Published December 25. 2010 4:00AM Updated December 25. 2010 6:27AM
This is a story of Christmas Day, 1969, but it really begins eight years before, on a warm summer night in Forest Park in the borough of Queens, N.Y., where a boy named John Geida met a girl named Jo-Ann Feger and they danced to "My Funny Valentine."
They'd grown up just a few miles apart. They took the same train each day to high school. But their paths had never crossed.
Until that night in August when, out with their friends, they each passed the park and stopped to listen to the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
"Both of us were supposed to be in different places," Jo-Ann Geida remembers. "I was supposed to be out with a bunch of my girlfriends bowling, and we just didn't feel like it, and ... we passed the park, and we said, 'Oooh, let's go listen to the music.' It's just one of those things. What's meant to be is what's meant to be."
"There were people on the field dancing," remembers John. "And then they started to play 'My Funny Valentine,' and my friend and I saw two girls standing there, and we went over and asked them to dance. And I asked Jo-Ann to dance, and so we danced for the first time when we first met to 'My Funny Valentine.' And we were both 16 years old."
Dissolve to December 1969.
"I was 'Lieutenant Geida,' serving with the 23rd Infantry Division headquartered in Chu Lai, Vietnam," John recalls. And "after almost a year of being 'in-country,' " he got a letter from the Levittown School District on Long Island offering him a full-time teaching job beginning in January.
"Since the job was in the field of education and was to start in January, I qualified for an 'early out,' meaning that I could be discharged in time to get home for Christmas and not have to wait until February, when my tour of duty was scheduled to end," he says. "I would not have to go through another deadly Tet offensive that was sure to occur in January."
Home for him then was his mother-in-law's house on Long Island, where Jo-Ann, now his wife of three years, and Jack, his 11-month-old son, awaited him. Jack had been but two weeks old when John shipped out for Vietnam.
"That's a hard year," says Jo-Ann. "That's why I can sympathize with so many people out there. That's a hard year when you go day by day not knowing what tomorrow's going to bring.
"I can remember one time ... looking out the door and seeing an Army car pull up in front of my house." She seems to shrink into herself with a shudder as she recalls this, her voice getting small.
"And I didn't move. I just watched it. The car sat there, and I said, 'No, I'm not answering the door,' and eventually the car just drove away. And I was like..." she whispers, "OK."
There were other scares she can't forget.
"I can remember ... driving home on the parkway listening to the news, hearing that Chu Lai, where he was, was bombed. And I didn't hear from him for three days ... and for those three days you don't know."
And they both remember the lost phone call.
"They had this little white booth in the jungle, and they somehow transmitted your call to San Francisco, and they transferred it to wherever you were calling," John says. "And I waited for hours because there were so many guys who wanted to call ... and I finally got in there, and I'm talking to her for maybe a minute and the rocket shells came in and all she heard was boom and the line went dead."
Jo-Ann says, "And I remember the guy from San Francisco saying, 'I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't know what happened, but it's a dead line right now. I can't get through to them.' "
"It was close, and there were some casualties," says John, "but at least it didn't hit my phone booth."
But there were several agonizing days before Jo-Ann heard from him again.
"My father used to joke that I spent the year rocking my son in his rocking chair and eating Yankee Doodles." Jo-Ann laughs. "He said I broke his rocking chair because all I did was sit in that chair and rock my son for the whole year that John was away. And I guess that's what I did."
Now John knew he was coming home, but he wanted it to be a surprise. Jo-Ann wasn't expecting him until February. Still, with all the paperwork and processing the Army required for his discharge, getting home in time for Christmas seemed an almost impossible goal.
"Surviving the mass confusion caused by the huge exodus of troops trying to board flights from Saigon to the U.S., as well as the never-ending discharge procedures, I finally arrived at JFK at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning," John remembers. "I took a cab from there to my home, and by 6 a.m. I was standing in my driveway, nervous, exhausted, but greatly anticipating the next few moments.
"It was pretty early, just about getting light, and I didn't have a key to the house," he says. And so, knowing of his mother-in-law's habit of falling asleep on the couch in the den, he went around to the back patio doors and tapped on the glass. When she finally awoke, he put his finger to his lips, and she let him in.
After a hug and a quick whispered explanation of his arrival, he asked her, "'Where's Jo-Ann?' And she said, 'She's with the baby in the bedroom.'
"I said, 'OK,' and I was just going to go upstairs and give her a kiss and wake her up, and I ... passed my piano ... and I said, 'Oooh,' and all of a sudden there was just an impulse, and I sat down and I played 'My Funny Valentine,' and I started playing it softly ... and within a few moments I got a little bit louder and all of a sudden she was standing at the top of the steps."
John turns to Jo-Ann and says, "You can say what you thought it was. Remember?"
"I heard the music," Jo-Ann says, "and the first thing I did was get angry at my mother, because that's the way my mother liked to get us up. She'd put the music on. We always had music in our house, but no one but John knew how to play the piano.
"And I heard the music, and my first thought was 'I'm going to shoot my mother! It's too early. We didn't go to bed until 2 o'clock.' " She laughs. "And then I listened again, and I said ... " Tears begin to stream down her cheeks. "I can never tell this story ... "
She pauses to dab her eyes.
"I remember lying in bed and having a whole conversation with myself: 'It's him.' 'No, it's not him. It can't be.' 'But it's the piano. Nobody else could be there.' And I remember getting up and walking to the door of the bedroom and standing there and listening.
"And I said, 'That's the piano.' And then I saw my mom in the dining room, just standing there looking in the living room. And that's when I literally just left the bedroom and just flew down the steps and stood at the bottom and just, you know, looked at him ... and he got up, and then I just ran to him.
"It was really very surreal," she says. "I can't explain it, really. I believed it. I saw him. But I didn't believe it. He had his uniform on. Is he there? Is he not there? And it was a case of standing there and looking at him ... and wanting ... and wanting to go and run and touch him but yet being afraid it really wasn't him and it was a dream.
"But then I finally did within seconds go and it was real, he was really there, and I didn't have to worry about him being killed anymore. He was home."
John calls it "the most memorable moment of my life."
"Her running down the steps, the embrace, the tears of joy, the speechless wonder of it all. My only words," he recalls, "were 'Merry Christmas.' "
And then, after a long embrace, "she asked me to wait as she went back to our bedroom, returning seconds later carrying our son. He was two weeks old when I'd seen him last. Now he was almost one. Jo-Ann laid him in my outstretched arms as tears cascaded down my cheeks."
"'Your son has missed his daddy,' she said. 'And from both of us, Merry Christmas to you, too.'"
John and Jo-Ann Geida, married now for 44 years, live in East Lyme.