Flip-Flops and Mitten Socks

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matt. 25:40).

“The orphans are going to like all this stuff,” John said as he loaded the last box. The back of the panel truck was filled with presents and bags of food gathered by his Scout troop. He found room for a big bag of apples. “Perfect fit!”

“Boys, it’s time to go,” Dad said as he closed the back doors. “Get in.”

The truck was a bit crowded, but nobody minded—everyone was too excited about the Christmas party at the orphanage. Everyone except John.

He’d never met any orphans before, and the Korean boys, he’d been told, didn’t speak English. Meeting them made him nervous, but he didn’t say anything—after all, his dad was the troop leader. Besides, the other boys had been in the troop longer, and the party had been their idea. They thought this wasn’t just a good Christmas service project but a way of celebrating the end of the war by helping the Korean kids who had lost everything they had, including their parents.

Each boy was supposed to pick out three of his own toys to give to the orphans. Good ones, too—not old, broken ones. “Something you’d like to get as a present,” John’s dad had insisted. John tried to act as excited as the others. “I hope the boy who gets my race car likes it,” he said. “It’s my favorite.”

It wasn’t quite true, but no way was he going to give away his best stuff! Dad’s transfer was only going to be for a few months, and John hadn’t been able to bring all his things, anyway.

He’d had a hard time deciding what he could part with—certainly not his favorite race car, the one with the rip-cord starter and huge, knobby tires that went vroom-vroom when it zipped across the floor! So he’d picked another one. It was almost as good but didn’t go as fast. The teddy bear and wooden puzzle he gave up weren’t favorite things, either.

John sighed now and stared out the window. They’d been driving for miles through the Korean countryside. Gray slushy snow lined the road. The farm fields were a patchwork of dirty snow and brown mud. As the truck made its way to the top of the narrow, winding road to the orphanage, John got his first look at it. What an ugly place! he thought. As soon as his dad parked the truck, the boys scrambled out and began unloading the gifts.

All except John, who was too busy looking around. At the end of the yard was a long shed. Its roof was nothing but scraps of rusty sheet metal. The plywood walls weren’t even painted. Scrawny chickens pecked around in the straw, and equally scrawny goats wandered in and out the open door. Just inside the door, he could see rabbit cages. Hiding behind the cages was a skinny little kid with thick bangs cut sharply across his forehead. One of the orphans, John guessed.

The boy peeked around a cage at John but didn’t smile. John noticed that the boy wasn’t wearing a coat, just a ragged sweater. No mittens, either, nor a hat. Isn’t he freezing? John wondered. Then he glanced at the boy’s feet.

No shoes! Just rubber flip-flops and those funny-looking Korean socks. He called them “mitten socks” because they had a space between the big toe and the other toes for the flip-flop thong. He knew that they were only funny looking because he’d never seen them before, and that both they and the flip-flops (which would later be known as thongs) were practical and useful—he’d seen Korean farmers wearing the same socks with flip-flops—but he had not realized that anybody wore them in the wintertime too!

Suddenly the small boy smiled and waved a shy greeting. Then he darted away. John stood watching as silent Korean boys did their chores. Most wore coats, but only a few had mittens. One boy’s hands looked blue with cold. John turned to say something to his dad, but he and the other Scouts were heading inside the orphanage. John raced to catch up. Inside it was warmer, but not much. He decided to keep his coat on.

“Come on, boys, help me put the things out,” Dad said as he started unloading the food they’d brought—big bags of rice and beans, two huge turkeys, cookies, oranges, apples, candy canes, juice, and cupcakes with green coconut frosting.

Some of the Korean boys helped. They put the presents under a scraggly tree decorated with homemade ornaments and paper chains. On Christmas morning the orphans would open their gifts. Now they laughed and shook each present, chattering away excitedly.

John couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but he could see how they felt. He was excited about Christmas too! Maybe he should have given away his favorite race car. But there was no time to think about that—the party was starting. The other Scouts were already lining up to sing Christmas carols.

Soon the singing and games were finished, the cupcakes and cookies were eaten, and the party was over. As John headed for the door, he spotted the little boy who had smiled at him outside. The boy smiled and waved again from across the room.

John took his red mittens from his pocket and went over to him. “Here. You keep these. Merry Christmas!”

The boy looked puzzled.

“Go on, take them. They’re for you—to keep.” John held the mittens out again.

Slowly the boy reached for the mittens and slipped them on. His face split into the biggest grin that John had ever seen! He bowed his head and kept repeating something that John couldn’t understand.

“Kim Lee, Kim Lee!” the boy then said, pointing at his chest.

“Oh, I get it,” John cried. “Your name is Kim Lee!” He pointed at his own chest. “John Morris.”

The boy nodded, said, “John Morris,” then repeated those same strange-sounding words.

This time John knew what they meant: thank you. He wished that he could stay longer, but it was time to go. As they headed down the gravel driveway, John turned to see red-mittened hands waving from the barnyard gate. “Merry Christmas, Kim Lee,” John whispered.

All the boys were quiet on the way back. John broke the silence. “Dad, those boys at the orphanage will like the toys and other stuff, but they really need some warm clothes.”

“You’re right—they do,” Dad agreed.

“Do you think we could buy a bunch of mittens and hats and stuff like that and take it out there? In time for Christmas?”

“I think that’s a great idea. What do the rest of you think?”

The boys eagerly agreed: “Let’s buy them some warm socks.” “Maybe we could get them some snow boots too. I’d sure hate to walk around in the snow in flip-flops!” “Me too! Let’s get mittens and socks and hats and boots.” “My dad and mom will help us.” “Mine too.” “And mine.”

As he and Dad went home after dropping the other boys off, John was happy about the Scouts’ new plans. He was even happier as he got out his race car with the rip-cord starter and huge, knobby tires and covered it with Christmas wrapping paper.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown