Christmas Day signifies a yell into the silence

DAN RODRICKS

December 24, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

No one else worked that Christmas. I had the whol newspaper to myself.

The millionaire publisher was home in his silk robe, sipping breakfast tea by the roaring fire in his baronial mansion, his prize-winning Labs enjoying their Christmas pet-chews on the gorgeous Bokhara. All the editors were home with their kids; that included the city editor, who had 13 of them. All the other reporters, every one of them my senior, were gone for a long weekend.

It was Christmas Day 1974. My assignment: Write obituaries, cover the cops.

To do this single-handedly, I sat at the city desk, listened to police scanners and took notes.

That Christmas, the radios crackled with all the usual stuff -- reports of heart attacks, burglar alarms, suicides, tenement fires and a few car accidents.

The little miseries didn't stop coming just because it was Christmas. The airwaves were full of voices describing the usual bleak drizzle of human behavior: A breaking-and-entering, a stolen car, a trash bin fire, a couple of at-home deaths, a couple of ugly "domestic disturbances."

Wasn't much peace on Earth.

I remember having the heart-warming thought that, once I had called all the police precincts, I could spend Christmas afternoon and evening making phone calls to funeral parlors, gathering material for the obituaries of the holiday-dead.

It was my first Christmas away from home, and as I sat by the high stack of police and fire radios, I did something dangerous.

I started thinking about the great mess the world was in, with men who beat their wives on Christmas Day, and poor people trying to heat their homes with space heaters that tip over and invariably start fires that kill little kids.

I thought about all that I had seen in my first year as a newspaper reporter -- drunken death on the highway, death in dark houses, a plane crash that killed dozens of people, angry and violent white people who didn't want their kids to attend public school with black kids, families left homeless by fires, men and women burned out of their businesses, a boy whose family could not afford dialysis treatment for his kidneys, old people treated shabbily in nursing homes and layoffs at a shipyard.

It's not wise to let the bad thoughts pile up.

But each of us has a moment when the monsoon of daily news drenches and almost drowns us. I had one such moment -- Christmas Day 1974.

And what of this year? What of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men in 1992?

Certainly we can feel proud of the effort to break the horrific cycle of starvation in Somalia. But 786 million people are said to be suffering from acute or chronic hunger. More than 1 billion more face various forms of serious malnutrition. "Somalia is a drop in the bucket," says the author of "Hunger 1993," a publication of the Bread for the World Institute.

You read something like that and quickly turn the page. Statistics like that drown you.

So can the long drizzle of daily news -- in Baltimore, all the homicides (more than 300 again in 1992) and all the other signs of a community in decay. Where is the peace? Where does misery end? Where is hope?

I did not dredge up Christmas 1974 merely to reflect on the eternality of human misery.

Something else happened that day, and I have never forgotten it. It snowed -- fast and thick, quickly covering the streets of the city four flights below. I looked out the large windows of the newsroom, shook the bad news from my head and watched the town turn white. There was no traffic. Everyone seemed to be home, pulled in by the holiday and the weather.

I was bored, and a little depressed.

I opened one of the windows. Some of the snow blew into the newsroom. The snow deadened all sounds of the city. For a few minutes, the police and fire radios were silent; there wasn't even a second's worth of static. The phones didn't ring. The wire service Teletype machines were dormant. I leaned out the window and the snow whipped against my face, and, in a moment of wonderful lunacy, yelled "Merry Christmas" into the brief white peace of Christmas Day.

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