with both the kitchen and the decorations. General Jagger watched the two of them. Either they were very good actors, who remembered they were supposed to be engaged, or they had discovered something else. How wonderful everyone looked in the light of Christmas, despite the situation.
When Fritz rejoined him by the stove he pointed at the couple. He wasn’t surprised either. Fritz whispered to Harry, his voice low, and his spirit high.
“Christmas started with a life in the balance. The Christ faced danger even on the very first Christmas. An yet, love was born anyway. Miracles happen, even in a war torn world, we just expect them more this time of year. I pray we all see one of those a few days early.”
“We will my friend. Now help me with this walnut dough. She says it has to be kneaded very well. Oh, stir that gravy too please.”
Hours passed, and everyone went to get ready for the Christmas feast. Johann arrived, just as Fritz came back down the stairs. He was cut up, and weak, but alive. Father and son shared a hearty hug before he helped him clean himself up.
Once in the room, Fritz filled Johann in on what he knew of the plan. They hurried back down as fast as they could. The General was telling an old French Christmas story about a lonely nobleman all alone at Christmas.
“The Man had no family, but through a series of noble acts had become rich, wealthy, and influential. Yet, just as at the orphanage he had had an empty room, now as a Duke, he had an empty castle. He expected it would remain that way, until he heard shouting one morning from the grand hall.”
“His servant was rebuking the cook for having accidentally dropped his ruler’s platter of food on the floor. The Duke dismissed the man, and reached down to help the woman up.”
“As soon as he saw her eyes, he knew it was to be a wonderful Christmas that year, and for happily ever after. Love has a way of gifting itself at Christmas. They would never be alone again.”
Fritz and Johann nodded. Aunt Alma and Mike found themselves smiling at each other. Even the Major smiled. Fritz told a story about teaching Johann how to ride his first two wheeler on Christmas Day. Two hours later, Johann was riding successfully, but not before both being covered in mud from a few early attempts on a wet Christmas afternoon.
Aunt Alma, careful about the names and places involved, told how the Christmas gift of some lumps of coal, rescued some ancestors from a harsh winter a few generations before.
The Captain told a story about a young soldier, in the last war, who had to choose whether to stay in a safe post, or risk it all on a special mission. The theme of each story, Christmas, love, and hope, seemed to fill the atmosphere of the inn.
The innkeeper’s wife played songs on the organ. They all played Christmas games, and soon it was time for the feast. Naturally pessimistic, and distrusting, the Major waited til someone else had tasted each course. Everyone ate heartily. The Major found that the man, and Emma were good cooks.
He especially loved the two desserts, walnut macaroons, and Aunt Alma Dilla’s Christmas Poached Pears. The macaroons were the European kind of pastry, not the coconut ones we are used too. Aunt Alma made sure everyone in the inn had plenty to eat.
The General didn’t give her a bullet to shoot Hitler, but he did give her the means to slow down his men. General Jagger had been a soldier in the first war, but that wasn’t what had gotten them this far.
It was the monotonous, consistent, system he had learned to keep the supply lines filled. It wasn’t only memorizing the number of rifles, canteens, or anything else. It was knowing what went with what, and when to get it there.
It was important to combine things at the exact quantities, to get from point a To point b, at the appropriate time. They didn’t have to fire at, or kill the soldiers. They just had to get them from being awake, armed, and alert, to lethargic, asleep, and minus their guns.
The General didn’t try to drug one piece of food, he drugged it all. Especially the desserts, the macaroons, and the poached pears. He gave the antidote to himself, and the others ahead of time.
By midnight, Major Sauer and his men were tied up, unarmed, and passed out cold. Fritz, Johann, and the Captain dressed in German uniforms, and set out for the train station.
The Captain had planned to meet his two men that had followed at the station. The ones the General had said not to bring. They were all to ride, switch trains a few times, and eventually leave Austria. They saw the plan needed to change when they arrived at the station.
Four Nazi soldiers were guarding the men. They had been searched and captured just a little while before the group made it there. The soldiers were a regular patrol, and the men had seemed out of place that late.
The Captain had thought they were home free, and would be safe by Christmas. Now, it was two days before Christmas. How would they rescue his two men, as well as get out safely?
