Only in Santa Fe: A Christmas tale of hope,
memory and forgiveness
DEC. 24, 1999 — Christmas stories have
a way of working their way into our imaginations to be recalled
when we need them. This one tastes the depths of tragedy and
touches the place where hope resides in our hearts.
It begins in 1942 in Cabanatuan, a POW camp in
the Philippines with a story in a Reader’s Digest magazine.
One soldier, Staff Sergeant Lee S. Garner who
served with Battery F of the 200th Coastal Artillery and
survived the Bataan Death March, credited the magazine with
helping him through the ordeal of horror.
Inside was a story by Agnes Morley Cleaveland
excerpted from her book “No Life for A Lady,” which was destined
to become a classic about New Mexico. Cleaveland was from Datil,
a small town in the southwest corner of Catron County, 34 miles
west of Magdalena.
Garner was familiar with the author because he
came from the same hard part of New Mexico near Socorro, where
jagged rocks poke through arid soil and terrific thunderheads
graze the tops of the Magdalenas.
“By the time I was able to get my hands on the
magazine, it was quite ragged,” he wrote. “I had known Mrs.
Cleveland for a number of years and had been a close friend to
members of her family.
“It was a great lift for me to read her book,
as it was written about many of my friends and places that I
In the three years he was held prisoner,
Garner reread the story many times. Years later, he wrote down
his own thoughts and pasted them into the front of Cleaveland’s
book, which he had received as a gift from her niece. After
Garner returned to New Mexico in 1945, he met Faith Morley, a
niece of Agnes Cleveland.
“I explained about the book and where I had
read it, and told her how much it had helped while I was a POW,”
Garner wrote. “A few days later, she called me from the drug
store in Magdalena and asked me to come by the store because she
had a present for me. She presented me with (an) autographed
copy of ‘No Life for a Lady.’”
Thirty years later Garner gave the book, with
its pages now yellowed and covers scuffed and worn, to his
stepdaughter Kyla Thompson and her family on Christmas Day. He
inscribed it to “people that have shared a part of my life.”
“Lee was basically a cowboy,” said Thompson,
who lives in Santa Fe with her husband Roger. “He was about
6-foot and was an enormous gentle bear. His face was well-lined
after a life on the open range, and he had the largest hands of
any man I’ve ever met.”
Thompson said although Garner never had
children of his own, he embraced her son, Taylor, as the boy he
never had. Before he died in 1985, Lee Garner also taught Taylor
a lesson about forgiveness. “I’ve long forgiven the Japanese,”
Garner told him. “They’re a wonderful people.”
Garner had a special Christmas story he liked
to tell about one Christmas Eve in the POW camp.
“That night there was one scraggly tree in
front of the barracks. All at once, lightening bugs began
circling it, lighting it up just like a real Christmas tree.”
Did it really happen, or was it just the
imagination of a bunch of POWs sitting around trying to come to
grips with the loneliness of being far from home on Christmas?
Does it matter?