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Posted 3/15/2012

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By Eric Woomer

Just three days before Christmas, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Bo Temple sent an email to his 37,000 civilians and soldiers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the message, he reminded them of a story from World War I, when British and German soldiers laid their weapons down and came to a truce.

During the brief cease-fire, soldiers played soccer, sang "Silent Night," exchanged photos and souvenirs and, for a short while, put differences aside and shared in fellowship.

When Valerie McKay, a park ranger with the corps, opened her email, she was taken aback by the story. While some may never have known the encouraging tale of peace, McKay had heard the story firsthand dozens of times from her grandfather, who, in 1914, climbed out of a trench in Belgium and played a rousing game of soccer.

"The holiday season gives us the opportunity to set aside our worries and fears for a short time, gathering with our families or loved ones once again for the familiar celebrations and traditions that are so important," Temple wrote on Dec. 22.

After asking permission from her superiors, McKay replied to Temple's email to tell the high-ranking officer of how her grandfather, Earnest Davis, had passed down the story of the Christmas Day Truce of 1914.

"They laid down their arms and soon from across the lines, the British could hear the Germans singing 'Stille Nacht.' They listened to a whole verse and on the second verse, one of the British soldiers joined in with the song in English. The night was filled with 'Silent Night' from both sides," McKay responded.

It was just days later that the Lake Kaweah park ranger received a package that included excerpts from a book detailing the 1914 truce. The return address was Maj. Gen. Bo Temple. She nervously waited a week before sending a biography on her grandfather that had been written by members of her family.

Temple knew he'd found a special connection to a corps member and in early February, the corps' top leader added a stop to a California tour he'd planned — a trip to visit Lake Kaweah and meet McKay.

"Her grandfather was a soldier and I am a soldier, and that is a connection in its own, but we have a link to a special story," Temple said Thursday at the Visitors Center at Lake Kaweah. "The 1914 truce is an important time in history when two sides came together for a good cause, and when it was over, they went back to fighting."

When McKay and fellow park rangers heard of Temple's plans, the preparations began. They wanted to make sure everything was perfect when their commander came to visit. But for McKay, the visit was more than a tour of the Terminus Dam. It was a time to put a face to the messages and complete the link that started with a mass email.

"I can't wait. I am so excited, I can hardly stand it," McKay said as she stood in anticipation for Temple. "Do I salute? Do I bow? What do I do?"

McKay even wrote Temple's name and rank on her hand in case she nervously forgot.

When the time came, Temple held out his hand and shook McKay's hand. Then he handed her "Silent Night" by Stanley Weintraub, a book McKay says she will cherish because of who gave it to her and the meaning behind it.

"It's unreal. This all started with an email," she said.

McKay, who almost didn't make it to Lake Kaweah after weather in San Francisco canceled his flight into Visalia, was determined to meet the park ranger he'd known only through email. In order to keep his promise, Temple and staff members drove more than 220 miles to meet the men and women of the Lake Kaweah corps.

"We have technology and innovation, but without people like this, nothing would get done," he told a group of park rangers, county officials and onlookers. "We have projects all over the country, with good people like this making sure things get done."

Temple shook the hand of each person who attended Thursday's event, including the daughters, McKay's mother and aunt, of the soldier he'd heard so much about. He laughed with Iris McKay and Joyce Wilson, who both simply said, "we're so proud."

Christmas Lake Kaweah World War I