Glen Rock soldier home for Christmas

good luck finding him in this crowd.

Thus spoke the peanut man, as he donned his cape and hefted a battered blue bag over his shoulder. Ten minutes til midnight, he said, and 50 pounds of peanuts to hand out before daybreak.

“It’s just a tradition. It’s what we’ve always done,” Garry Ferree said to the obvious question, then shook his head. “But if you want to find one person out there, good luck.”

Ferree stood alone among a landscape of upturned top hats – single gray ones here, clusters crowded by a mountain of coats there – striped scarves escaping from each like chimney smoke.

Down the hall, in the sanctuary, the applause faded and the singers began again.

“Sleep in heavenly peace,” the group of 50 carolers suggested.

But not just yet.

Because it’s Christmas in Glen Rock , and it’s almost midnight. and things are just getting started.

Somewhere out there – past those 50 caped carolers, and hundreds packed into Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, and countless more on the cold streets – was Ben Brown.

The Susquehannock High School graduate and lieutenant in the U.S. Army had just gotten to town the day before, the end of a journey home from Iraq as one of the last U.S. soldiers out of that country. Brown had hoped to make it in time for this – the Glen Rock Carolers’ annual performance – and be one of the hundreds to walk those slanting streets with friends, listening to the songs.

“He’s around here somewhere,” Joy Keller-Brown said, pushing her way out of the crowd, to the side of a street overrun with locals, and blocked off by police.

Amid the rush of revelers shouting and greeting old friends, Ben Brown’s mother said her son did make it in time, though just where he might be in all the commotion was unclear. things have been a little crazy, she said.

After all, less than 72 hours earlier Ben was still on a commercial jet, circling its way into Fort Bragg, N.C. and family was below, waiting on the tarmac with welcome signs and hugs. They watched as a four-star general walked to the plane, once it landed, and as a red carpet was placed on the ground.

They listened, then, to the singing of the National Anthem, The Army Song.

“They made it feel like those were the only soldiers ever to come home,” Ben’s mother said, as the carolers stopped again in the street to sing. “It was special, wonderful.”

After that it was only a matter of some paperwork signed with eager hands, and guns to be put carefully away.

And then a Glen Rock family and Ben’s fiancce went to a local bar and grill in North Carolina, she said, and gathered around a table. Ben finally had that American food he’d been craving, and a beer to wash it down.

A day later, that soldier was home.

But where?

The air got colder as night turned to early morning, and harder to breathe as the carolers and the crowd pressed on over cracked streets and old railroad bridges.

South, and up a steep street where lights hugged brittle bushes and a plastic snowman looked on from a second-floor balcony. where a woman in a white bathrobe must have heard the steady shuffle of hundreds of feet, and fell into a porch rocker in time for “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

East again, and over the Codorus Creek in this old mill town only to pause under a traffic signal – hats and rustling capes lacquered in green, then red, then green again as another song is sung.

“Merry Christmas,” the singers announce again, then follow a metal lantern on into the night, the crowd pushing them on.

And – there.

Standing in the middle of a Glen Rock street is a young man with glasses and a wide smile, a backpack hefted on his shoulders and a girl’s hand planted in his own. It’s been a long journey, that young man says. and it feels a bit strange to be here.

“But it’s good to be home,” Ben Brown says.

For sure, it won’t be for long.

The soldier is due back on base by Dec. 27; “PT” is at 6 a.m., he says. and from there his unit, which a few days ago was sifting through trash-filled streets looking for wires buried under garbage and dirt, will begin training again.

For whatever comes next.

But on this night 24-year-old Ben is content to cling tight to that young girl, and to greet old friends in the streets of Glen Rock . He shakes hands, accepts thanks, and listens in silence as those songs float away into the night.

He breathes in that frosty air he says he never used to notice.

And when one more high school buddy grabs his hand to tell that soldier he’s been missed, Ben’s smile is easy.

“I’ll see you next Christmas,” he says.

Glen Rock soldier home for Christmas

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