Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 10, 2012

Special days and a phone call home create life-changing chain of events

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Special days and a phone call home create life-changing chain of eventsAs I was growing up, my family only observed five holidays every year, and they weren’t the holidays most people observed. Christmas, of course, Dec. 25, was tops on our list of five. No matter what we were doing, something unexpected and incredible always seemed to happen on Christmas Day.

When I was 5 or 6 years old, someone in our Wayne Street Claysville, Pa., neighborhood was burning wrapping paper in their burn barrel one windy Christmas morning and sage brush on the whole ridge caught fire. There was more excitement for the fire than anything else that Christmas, although I remember wearing myself out on a punching bag.

A few years later when we were living at our farm on Beham Ridge, it got real exciting one Christmas morning when all of our ewes decided to lamb that morning during a rather severe snowstorm. I remember carrying all the newborn lambs up the hill and putting them in the barn. It was early afternoon by the time I got all the lambs and ewes in the barn safe and sound. I loved all of our animals. That was a personally satisfying Christmas morning for me.

The second most important day was May 30. Other than feeding and gathering eggs in the morning, Memorial Day was a day that dad and mom both considered sacred. Dad came by his love for Memorial Day after surviving World War II. He was a buck sergeant gun crew commander, and he took his love for his brothers in arms to heart. Mom’s grandparents decorated family graves every spring, and started decorating the graves of soldiers after General John A. Logan issued his orders to decorate graves in 1868.

Dad always had me sing the National Anthem for the reveille program at Claysville’s American Legion James R. Hunt Post 639. As a result, I was there the morning when the Ringold Cavalry Civil War re-enactment company fired their canon on Main Street and shattered several 1860s vintage windows in town. It was a morning worth remembering.

Our other three special days were my Mom’s birthday on Dec. 11, my sister Peggy’s birthday on Oct. 18, and my brother Stu’s birthday on April 19, which I later proclaimed as Fleming Cobb Day. Dad was uncertain about his Feb. 18 birthday, and I always chalked that up to him being raised in an orphanage ... an industrial home. Dad loved his family so much that he instilled as much love as he could muster into each of those three separate days.

Since I connected with Dad so closely, I mumbled through my own birthdays, never really wanting anyone to know or even remember. Somehow, it was enough for me and Dad both to go all out and celebrate the five special days without really including our birthdays in the mix. Thinking back now, it’s almost frightening to realize how much alike my dad and I were and are.

When I truly realized that I was going to flunk out of college in the fall of 1968, I thought my life was over. My dreams of being an athlete and even my dreams of going into the military had been dashed because I split my kneecap in half two years earlier. I was not one of the smart kids in high school. All of the “I Told You So” people I knew were right after I produced three semesters of failing grades. I didn’t care if I lived or died, so I just ran away, hitch-hiked to Miami, slept outside and mooched food and cigarettes from college students.

I was hopeless, homeless and I couldn’t care less. Even in winter, it was warm enough to sleep outside in Miami. I just pulled my arms inside my sweatshirt, curled up on a bench or even the ground, and slept until I got hungry in the morning and started panhandling spare change, food and cigarettes. I lived that way from the weekend after Thanksgiving until Dec. 11, 1968, when I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday.

She had been overcome with grief because she didn’t know where I was. From the time I was little and had to start running the farm on my own, I had become pretty independent. Even when I was 9 or 10, I could figure out how to get things done, but none of that left much spare time for being a good student or learning things in books. In that phone conversation with my mom, I learned that there were worse things than flunking out of college ... there was hurting your mother.

It took about another month to get back home, but I was in contact with the family all that time. My brother flew to Miami, and I came up with money to fly with him back to Pennsylvania in time for Christmas. I went back and tried to get a vendor job selling peanuts at Super Bowl III, in honor of my home boy Joe “Willie” Namath, but I slept too late and missed the cut. That was the end of my need to be in Miami, so I came home.

My memory is vivid about that sad time and the realization of how my life pivoted on a Dec. 11 phone call. It set the course for a set of new dreams in my life, far different from the ones I had before, but all aimed at heading me right to where I am now. For me, Dec. 11 is a cool day to remember. I’m certain I wouldn’t be here without it.

Bill Archer is the Daily Telegraph's senior editor. Contact him at