Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The True Spirit: "The Day The Kid Got His Peaches"

A San Francisco intersection at Christmas

[Today's post is a repeat of one that I've run the past couple of years, but a reader thought it worth repeating again for the newer readers, and I agreed. A couple of decades ago I read an article with a lesson to it that's stuck with me over the years, and in the spirit of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa holidays I thought I'd share it with you again today. If you can make the time in your hectic holiday schedule I hope you'll stop and read it. It's worth the time. Here's wishing the best holidays possible to all of you. Again, thank you for reading my stuff.]

By Al Martinez [San Francisco Chronicle: December 23, 1990] 

It happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland, California, on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches. It was a story that, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry at Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kind of passions that could make a sailor weep. I remember it was about 11 p.m. and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day’s editions. Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you’re young and fast and never get tired. Then the telephone rang. It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he’d had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with. But you didn’t tell Al what he ought or ought not to do. He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al. We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

“What’s up?” he asked me that Christmas eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze. He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole on Page One.

Al listened for a moment and then said, “How long’s he got?” “Not long,” I said. “His doctor says maybe a day or two.” There was a long silence and then Al said, “Get the kid his peaches.”

“I’ve called all over,” I said. “None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They’re just plain out of season. It’s winter.” “Not everywhere. Call Australia.” “Al,” I began to argue, “it’s after 11 and I have no idea...” “Call Australia,” he said, and then hung up.
If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don’t quite remember who I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the San Francisco Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day. There was only one problem. Customs wouldn’t clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived. “It’s close to midnight,” I argued. “His office is closed.” “Take this number down,” Reck said. “It’s his home. Tell him I told you to call.”

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did. I called the secretary and he said he’d have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

“All right,” Al said on his third and final call to me, “now arrange for one of the photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy’s house.” He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening, and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.
By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.
“Al,” I said “if I don’t start writing this now I’ll never get the story in the paper.”

I won’t forget this moment. “I didn’t say get the story,” Reck replied gently. “I said get the kid his peaches.”

If there is a flashpoint in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and effect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do. I didn’t say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I’ve learned since.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013

After this clip posted last Christmas a number of you were kind enough to send messages thanking me for sharing it; a few asking where they could purchase a recording of it.  To the first group: you're more than welcome - it's long been my favorite reading of the piece. As for obtaining a copy, although it was professionally recorded in concert it's not in commercial release. You might catch it being broadcast on a rare occasion - National Public Radio ran it on Christmas eve some years ago, for example - but even my disc is a white-label performer's copy.

It's just past lunchtime on 24 December in the Land of Smiles, and while I'd appreciate an afternoon on the beach there somewhere I'm more than content being home here with family and friends... so I'll share this again. If we don't meet here tomorrow, have a fantastic Christmas holiday.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Birth Of A Different Bao Bao

Mei Xiang nuzzles her newly born cub Bao Bao

Reader Dax recently sent an email, alerting me to a news item I'd missed. His message read in part "I wanted to wish you the very best of the holidays and congratulate you on the National Zoo's naming of their baby panda Bao Bao."

Bao Bao was born on August 23rd at the Smithsonian's National Zoo to Mei Xiang, brought here herself from China as part of a diplomatic program begun by Richard Nixon back in the early 1970s. Bao Bao is a female, and her name received the highest number of votes from the 120,000 members of the Friends of the National Zoo who participated in the selection process.

Evidently, in Chinese her name means "precious" or "treasure". I don't recall this blog ever being referred to in those terms - and I'd never claim it to be, naturally - but most regulars will remember that since Bao Bao means "gentle" or "easy" in Thai (or so I've long been told) so perhaps today's blip on the wide horizon of the internet would better fit into the same same, but different folder.

If you're dead set to have a Thailand tie-in for the post today I'll refer you to the Chiang Mai Zoo, where they've hosted pandas on loan from China and most likely have some there now. Check their web site for more information, as I've not been there yet - just the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok.

So, as the holidays are ramping up for me I'll close for today and get back to the exhaustive list of things demanding attention, but a special thanks to Dax for taking the time to alert me to the new namesake. Best wishes for the holidays to you, too.

Bao Bao, learning to walk and climb on 6 December

Thursday, December 5, 2013

His Majesty Turns 86

An internet image of His Majesty on his birthday last year.

Having missed more than my share of birthdays for folks I know again this year I suppose it isn't all that surprising to have "officially" miss the 86th birthday of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ruling king of Thailand.

From where I sit, the day there is technically over, but it's still the 5th of December here, so here's wishing him a healthy and happy birthday. May he have many, many more.

As a side note: since his birthday is the day observed as Father's Day in Thailand, here's to all of them, too!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Maruekatayawan: Royal Teak Home On The Beach

A beach view fit for... well, a King.

There have been recent reports that since his stay at Siriraj Hospital HM King Bumbhibol had been residing at the royal residence called Klai Kangwon in Hua Hin, begun by Rama VII in the late 1920s. Klai Kangwon means "away from worries", I'm told, and that sounds like a good place to get away to after a prolonged hospital stay, especially as he's heading toward his 86th birthday in three more days.

Possibly also wanting to take a sea-side break he'd also recently headed slightly North for a day trip to Cha-Am in the Petchaburi district to pay a visit to Maruekatayawan Palace, another of the royal summer homes in the kingdom.

A gorgeous, open, airy, teak wonder, Maruekatayawan Palace rests on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand. The overall feel of the place is one of casual elegance; you know you're in a royal residence, but it's so peaceful and relaxing it's easily my favorite so far.

Pink  and yellow plumeria dot the grounds at Maruekatayawan 

In general the royal residences have, over time, been built to accommodate the wishes of the current ruler, naturally. Maruekatayawan was built by His Majesty King Varjiravudh (Rama VI) in the early 1920s, and is one of the oldest remaining residences. Rama VI personally designed it and saw the interior completed he paid his last visit there in 1925, the year he passed on.

A family rests in the shades on the expansive and well-groomed grounds

Maruekatayawan and the beach it graces are fine spots to relax, meditate, take pictures, have a picnic and relax.

I had a leisurely visit there with a friend one afternoon, and we ended up spending several more hours there than we'd intended.  He kept saying "I knew you'd like this", and he was right. I wondered to myself why he hadn't planned a bit longer to stop there - I'd planned to stay in the Big Mango that night - but we did get back to Bangkok that evening, although it was close to the witching hour.

A meeting and receiving hall

For photographers it's a cornucopia of photo opportunities, and I took a lot of pictures as we wandered the grounds. Rather than slam through this wonderful spot in one post I figure we'll do it in at least two installments. Hope that's OK with the majority of you.

Light blue and yellow are the predominant colors for the building exteriors