Friday, December 27, 2013 —
For brothers Landon, 5, and Micah Bernhardt, 1, it didn’t look like Dad would be home for Christmas.
A staff sergeant for the U.S. Army, father George Bernhardt had been away 13 months and counting. Last Christmas, which was Micah’s first, Dad was deployed in southern Afghanistan and Christmas consisted of phone calls and far off wishes.
“We spend more time talking on Skype or on the phone than we do in person lately,” Bernhardt said.
“Everything’s been long distance for a while.”
The most Landon and Micah were expecting this Christmas was the sound of his voice.
And that’s what they got — that and a bit more. Because this year Dad was more than a voice. This year Dad came home for Christmas.
When mom Kelly Bernhardt found out he would be home for the holidays, she asked the boys’ day care, Richfield Child Development, if they would help her surprise Landon and Micah.
They were more than happy to agree.
Staff members literally put George in a giant gift-wrapped refrigerator box in Landon’s classroom. They had introduced the box to the class as part of a five senses lesson the week before.
Kids would get in the box, disguise their voice and make the other kids guess who was speaking in order to practice hearing.
“We made up the lesson just for this,” said Kelly Huff, day care owner and director.
While all of the kids were out of the room Thursday, George climbed into the box and it was closed behind him. When the kids came back in, they were told it was time for another hearing game.
“But this time there’s already someone in the box,” Landon’s teacher Jennifer Allan told the group.
“See if you can guess who it is.”
Landon sat front and center. Micah had been taken out of his own class to sit in the back for the special occasion.
George started reading “The Night Before Christmas.”
From out of the box came that same voice Landon and Micah had heard over the phone a dozen times over the past 13 months, the same voice that had Skyped with them across thousands of miles.
But whether it was all the people with cameras distracting them — such as an aunt, grandparents and others — or the fact that Dad simply didn’t sound the same without a microphone, neither kid said anything.
“Use your hearing. Did anyone recognize that voice?” Allan asked.
“No,” was the response all around.
“I’m somebody’s dad,” George hinted from inside the box.
“Does anybody recognize their dad’s voice?” Allan asked.
“I’ve been gone for a long time,” George said.
“Who’s dad has been gone for a long time?” Allan asked.
“Landon’s dad,” said one of the kids.
“Landon is that your dad?” Allan asked.
Landon looked at the box.
“No that’s not my daddy. He doesn’t sound like that.”
Later Kelly said it was just too unexpected for him. He just couldn’t believe his ears.
But then again, it is said that seeing is believing.
As George gave up on hints and finally emerged from the box it only took Landon a moment to go running to him.
“How did you get in the box?” he asked repeatedly.
“With a lot of planning,” George answered.
“Now we’ll be together for Christmas and New Year’s and however much time we need after that.”
George’s return marks the beginning of a three year non-deployment period for him. He has been stationed in Arizona and the family will move out there shortly after the holidays, but he said at least they will be together.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
Over the past six years he said he has probably been away from his family about 52 months.
The night before the surprise, though, was the hardest of all.
George was actually stowed away in the same house as Landon and Micah the night before.
“At one point Micah woke up ... Kelly said, ‘I’ll go get it,’ but I wanted to go get it. I wanted to go get him so bad,” George said.
Kelly said he’ll get his fill.
“I’m just going to let him take over for the next couple of days and have some nice relaxation time,” she joked.
While she’ll be glad for the break, though, she said she is really just glad George is here to stay.
“With no deployments we’ll be able to grow together as a family,” Kelly said.
“I can’t wait to have him home for a long time.”
As Micah pulled at his dad’s shirt, Landon was already making plans for their time together.
“I’m going to learn to ride my bike without training wheels,” he said.
George said it was a deal.
“I’m just glad they haven’t forgotten who I am,” he said.
While they may not have recognized his voice, this Christmas, they will not have to try.
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