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Beyond Ordinary: Tragedy in Trenton can't scar Christmas forever

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Two of my favorite parts of the Christmas season are hearing the various renditions of "The First Noel" and watching the First Presidency Christmas devotional. I was well-pleased earlier this month when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square preceded President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's devotional message with a powerfully sublime version of the carol.

"The First Noel" always invokes within me deep emotions because it was one of my mother's favorite Christmas hymns. She especially enjoyed Nat King Cole's recording of the song, and one of the last memories I have of my mother is watching and hearing her sing to it on the radio our final Christmas together.

President Uchtdorf's Christmas message touched me deeply as well because it also brought to mind my last Christmas with Mommy. He told of one Christmas, when he was perhaps 4 years old, that, due to his youth and carelessness, his home briefly caught on fire, and he thought he had ruined that Christmas for his family.

I, too, was a young boy when a fire erupted in my home at Christmastime. However, the results of the blaze were much more tragic. The circumstance did ruin Christmas for my family that year and for me for many years to come.

It was Christmas 1964, and I was 6 years old. My parents, sister and two brothers were living in Trenton, N.J. I had just completed my first “semester” of first grade and was happy to have a break from school to once again spend full days with my family. Christmas Day itself wasn’t particularly memorable, although I am sure I received a few of the things on my wish list. After a long day of fun and play, and as Mommy kissed and tucked me and my siblings into bed on the evening of Dec. 28 (Daddy was working late that night), I felt happy and secure in my little world.

Everything changed a few hours later when I awoke to Daddy’s frantic yells and immediately sensed the gripping feeling of thick smoke entering my little lungs. As Daddy quickly appeared in the bedroom where the four of us children were sleeping that night, I grabbed for my little brother Kenny, who was nearest to me, to run down the stairs and out the front door. Daddy screamed for us to go next door to Mr. Woodard’s house for safety, which we did. Once there, "Mr. Woody" instructed us to remain in his home until Daddy came for us.

Disobediently curious, I ventured outside to see what was happening. I saw Daddy struggling with all his might against police officers and a firefighter in an attempt to go back into the burning house.

Not long thereafter, I witnessed some of the firefighters wheel out a sheet-covered stretcher, which I knew contained Mommy. They loaded it into the back of an ambulance as Daddy climbed into the vehicle’s front seat. With its emergency lights engaged, the ambulance then proceeded down the lane, bright and colorfully illuminated by the yuletide-decorated homes on either side, presenting me with a surreal scene I have never forgotten and which haunted me for many years.

Later, a writer from the local newspaper arrived at the Woodard home to interview Daddy and photograph us as a surviving family. The headline below our photo in the Dec. 29, 1964, Trenton Times read, “Fire Takes a Mother’s Life and Scars a Holiday Forever.”

Mommy’s death indeed caused the breakup of our family as my siblings and I moved to Norfolk, Va., to be split among Daddy’s two sisters there while Daddy stayed in Trenton with his job. Less than eight years later, in July 1972, Daddy died of health complications while living in the Trenton home.

Following a memorial service for him in Trenton, I didn’t return to that city for more than 14 years. It was a week or so before Christmas Day 1986, and earlier that afternoon I had just graduated from Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I.

Prior to going to NJS, I had entered active duty as a Navy JAG following my graduation from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School that April. I was en route from Newport to Norfolk, traveling south on the New Jersey Turnpike, when I felt a tremendous pull to stop in Trenton for some reason.

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