Early last week, James Carroll of Tyler, Texas, came to Billings for the second time in his life.
It was an enjoyable visit, but it was hard to top that first one, on Christmas Eve 1954.
Carroll was a 23-year-old Army private at the time, just out of basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, on his way to Seattle on a troop train. From Seattle he shipped out to Alaska, where he would serve for the duration of his two-year enlistment.
The train stopped in Colorado to pick up some more troops, bringing the number of soldiers to somewhere between 100 and 200 men. As far as Carroll remembers, they were never allowed off the train until they reached Billings.
It was 5 or 6 p.m., “about time for the evening meal.” Carroll and four other guys walked downtown for something to eat. He doesn’t recall the name of the restaurant, but it was a good meal, with big steaks around the horn.
“We selected what we thought was the best place to eat,” he said. “What the heck, it was Christmas Eve, so we were going to have the best we could find.”
On the house
When they finished eating and walked up to pay their tab, the man behind the counter wouldn’t take their money. “He said our money was no good,” Carroll said. “We couldn’t believe it, because it was an expensive meal.”
They left there in high spirits and continued strolling around downtown, struck by how friendly everybody was, how welcome they were made to feel.
“The shocker was when I got back to the train. Nobody had been able to pay for anything in Billings,” not even those who had tried to purchase gifts for their wives or girlfriends.
“I’m sure it was just spontaneous on the part of the people there,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. A soldier was not going to pay for anything in Billings on Christmas Eve.”
He laughed and added, “I should have bought a car.”
As Carroll was preparing for bed that night, with the train just leaving town, he pulled aside the little curtains on his Pullman car.
The kid from Texas hadn’t seen much snow in his life, and he’d rarely seen anything so lovely.
The half-forgotten words of an old poem came to him that night in the Pullman car, something about the moonlight glimmering on the white-crusted snow, and he heard the soothing chug-chug of the train picking up steam.
“I’ve remembered that picture all my life,” he said.
And for 53 years he’s been telling people about the town that wouldn’t take money from soldiers on Christmas Eve.
He’d never been back until last week, when he and a companion, Alta Leath, were visiting friends in Cody. When Carroll saw how close it was to Billings, they decided to drive up.
“I’m 75 years old, and I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get,” he said.
So he and Alta spent the afternoon in Billings, driving around, shopping, taking photographs, visiting the newspaper to share Carroll’s story. Mostly, he came back to deliver a message.
“You just be sure to tell the people of Billings, thank you, from me and a couple hundred soldiers on Christmas Eve 1954.”
From the Billings Gazette, written by Ed Kemmick