HERE ARE THREE stories of Christmas 1981 in Washington for you, three tales about the joys, and sorrows, of the season. No doubt there are tens of thousands of other similar stories, some of which, I'm sure, are more poignant or instructive. No matter. These are just simple stories that tell us about the importance of sharing. That's really what Christmas is all about, anyway. So let me share them with you.
THE EX-PRISONER: William C. Ringo, tall and thick, pushed back the cap on his head, revealing a broad round face, a pair of stark black eyes and a graying goatee. He was remembering a Christmas past, a year ago, when his only identity was his inmate number at Lorton Reformatory where he called a 12-by-11 foot cubicle home. He recalled he "tried to pretend like it was any other day, nothing special."
This Dec. 25, however, is different. Ringo is free on parole and he will eat dinner with his new wife and stepchildren in his new home, a five-room bungalow in Landover. It will be the first time in 10 years he has not celebrated Christmas inside prison. He's spent 30 of his 44 Christmases behind bars.
The first Christmas Ringo spent in prison, he was a young kid. "My ideas were of toys, presents and a big meal," he said. "That first Christmas night I went in my cell and I laid down cross the bed and I cried. I had to do it quietly because if any guys had seen me crying I would've had to fight. Crying is a sign of weakness in the penitentiary."
After that first Christmas, Ringo seemed always to be in jail on Dec. 25 -- sometimes in solitary confinement, sometimes eating bread and water. Sometimes Christmas came and went without his having a single visitor. On one Christmas, he watched as some inmates destroyed the prison Christmas tree just to prove their toughness.
Then, in 1975, Ringo became a born-again Christian, marrying a woman minister in a prison ceremony. Just a month ago, Ringo was released on parole from Lorton after serving time for a murder, rape and robbery conviction. He has a job inspecting new cars at a local new car dealership.
Since his parole, he has returned on occasion to Lorton to help other inmates. "I want them to know that they don't have to live a life of crime, that it's lovely to live free of the law." This Christmas, Ringo will sit in the pews of a real church and listen to the youth choir sing his favorite hymn, "The Lord Is My Light and Salvation. Whom Shall I Fear?"
THE MOTHER: Last year at Christmastime, Janice, a Northern Virginia resident, did not know where her children were. Her ex-husband, she said, had not returned them for Christmas as had been agreed upon.
Many children who are caught in divorce conflicts visit the noncustodial parent during Christmastime. Many will not be returned.
When her husband moved out of the couple's house in 1975, Janice says she was left to raise the children alone under a separation agreement that gave her permanent custody. The children, she said, regularly visited the father, who eventually remarried and moved to the Midwest.
Last year, under a special extended visitation agreement, the children were scheduled to spend the year with their father and return to their mother for Christmas vacation. But while Christmas arrived, the children didn't. Janice said she took the first plane she could to the town where her children's father now lived. When she arrived at his home, instead of her children she was handed a summons ordering her to appear in court.
After a painful and protracted legal battle, during which she said she was allowed to visit with the children only under armed guard, Janice's case was returned to Virginia. A judge here eventually decided that the children could remain with their mother. So, in July, Janice returned home with her children.
Now her husband has been granted visitation rights this Christmas. But Janice says she is so afraid he won't send them back afterwards that her voice quivers at the prospect of the approaching holiday.
THE PREACHER: The only holiday decoration at the Second Chance Mission of Hope, at 1326 U St. NW, is a Christmas card on the desk of the Rev. Milton Sullivan. Second Chance smells old and dusty like a trunk dry-rotting in a forgotten attic. But Sullivan, a robust ex-convict and ex-addict, inspires the place with a dignity and hope.
"You can find peace in the storm," he bellows from deep within his barrel chest. "We give motivation and encouragement here. Most people are discouraged by these budget cuts. They feel it's another step to squash them. But we try to make them stand up and have some goals in life. We tell them they don't have to accept things the way they are."
Sullivan and his wife run a two-person charity organization. Nine men live in their mission, furnished with sagging sofas and mismatched sheets. The couple feeds many of the city's needy, giving them food purchased for 10 cents a pound from the Capital Area Community Food Bank.
Even though there are thousands of hungry people in the Washington area, Sullivan said he doesn't know of anyone who was canceling Christmas because of poverty.
"They will struggle to get their kids something, even if it's just one toy for Christmas. They spend the money knowing that it might mean no food next week."
Sullivan's Christmas spirit doesn't end Dec. 26, however. In fact, you might say that's just when it begins. "That's when we help a lot of people out," he said. "Right after Christmas."