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Greg Peters column: A Christmas story

Greg Peters

Paulie Michael was an old man with two first names and he really didn't even own those. Paulie and his older brother, Hiram, grew up in an orphanage in Owatonna, Minn., in the 1920's and 30's. One of their parents was from a reservation, but they didn't know which one. Half of their heritage had been beaten out of them. The other half left them on a doorstep.

Neither boy had a birth certificate so when 1942 came around, they were shipped off to fight for the U.S. Army. Hiram was killed in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. Paulie not only lost his brother and only family member he'd ever known, he also lost his tongue and the ability to speak from a grenade.

After the war, Paulie moved around from small town to small town working odd jobs. He ended up in Wisconsin. Nobody really knew Paulie; most didn't know his name, but everyone in town knew who he was.

Paulie was the guy who couldn't talk and, by the mid-1980's, he was only known as the "garbage guy," making it through each day digging through dumpsters. Others' trash was his treasure.

Paulie didn't shower because the 10-by-10 wooden shack he lived in outside of town in the woods didn't have running water or heat. The smell of garbage didn't seem to bother him either. That same grenade also took his sense of smell. Sifting through maggots on hot summer days wasn't a problem; he'd seen much worse during World War II.

Paulie mostly stayed out of sight. He never went to trash cans at people's homes. He only went to dumpsters at restaurants, businesses and parks, mostly public places usually after dark when no one was around.

He didn't have a car, so he walked everywhere carrying a big plastic sack filled with the day's findings.

Aluminum cans he turned in for money to buy food was this prospector's silver. Returnable glass bottles were his gold. Paulie lived in a college town, a ripe place for harvesting returnable beer bottles in the 1980's.

In 1984, a few days before Christmas, a 12-year-old boy named Tate was walking through a park with one of his friends. Tate saw Paulie carrying a big sack crawling out of a dumpster and started calling him "Smelly Santa" over and over.

"Smelly Santa where's your sleigh?" yelled Tate. "Why don't you eat your milk and cookies? You're the skinniest Smelly Santa I've ever seen," he continued.

Paulie paid no attention to the boys. He was as oblivious to the name calling as he was to the smell of trash by this time.

Tate and his partner in crime noticed Paulie was wearing white bright women's nursing shoes with thick rubber soles, a pair Paulie had found in the hospital dumpster just days earlier.

"Smelly Santa has Mrs. Claus' shoes on!" hollered Tate.

Paulie was walking away by this time and the boys started throwing snowballs at him. The snowballs turned to glass bottles. Glass was breaking all over the parking lot covered with a slippery sheet of cement ice.

Tate's friend turned and left. Tate threw more glass bottles and the last one he threw hit Paulie in the head and shattered, knocking him to the black ice.

Tate's friend was a hundred yards away by this time and he turned and sprinted away. Tate turned to run and slipped on the ice and fell backwards. His head drilled the icy pavement and his side was pierced by a shard of glass; he was knocked out cold and bleeding profusely.

Paulie was only in his early 60's but he looked to be 80, his legs and muscles even older. Paulie saw a pool of frozen red blood next to Tate by the time he clumsily shuffled over. He removed the broken glass from Tate's side, unscrewed a plastic bottle of vodka from his own coat pocket, and poured it on Tate's wound.

Paulie then tied his jacket around the stabbed skin and, with the boy still comatose and not a car in sight, picked him up and carried him over a mile to the hospital.

When Paulie, still carrying Tate, trudged into the hospital lobby, he collapsed, both bodies hit the tiled floor with a thud.

Paulie was having a heart attack and Tate still lay unconscious.

The hospital was unable to revive Paulie. He died just minutes later.

Tate, meanwhile, had lost a lot of blood.

Making the situation extremely critical for Tate was the fact his blood type was Rh null, one of the rarest forms of blood types. If Tate received a transfusion with any other type of blood, his red blood cells would clump up, causing death. Doctors have documented there were less than 50 people in the world over the prior 50 years to have Rh null blood coursing through their veins. That day, in that small town in Wisconsin, two people had Rh null blood in the same emergency room. Tate was one of them; the other was Paulie Michael.

Paulie Michael saved Tate's life twice in one day.

On Christmas day in 1984, Tate was now awake and doing better. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was a pair of white female nursing shoes with thick rubber soles. A nurse at the hospital had cleaned Tate's blood stains off the shoes. Tate remembered how he was hurt and remembered the garbage guy wearing those exact shoes. The nurse told him what happened afterward. The nurse also told Tate they couldn't find one friend or relative of Paulie, the man who saved his life twice in one day.

Tate asked the nurse if he could have Paulie's shoes.

Every Christmas Day, since 1984, Tate will put on those white female nursing shoes and walk over one mile to church, his kids complaining and making fun of his shoes the entire time. Tate's kids are now old enough to hear his story.

It's a Christmas story, Tate says, that no one can fully understand until they've walked a mile in his shoes.

Pastor Tate begins his story with, "A man named Paulie Michael saved my life THREE times in one day."

Editor's note: This is a fictional story by Greg Peters, in the spirit of the holiday season. Interesting facts from Greg: Paul and Michael are both names meaning "humble." Tate is a Native American name meaning "big talker."