The clock hit 2:15 p.m. Friday at Richmond Drive Elementary School, and every kid as dismissal time approached thought about Christmas.
Inside his third-grade classroom, 8-year-old Makai Byrd’s thoughts were just a little different. Sure he wants an iPad, but Makai wanted one thing more than anything else in the whole world.
Makai didn’t tell his buddies. He kept that one thing secret – just between him and Santa.
But wars meant this 8-year-old kid’s father would not get home until next year.
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Suddenly, the door of the classroom burst open. The other kids stared and gaped as Makai Byrd sat at his desk, putting away the last pencils into his desk.
Then he looked up to see the only thing he really wanted for Christmas walking straight toward him.
Capt. Eddie Byrd walked across that classroom and put his big burly camouflage-covered arms that had just left the awful war and the longing and the loneliness of Afghanistan around his son.
“My man!” Capt. Byrd said.
Makai could not believe it. He did not jump into his father’s arms, or scream with joy. He ducked his tiny chin and looked to his buddies who confirmed: Yes, it sure is your dad.
Finally, Makai beamed a smile that covered not just his face but the whole of Rock Hill’s Richmond Drive Elementary School.
Byrd, 42, no longer had to worry about making sure somebody else’s kid came home alive to a reunion of hugs and joy.
His tour in Afghanistan – after three tours in Iraq that kept him from sharing most of the eight years of this little boy’s life – was over. He was home, early.
The rarely talked-about part of these wars – the lost time for these kids whose fathers miss birthdays and Christmases and reading awards and bedtime stories and ball games and hugs – finally ended.
Makai had his dad back. He squeezed his father’s tough and hard hand and did not let go.
“It’s really you,” Makai whispered to his dad, who said it sure was.
The two walked out into the hall, up to a purple wall where every Richmond Drive kid who “makes a difference” gets to sign his or her name in big letters or small letters.
Makai had signed that wall in September, after he visited all six Rock Hill fire stations on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
It was the wars started after those attacks that had taken his father away to war four times – and why Makai had no father so many nights to read him a story that would have a happy ending.
Makai had gone to each fire station and thanked each fireman because he could not thank and hug his father, who was on the other side of the world where all days and nights are fraught with terror.
That story of Makai’s firehouse visits ran in The Herald in September. Eddie Byrd told Makai Friday how he pasted up copies all over his base in Afghanistan.
He told his son how hundreds of soldiers were proud of him. He told his son how an entire battalion of grown tough soldiers had cheered for 8-year-old Makai Byrd, who did not forget fathers in a war.
Richmond Drive Principal Pat Maness asked Capt. Byrd to sign the “make a difference” wall Friday.
“You have made a difference, too,” Maness said.
No man has ever been prouder to sign his name – and no son was ever prouder of a dad.
“Capt. Eddie Byrd,” the signature read, right near Makai’s name.
The kids who “make a difference” also get a T-shirt. Capt. Byrd got a T-shirt, too.
“I love it,” he declared.
But there was more.
Maness had helped set up the last-minute surprise visit for Byrd, and he walked father and son outside the front doors of the school for one last surprise.
In the driveway and on the grass, carrying signs and banners – and most of all carrying smiles that stretched so far – stood the rest of the school.
Every teacher, every student cheered for the father who fought in war and had been gone so long, and for the son at his side who had been without that father for so long.
Then the cheers rose and somehow became louder and the place erupted in joy.
Makai tried to sneak his head under his father’s big, strong arm, but the father held his son out there so every other student who was cheering could see the both of them.
Byrd thanked the students, and this tough captain who a week ago was carrying a machine gun choked up – just as every adult there was choked up – because the school and these kids was the reason that this war exists.
“I never had a welcome home like this before, ever,” Byrd told the students.
Byrd, who grew up in McConnells in rural western York County, has spent his adult life after college first in the Marines, and then the Army. He had met political big shots and performed before thousands on athletic fields.
But any applause he heard in his life before did not compare with the cheers of the kids at Richmond Drive on a cold, gray Friday.
“You are the greatest,” Byrd boomed, and the kids broke out into the chant: “USA! USA! USA!”
Maness then, somehow got the students to quiet down. This principal –tough when he needs to be, even if he is a nice and tender guy – asked the kids if they wanted to sing something to Makai and his dad.
They sure did.
“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year!”
Byrd sang along, because he sure already had a merry Christmas. Makai, so shy, stood next to his father – and there was never a happier kid anywhere who found out at school that Santa Claus really does exist.
Santa wears an Army uniform, and wears the badge of a teacher who offers a hug. And most of all, Makai found out, Santa is alive in every other kid at Richmond Drive.
When it was over, the other kids wanted to touch Capt. Byrd, this warrior, and so many high-fived him. He thanked each one.
“Happy doesn’t begin to cover it,” Byrd said. “This is unbelievable.”
After all the other kids climbed on school buses, and nobody was left but a father and son, Makai whispered that he still wanted an iPad for Christmas.
Asked if he wanted anything else, Makai ducked his face down – chin firmly planted on chest – and peeked over at Dad and pointed.
The father put his arm around the son, and both walked off to a Christmas without war.