The General smiled. “The same plan will work here.” Jagger had insisted Alma bring a jar of heavily laced pears, and some macaroons with her.
He reminded the Captain that he and the Schusters were wearing German uniforms. He suggested an early Christmas gift to the soldiers at the station. They didn’t have the time for it to take full effect, but it could lessen their reflexes just enough. So, they gifted to the men, waited, and were re-gifted with very sick and collapsing soldiers. Men who were easily overpowered, and tied up.
“We can’t board the train now. The Major will recover in enough time to wire ahead to the next few stations. Once he finds these men here, he won’t be far behind.”
That’s when Aunt Alma started smiling. “The mountains. We run the car into a tree near the mountains, pile the soldiers in the back, and they’ll think we escaped on foot. They’ll think we were afraid to take the train.”
Deciding they had little choice, they went with it. Each prayed the early morning train would leave before the Major and his men were free. The recipe Aunt Alma had cooked up was so strong they had already changed trains by the time the Major was untied.
The General, Fritz, and Johann made themselves scarce, to give the couple time together. Aunt Alma asked the Captain about the story he had told about the soldier. “Were you talking about you in the story?” He shook his head no.
“It was about my Dad. He had to choose whether to accept the promotion he was offered, and work stateside, or go over seas with his squad. He kissed my Mother goodbye, and boarded the boat.”
“She was wearing the same dress when he got off the boat after the war. It wasn’t traditional, but it was the dress she later got married in. He would tell that story every Christmas. What about you? Who got the lumps of coal for Christmas?”
“My Grandparents in Tennessee. They were very poor, just starting out, and it was a very cold winter. They were new in town. A stranger left enough coal on their porch to heat their place all winter.”
“I was named after my Grandmother, Emma Almadilla, so I wasn’t lying when I gave the Major my first name. I never went by it because she didn’t. Everyone always assumed my middle name was two words, so I never corrected them.”
“I like both names. Though I rather enjoyed walking with Emma. I wonder if she’d like to take a few more walks with me? Maybe down a certain aisle Miles and Emma were scheduled for?”
When the Schusters and the General returned from the dining car, they saw the shared kiss. “What is this, the Mistletoe Express?” The couple blushed slightly as the General laughed. “Fritz told me it would happen when we made England. I told him it wouldn’t take that long.”
Fritz gave a mock bow.“I admit my mistake. Love sometimes only takes one look to decide a lifetime. My guess is that look happened long before Johann and I met them. That’s the only reason you outguessed me Harry. You’ve known them longer.”
“This does not matter, you helped me gain my family, that is what means the world to me. Thank you for the best Christmas gift a Father could receive, the life of his child.”
The little squad made it safely back to England, happy as could be. The Captain and Aunt Alma Dilla married, and invited the General and the Schusters To The wedding. Aunt Alma introduced Johann, and the General’s granddaughter to her younger sister and brother. Two more weddings occurred in the spring.
Aunt Alma Dilla made her two desserts, minus the General’s additives, every Christmas. When my Mother married a man named Walter Macaroon from Louisiana, she nicknamed me Walnut even before Momma called me Junior.
“So you see son, Aunt Alma Dilla’s recipe didn’t just help win the war, she won a battle of hearts for our whole family. I owe her a lot, and I think about her every year.”
“She was supportive when I got the crazy idea of being an entertainer. Fritz and the General had told her the story of Nadia and Eric. She said it didn’t matter if I were ever famous.”
“Even when my parents were concerned, she convinced them to let me try. She said that as long as I stood for what I believed, earned an honest living, and loved my family dearly, I’d be okay. Even if that living was small.”
“That advice took me through a whole lot of slender wallets and bologna sandwiches. She never saw my wallet or my waistline reach where they are now, but she saw me grow into someone who still treasures her, and those words.”
Ray smiled. “Why don’t you share that story? You don’t have to be funny all the time?”
“I do share it, with the right audience. See son, I’m not harvesting laughs with this recollection, I’m planting memories. Ones that will last for generations.”
“An hopefully, help them grow into people who are willing to risk everything for what’s right. That’s a recipe for happiness all year through. Merry Christmas Son.”