By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Santa entered the large meeting room of the Department of Health and Human Resources building in Princeton, he waved to the children and said: “Merry Christmas, y’all.” I knew I was in the right place. Santa greeted children along the way and even called me by my first name as he gave me a hug. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the magic of Christmas, and I remembered the reason for the season.
More than 26 years ago, a handful of people joined Mike Shott in an effort to launch a weekly newspaper called “The Twin-State Marketer,” based in Bluefield, Va. In the early months, we were a shopper, but as we kept growing, we started adding some editorial content and a few features. On Christmas of that year, we had a full color photo of kids around a Christmas tree.
As with any new endeavor, we spent a lot of time trying to develop a niche for the product. We couldn’t really compete against a daily newspaper with as many as 25 writers back then, but we could do a good job with stories that the daily newspaper didn’t pursue. In December of 1987, someone from the Bike Works called and asked if we would cover an event involving members of the ABATE motorcycle club who were repairing old bicycles to give to kids at Christmas.
I rode my Triumph 650 Bonneville for a couple years in college and had a few other smaller bikes, but I had not rode my bike wearing any colors. I didn’t know any local bikers, but in my ongoing quest to cover stories that the other guys didn’t do, I drove on over and visited with the ABATE bikers who were doing something nice for kids at Christmas.
Of course, I was a little apprehensive, but that was probably because I didn’t know the guys and they didn’t know me. But that didn’t seem to matter 25 years ago when I walked into Bike Works, took a couple of pictures and talked to some of the guys about what they were doing. The main focus for them was fixing up some broken bicycles to give to kids at Christmas. Within a few moments, I was absolutely taken by the sincerity of their acts of kindness. I’m sure they didn’t know it, but their kindness contributed to a change that was taking place in my way of looking at things.
Before my dad suffered a heart attack, he let me ride with him to deliver baskets of fruit to families on roads near our home. It was always dark when we did it, and I remember wondering at the time why he skipped several farm houses before stopping to deliver another basket. I remember thinking at the time that if he stopped at every house, he could deliver all the fruit baskets in the back seat in a much shorter period of time.
I never touched a basket. After each stop, dad would get another basket from the back seat and bring it up front with us. He said I could walk up to the house with him if I wanted to, and I always did. The only words I recall hearing was my dad saying: “Merry Christmas,” and the person receiving the basket saying:” thank you.” They may have said other stuff, but I just don’t know.
As I grew older, I assumed the baskets came from the American Legion, but now, I’m not so sure. Dad seemed to know every farm in that part of southwestern Pennsylvania, the West Virginia northern panhandle and eastern Ohio. He worked for the Western Pennsylvania Artificial Breeders’ Company, and I traveled with him on weekends when he visited farms, but those trips were always in the daytime, and dad didn’t let me watch what he did.
But our pre-Christmas nighttime trips were different from when he was working. In the day time, we listened to music, Pirates baseball or Steeler football on the car radio, but on those special nights, we traveled in silence. I remember dad would sometimes ask me a question, but we were mostly quiet. Dad was real good at being quiet. He taught me how to spend hours in silence just waiting for a squirrel to pop his head out of a knot hole in a tree. Being quiet was something the two of us did a lot of together. I think about my dad when I’m quiet.
Dad was a chatter guy in baseball, but he was a quiet person when he had something on his mind. He grew up in an orphanage, so I imagine that silence meant a lot to him. I know carrying fruit baskets to neighbors on Christmas Eve meant a lot to him too. The only thing I really heard him say was: “Merry Christmas.” I’m just guessing that people responded by saying: “Thank you.”
Bill Archer is the Daily Telegraph’s senior editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org