By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I had to smile when I was talking on the telephone with Ty DeMartino and J.W. Myers about the movie they’re working on in Wheeling — “Random Acts of Christmas.” Mr. DeMartino mentioned to me that the company he and Myers formed was called Route 40 Films, and I started asking questions in an around about way as to why they would select that name for their company. Eventually, I learned they were both from Frostburg, Md. That’s what made me smile.
In the winter of 1968, my friend Pete Brizzi and I decided to hitchhike to Miami, Fla., and a warmer climate. Pete was going to be a filmmaker too, but I was a lost soul. Failing grades in college — even in English — prompted me to quit school during Thanksgiving break that year without withdrawing from classes. I got in an argument with my dad over quitting, got a ride to Morgantown and rode to Miami with a kid I knew who was on Thanksgiving break from the University of Miami. It was warm enough down there to sleep outside.
After three weeks, I called my mom on her birthday — Dec. 11 — to tell her I was OK. That was an emotional call. I never spent another day of my life without her knowing where I was. I came back home for Christmas, and there was a lot of tension. Pete was having similar challenges. He wanted to go to Los Angeles and make movies. A couple of days before Christmas, he left his home and came to Claysville, Pa. We got a ride from someone down to Morgantown. On Christmas Eve, we decided to hitchhike to Miami.
We didn’t pay any attention to news or weather back then. When we left, there was a light snow falling. We figured that was appropriate since it was Christmas, and we thought it might improve our chances of getting a ride if people felt sorry for us. I wrote, “Miami” on a cardboard sign, and we were on the way. That was before there was an interstate around there. The trip east from Morgantown to Baltimore and I-95, went on back roads through Bruceton Mills, and eventually, connected with U.S. Route 40 — the very same road that passed in front of my home at Claysville.
We had been wrong about the idea of people feeling sorry for us. We walked a lot, talked a lot and got a few short rides. As evening faded into night, the snow started falling with a vengeance. I grew up on a farm, so I knew how to survive and even work in harsh weather conditions, but as the night got darker, Christmas Eve traffic vanished altogether from Route 40.
As we crested a hill, we saw a neon sign for a motel a short distance ahead of us. Pete and I decided to walk over there and ask if we could just stand inside long enough to get warm. The people at the motel were nice, but their lives were in turmoil. There home had just burned in a structure fire, and they were bringing the things they were able to salvage to keep in the motel they operated until they could figure out what to do next.
They were absolutely gracious and hospitable, but they were really busy, carrying loads of clothing and wrapped Christmas presents into the motel, and getting ready to go after another load. The man who was doing most of the work paused for a few moments before driving his pickup truck back into the storm to get more of their personal items. Back then, I didn’t have the same level of experience of understanding the tragedy of a fire as I do now.
The man was so patient, though. He said we were welcome to stay at the motel, but he also offered us a ride to the Frostburg, Md., Greyhound bus terminal where we could catch a bus out of there. Pete and I were astonished by the man’s kindness. On the way to the bus terminal, he didn’t lament his misfortune. Rather, he asked us when we thought we might make it to Miami. He flashed us a kind smile when he dropped us off. We both watched as his taillights disappeared into the snow-coated darkness.
The Frostburg bus terminal was plain with hard wooden benches that were uncomfortable just to look at. There was a big clock somewhere — either inside or outside of the building, and the only bus running was a westbound bus headed to Pittsburgh. We bought tickets for that trip — an unbelievable trip on Route 40 through a blizzard — and spent the early morning hours of Christmas in the Pittsburgh bus terminal. I used the images of our Pittsburgh stop to write a short story that was rejected by some of the top magazines in America including “The New Yorker.”
Pete and I took a bus to Washington, Pa., and my sister picked us up at that bus terminal. We made it back to Claysville by mid-afternoon Christmas Day, just in time for Christmas dinner. Dad and I made up, my mom knew where I was, and with the passage of time, I found a new direction in life. When J.W. Myers said he and DeMartino were from Frostburg, that whole trip and the Random Act of Christmas Eve that carried me back home in 1968 swept over me like warm summer sunshine. I hope their movie is a good one.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.