Noble's connection to Uncle Wally was growing faint. His grandmother was now gone, and so was his mother. Once, maybe 11 years ago, Uncle Wally's widow - Libby - had called him out of the blue and talked about the man. But she spoke fast and he lost the notes he took, so all he remembers was they were married and didn't have time for kids before he shipped off to Europe, where he died in Luxembourg in 1945 at age 25.
The story of an unexpected Christmas gift begins there in Luxembourg a couple of years ago.
Norbert Morbe and his wife, Romaine, operate a small museum in the town of Berle dedicated to the soldiers who liberated their country. They run the place with their own money. Norbert, a farmer, is permitted to search the nearby woods with a metal detector for artifacts from the battle. That's where he unearthed a battered aluminum canteen.
Scratched into the metal was: "Lt. Wal. Lippincott, 712 Tank Bn," a serial number, and the words Sauer Kraut.
Morbe wanted to return the canteen to its proper owner, but wasn't sure how to do so until he hosted Vern Schmidt and his wife. Schmidt, a Californian, had served in the war with the 90th Infantry Division. He said it would be his honor to get the canteen back into the right hands. And he did try, using the Internet in hopes of tracking down Lippincott's relatives. But he got nowhere.
Until about two weeks ago.
He was on the phone with a newspaper copy editor named Aaron Elson whose father had served in the same company as Lippincott and who was collecting oral histories of the war. After a half-hour chat, Schmidt happened to mention the canteen. Elson knew of Lippincott and his story - the officer had joined the battalion two weeks before he was killed and had won a Silver Star for putting out a fire in his tank. For Memorial Day, Elson wrote about the German shelling that took Lippincott's life on Jan. 14, 1945.
Elson had even talked once to Nobles a decade before. Through Facebook, he made contact with Lippincott's grandnephew again.
Which is how that package found its way to Nobles' home a week ago.
When Nobles finally opened the box, he removed some bubble wrap and a letter. He paused before holding the canteen.
"I was moved to tears to think that for 60-plus years it laid there. I don't know what, if anything, of him came home from the war. I'm 42. He was killed when my mother was a baby. I never knew him - just stories grandmother had told of him fighting and dying in the war."
He decided to surprise his sister, Michelle Nobles Rutter, and her youngest son, Oliver Bowers, with the canteen for Christmas. On Wednesday, he drove to her house in Newark, Del., and told the whole story - the Luxembourg man who found it, the Fresno World War II vet, Elson the chronicler.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," he says. "It brings a sense a peace and a sort of closure to the story."
He wants to build a shadowbox for the canteen and display it with a photo of his great-uncle in his tank. That way family can visit it anytime and hold it.
He has one more wish - to find his great-aunt Libby, if she's still around. She'd be in her 90s. Last he knew, her family still lived in Pennsylvania. About 15 years ago, he determined she had made a gift to the University of Delaware in her first husband's name.
"Aunt Libby, where are you?" he asked in a recent Facebook posting. "I think," he says, "she would be overjoyed."
Columnist Daniel Rubin writes weekdays at http://inquirer.com/thetalk