Sometimes, the full meaning of a moment isn't realized until years later. Dick Brookins certainly had no idea what would come of that December day, back in 1944.
Brookins and other members of the U.S. Army's 28th Infantry Division Signal Corps were in Wiltz, a small town in Luxembourg, just days before what would turn into the Battle of the Bulge. A fellow soldier wanted to throw a party to celebrate St. Nicholas day, which hadn't been allowed there during four years of German occupation.
He asked Dick to suit up.
“At first I said no,” said Brookins. “I wasn't sure who St. Nicholas was, I didn't know what he did and I was afraid I'd goof it up.”
Brookins gave in, and some townspeople helped dress him to look the part. As it turns out, someone was filming that day when an Army jeep carried the American St. Nick through the streets, as he gave treats to the local children.
“It was like a reprieve for us,” he recalls. “I just to put this party on. It was probably as much for us as it was for the kids, really.”
After the war ended, Dick Brookins came home to the Rochester area, and started a family. As the years passed -- his memory of that day faded.
But each year the people of Wilts still celebrated. For decades, Dick had no idea. Until 1977, when they tracked him down, and invited him back.
Brookins and his family first returned to Luxembourg 32 years ago -- suiting up again, as St. Nick. He's been back several times since, each time – overwhelmed by what it all means.
“It just sticks with me that we really made a difference,” said Brookins. “It's a trite phrase, perhaps. But we made a difference.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Dick Brookins packed again. At the age of 87, he'd go back to Wilts once more, this time to help celebrate 65 years since he first wore a priest's robe and rope beard -- bringing smiles and candy to children.
“They just feel it's important that I'm there,” he said.
During this last trip, Brookins says it seemed everyone knew; the American St. Nick was back.
Grandparents – some of whom were just children in 1944 -- stopped him in the streets, kissed him, hugged him, asking for autographs.
“They leave me with tears in my eyes,” says Dick of the response. “It's kind of humbling.”
Had he said "no" to a friend's request 65 years ago, Dick Brookins would never have known what's become such a large part of his life.
“I just feel that, I can't believe it's me,” he says.
Brookins goes back to Wiltz, when he's invited. Each trip is on his
own dime. He doesn’t do it for himself. Rather, for those he touched -- and for those who left their mark on him.
“I represent all those things they hold dear,” he says. “On behalf of a bunch of guys that said, 'let's have a party'. Never thought we'd have that effect on people.”
At 87, Dick Brookins isn't sure he'll be able to travel to Wilts again. If it was his last trip, he's okay with that. Because the meaning of the moment he helped create, won't be forgotten.