The party was packed, but no one wanted to be there. I guess nobody likes saying goodbye, especially when the guest of honor is going off to war. You see, plumber John Sullivan was also Captain John Sullivan in the Army reserves and his unit was called to duty. It was just before Christmas so John’s wife and friends knew this would be a tough and long goodbye. Everyone pretended to be strong, yet they were falling apart inside.
As the hour got late and the gathering wound down, a knock at the door brought a familiar, yet unexpected face: Father Kevin from the local church. John and Fr. Kevin used to be pretty close, but that was many years ago before work, kids and chores took priority over spending Sunday morning in the back pew at St. Michael’s. “I know where you’re going and I thought you could use these,” the priest said to him, handing John an old deck of playing cards. He closed his hand around them as if he was given a nugget of gold and thanked the priest. No one at the party, not even his wife, understood their meaning.
Months later in Afghanistan, Captain Sullivan and his unit saw plenty of hard action. Men were lost and things were seen and done they’d have a hard time forgetting. The other soldiers noticed that whenever they came back from a tough scrape, Captain Sullivan would retire to a quiet corner of the tent and slowly flip his cards onto the table, mumbling something only he could hear. At first his hands would be shaking, but by the time he flipped the 13th card, the King, he seemed at peace.
One day after a dangerous firefight, a brash private with red hair named Kelsey found the courage to approach his Captain when he saw the tattered cards emerge from his pocket on cue. “I’ve watched you Cap, with those cards and I don’t get it. You flip them over, but you never seem to play a game. What gives?” John Sullivan looked at their young eager faces and told them this story.
“Back when I was a teenager I used to help out at the church in my town and became friends with the priest, Father Kevin. While he loved seeing me in church on Sunday he told me that God was with me wherever I went. I just had to look for him. Even in this deck of cards.”
Captain Sullivan flipped over the ace and said, “This card reminds me of the one true God. The two stands for the old and new testament. The three symbolizes the Holy Trinity. The four is the four Gospels from Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. The five reminds me to take five minutes each day to pray for others.”
The men looked on with amazement as he continued. “The six are the number of days it took God to create the earth. The seven marks the Sabbath. The eight reminds me of the eight righteous people who survived Noah’s flood. The nine reminds me of the ten lepers Jesus healed, nine of them never thanked him. The ten is the Ten Commandments. The Jack or knave represents the devil. The Queen is the holy mother Mary and the King is, of course, God.”
He went on to tell them that even if they aren’t religious it’s important to remember who they are, who they love and what matters to them, especially in a time of war. He added in a tired voice, “Don’t lose yourself here,” as he handed the deck of cards to the young soldier and left them with their thoughts.
Six months went by and the soldiers found themselves together on Christmas Eve. Before eating a special holiday meal Captain Sullivan called his unit together to share some good news: they’d be going home in a few days. While they agreed not to give each other gifts, Private Kelsey told his Captain they did have a surprise for him. One by one the men and woman in his unit stepped forward, each producing a single playing card from the old weathered deck. The first handed him the ace saying, “This reminds me of our unit. We’re far from home, but together as one sharing this special holiday.” The second soldier handed him the two of hearts. “This card reminds me of my two brothers who are back home. I can’t be with them this Christmas, but I’m thinking of them.” The others followed with their own personal connections to the cards. The three stood for the three soldiers the unit had lost in action this past year. The four reminded them of the four branches of the military fighting together for freedom. They all got a laugh when a chubby soldier handed him the five of clubs and said, “This reminds me of the five pieces of pie I’m going to eat with my dinner tonight.” The only female of the group, a lieutenant, said the six of diamonds reminded her of her six-year-old son Spencer and how much she missed him. The seven reminded another of the seven lakes he and his grandfather liked to fish back home in Missouri. The eight reminded one soldier of his wife whom he adored and married eight years ago that December. The nine made another think of the innings in a baseball game and how much he missed going to see the Yankees play with his dad. The ten made them all think of the past ten months and what they’d been through. The Jack reminded them of a soldier named Jack, who was quick with a smile, loved pizza and died pulling two others to safety after they hit a roadside bomb. The Queen made one young man think of his mom and all the care packages she’d sent. And the King reminded them all of their Captain himself, and his leadership in this Godforsaken place.
As John Sullivan looked down at his cards, his eyes filling with tears, Private Kelsey leaned in close enough to hug him and whispered, “You told us it wasn’t just a deck of cards. You were right, Sir. Thank you for getting us home.” Outside, over the hum of the desert wind, the soldiers heard a song playing. It sounded like Christmas morning.
Author’s note: The connection between playing cards, soldiers and faith dates back 200 years. There have been countless stories and songs written about it; this is my own take on a familiar theme. While the events above are fiction, I know in my heart the message is real. This is my small way of saying thank you to our military and their families for the sacrifices they make this holiday season…and all year round.
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writer at the Troy Record. He can be reached at email@example.com