In the gymnasium at First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, where the preschoolers play, a 4-year-old boy named Aidan Rock runs and rides a scooter. All boy, this Aidan, he's tough. Trailing behind, rushing around, is his 18-month-old brother, a wild one who is all boy, too, tough and rugged, named Madden Rock.
Madden is so tough that when he had a broken leg at Halloween, he hobbled around on his cast dressed as a peg-legged pirate.
When school ends at noon each weekday, their mom, Ashley Ingram Rock, picks them up. Other kids' moms and dads pick them up. Anybody who has ever seen a dad pick up a preschooler knows how special that is. Moms are the tough ones, the enforcers. Dads are the guys who sneak the treats because Moms are tougher and have to be the enforcer. Dads have the big burly arms that sweep a little boy into the sky.
But for the Rock boys, pickup is always just Mom.
"My dad is at work," says Aidan.
The boys rush to their mom, and talk is of Christmas.
A Christmas without a father.
Because Dad, Mike Rock, is Maj. Mike Rock, U.S. Marine Corps, and he is waiting to eat a Christmas dinner of C-rations out of a pouch, or if lucky, something out of a can, or if luckier still, a turkey flown to his base in Afghanistan and served in a tent with dust and rocks blowing through the flaps.
Mike Rock is 34 years old. In military age, he is ancient. The young guys who work for him, out there in the freezing cold of Afghanistan, away from home, are 18, 19, maybe 20. He is like a father to them, too, as his most important job is to bring them home alive.
But First ARP preschool is not letting these little boys whose parents met waiting tables at Chili's while both were in college at Winthrop, whose father has been to Iraq and Africa on previous deployments and missed so much, go without Christmas wishes. They will not let teenage Marines go without holiday cheer, either.
Every kid at the little school, 33 of them, made a Christmas card to send to Mike Rock and the Marines who work with him. Every kid put a handprint on a big banner, as a "signature" to show Mike Rock that people in Rock Hill are thinking of him and all of them at Christmas.
Another 82 Christmas cards came in to the Rock family, from the families of kids at the preschool.
The family had lived near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in recent years but came back to Rock Hill - Ashley grew up here - for support during deployment. Little did the family know that support would come from such tiny hearts in a preschool.
"This outpouring of love, all of it, it has just touched me in my heart," said Ashley Ingram Rock, who because of a war is a single parent for Christmas.
Heather Robinson, director of the preschool, brought up the cards and banner as a service project but said the teachers and kids ran with the idea. And run they did, with so much love for the fellow classmates whose father is gone.
"The cards are for the daddies," said Miley Rhoad, age 4.
"The Army, they are in the Army and can't come home for Christmas," said Hayden Poore, 4 years old.
Marissa Mayers, 4, put it this way: "The soldiers need a present at Christmas."
The cards and banner were presented to Ashley Ingram Rock this early week because mail takes at least three weeks to get to military people in Afghanistan.
Because technology has made the world so much smaller, Aidan, Madden and Ashley do get to talk to Mike via Skype on the computer every week or so. They are able to talk by phone a few times a month.
But what these cards mean - not just for Mike Rock but for all those young guys who work for him in field communications in that awful cold of Afghanistan, in those bunkers and on those lonely hilltops and mountains - is a real Christmas gift that can be held in hands. Cards to be read and treasured and put up on foot locker on the other side of the world.
"It shows not just Mike, but all those troops, that they are not forgotten," said Ashley Ingram Rock.
For Aidan Rock, age 4, the cards and banner mean this as he put his tiny hand print, in green for Christmas, on the banner:
"Merry Christmas to my Dad."