Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2007 | Pain and joy are wrapped often in the same tinsel, and Christmas is the season when they spill out together. With permission from The San Diego Union-Tribune, here is a reprint of the Neil Morgan column that appeared 46 years ago, on December 25, 1961:

There are many of us who hope always for the best, and insist on seeing it even when it may not be there. For those who wonder why what we find is not better, Christmas can be a disquieting season.  

For those of us realistic enough to turn both ways at Christmas — and I trust you are one of us? — the search for Christmas may become a maze.

Last night, making my downtown rounds on Christmas Eve, I spent a few minutes on a bar stool beside a Navajo Indian on liberty in the uniform of a Marine Corps corporal. For him, unconvinced by any home missionary, Christmas seemed only a liberty that allowed him to leave the base.

“This town is dead,” he said. “I wish I was in Gallup.”

While pondering this as the ultimate rebuke for our home city of San Diego, I settled in on a rinkydink piano bench and joined a group of carol singers at the bar. They were grasping for the words to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and were in grave need of an accompaniment.

A moment later, a peg-legged gentleman in a scarred leather jacket sidled over to me and removed from his pocket a clipping to prove he had set a world’s record for the mile on a motorcycle at a Springfield, Ill., track in 1939.  He dropped a quarter on the piano and asked the pianist to play “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The pianist obliged, asking only that the man in the leather jacket use the quarter to send him a bottle of mineral water.

The water came, and the bar crowd gathered inevitably around the piano. It is not likely that Christmas carols were sung anywhere in the city that night with as much reverence, or as much poignancy.

As if that was his cue, a brown-and-white mongrel female dog walked off on her rounds and sidled up to the piano bench, proudly bearing a collection of small coins that had been dropped in its owner’s white Panama hat. The pianist recognized the dog and dropped a dollar in the hat. A moment later, the dollar was back on the piano, and an apologetic voice was speaking.

“I just sent Pluto over as a joke,” a voice said. “I’ve been taking care of Pluto. His old man is just back from the state hospital, and he’s lying up in the hotel drunk. Meanwhile, his dog has lost six pounds.”

The dollar went back into Pluto’s hat, with a pledge that it would go to Pluto’s old man.

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