The Christmas Angels: A South Bronx Tale

On the night he found the boys, my Uncle Fernando had put in a ten hour shift cleaning out the trains in the yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was lucky the shift had not been longer. During the war, the railroads became crucial industries and workloads increased without warning. Bone weary from the cold, monotonous routine, on the homeward bound Third Avenue El he scanned the Daily News searching in vain for something uplifting. He reminded himself that he was to get off at Jackson Avenue, and not take the usual Prospect Avenue exit. Tonight was Noche Buena -- Christmas Eve, and he was expected at his brother Toñito's apartment on Westchester Avenue.

Through the sooty window of the IRT, he saw silent snowflakes dancing in the glow of street lamps. A shiver ran down his spine. He stepped gingerly onto the platform and pulled down the edges of his woolen cap to cover the tips of his ears. Scrunching his head deep into the coat collar was the best he could do to keep the icy snowflakes from melting on his neck. Then he plunged his large, glove-free hands into the coat's side pockets.

As he carefully negotiated the rickety, slippery stairs to street level, he narrowed his eyes against the snow. Suddenly, he stumbled, flaying his arms out of the pockets to hold his balance. He had almost stepped on what appeared to be a round bundle of dark clothing huddled into the corner of the last step. To his surprise, my uncle saw two small boys, the arms of the older child wrapped tightly around his little brother.

As my uncle told the story, two sets of enormous dark eyes peered up at him. The children's pinched, palled faces were wary, and the little one wiped a runny nose on the cuff of his sweater. Rudy may have been six, perhaps seven years old. Little Ronnie was almost three. My uncle thought he recognized the boys, but couldn't quite place where he had seen them. All he knew at that moment was that the frayed winter coats the children wore would not keep them from freezing to death. Underneath, they wore sweaters and lightweight pants. When he realized the socks on their feet barely covered their ankles, Uncle Fernando's heart melted. An image of his own children popped into his head, and he knew he would not leave the boys there to suffer the cold. Tonight, he decided, they would bask in the warmth of family, fill their bellies with his sister-in-law's arroz and pernil, and wrap themselves in cozy blankets to sleep the sleep of innocents.

As if they had entered a magical space, removed from the immediacy of a world in chaos, waves of jovial chatter and squealing children enveloped my uncle and the boys in our apartment. The joys of the season were everywhere, in the cut outs of poinsettias my mother used to decorate the small, lit tree on the stand beside the blackout shaded windows; the aroma of home cooking; the plenas and aguinaldos blaring from the Spanish language radio station -- the same radio where two years before we learned about a place called Pearl Harbor, and the president had announced our country was at war.

Instantly, my mother attended to the boys who turned out to live just across the hall. Their young, single mom, she soon discovered, had left Rudy in charge. When the mom failed to return, the frightened child dressed his little brother and fled the apartment. The two sat on the station steps to wait for her. And then, my uncle found them. I wondered how many people must have hurried by without seeing the boys.

That evening, we children thought only of presents. We gathered around my uncle shouting, "Did you see him? Did you see Santa Clause? Were the reindeer really flying?"

"Noooo," laughed Uncle Fernando. "But look at the Christmas presents I did find." His warm brown eyes crinkled up mischievously the way they did whenever he used stories to make a point. "I found two little angels. They're here to remind us to pray for peace!"