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 called home.”

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?

 

The New Mexican