Christmas Vigil In Field Of Memories

December 26, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Christmas dawn broke cold and silent over 53,371 empty seats on 33rd Street yesterday.

As the children of Baltimore rose to greet wishes delivered and desires unmet, Larry Wilson walked the vacant aisles of Memorial Stadium, a lone set of eyes standing watch over an obsolete coliseum -- a Christian security guard pulling the midnight-to-eight shift on the anniversary of his savior's birth.

"It's my regular work day and Christmas fell on it," said Mr. Wilson, 38.

For the effort, he earned $9 an hour, time-and-a-half holiday pay.

At 6 a.m., the temperature was 20 degrees and Mr. Wilson was two hours away from driving home to Woodlawn to be with his wife, Miriam, and their 15-month old daughter, Nabiera.

Hardly a car passed on 33rd Street, darkness covered the fabled infield where Brooks Robinson turned ground balls into outs, and Bugs Bunny played on a black-and-white TV atop an ancient refrigerator in a small, heated ticket booth where Mr. Wilson passed most of his shift.

"I don't really celebrate Christmas like the masses," he said. "I know that it means Jesus Christ was born, so I celebrate by praying. I did some praying after I got here, a little after midnight. I thanked God for Jesus and then I talked to Jesus about the problems of the world --the hunger, people out of work, how there should be more peace. I thanked him for the help he's given us and the help he will be giving us."

Mr. Wilson also got up from his folding chair every half-hour or so to make a round.

"I walk every bit of a couple miles each night," he said. "I watch out for vandalism and trespassing. I look for anything suspicious, make sure everything is locked up and secure."

Built in 1954, the year Mr. Wilson was born, the stadium is dedicated to all Americans who died in World Wars I and II. An urn sits in a glass case across the hall from Mr. Wilson's post, and in it resides a spoonful of earth from every American military cemetery in the world. Bronze plaques on the walls herald the achievements of businessmen and politicians who worked to get the stadium built, along with athletes who performed better than others who competed here.

Once in a while, when it's warmer, Mr. Wilson will stop to stare at the field where the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Colts won fame and championships. "I come out just to look," he said of the eerie, empty bowl. "I think of the crowds and the ballplayers and what it must be like to be a star. Nobody wants this stadium to be torn down."

It's all dusty history now, part of a Baltimore that existed before the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and the Orioles left for Camden Yards in 1991.

And for eight hours a day -- be it Christmas morning, just another Friday, or the Fourth of July -- it is a memory Mr. Wilson is entrusted to protect.

"Kids like to hang around outside sometimes," he says. "They run around in the flower beds out front and want me to let them use the bathrooms." No one was hanging around yesterday when it was 19 degrees at 7 a.m. and dawn splintered flinty and gray over the right field bleachers.

Despite the cold, Mr. Wilson gulped ice water from a jug he keeps in the refrigerator.

"It keeps me alert," he said.

Loose cords banged against flag poles ringing the top of the horseshoe-shaped stadium; beyond the center field fence, pine trees stood unadorned.

Wild cats, Mr. Wilson said, now breed in the stadium, and once a nearby Waverly resident called the police to report a break-in.

Officers found two women huddling in the Orioles dugout. "We're not sure what they were doing," said Mr. Wilson.

As wide swaths of daylight turned the cloudly sky a pale blue and made the aluminum seats in the upper deck gleam, Mr. Wilson remembered a favorite childhood Christmas from his days in northeast Washington.

"One year I got this big red car," he said, his kind, round face beaming. "It was called the Crusader 101 and it had remote control. My eyes were big as apples when I saw it. That topped it all. It was huge and waiting for me right under the tree."

There was no tree waiting for Mr. Wilson when he got off work yesterday morning. No Christmas lights and few gifts.

He gave all of that up six years ago when he married a Muslim who celebrates Kwanza, the African-American celebration of harvest.

"I sort of miss the traditional stuff," he said. "I know that the tree and all isn't the real meaning of Christmas, but it's a good reminder . . . a nice complement."

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