Here again, my friends, is the greatest Christmas story ever told by a great story teller, Al Martinez, formerly of the Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News. Al is known as the "Bard of LA" and has won three Pulitzer prizes since he began writing columns in 1952. He wrote his last column on March 30 of this year, dropped by a newspaper publisher for the third, and probably last time. He had this to say in his last column:
"I think part of it is that I don't write local stuff but reach out for a broader view in a style of writing that just isn't "journalistic" enough. Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn't a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers. And as they sit in lofty judgment on what the public wants, the product that is a result of their judgment drops deeper into the abyss."
I run this story every year in Fiat Lux, and it brings a tear to my eye every time. So here it is, the Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told:
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A Christmas StoryBy Al MartinezIT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland 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 which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night 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 to 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 the 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 waiting 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 whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the 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 made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best."All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our 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 flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect 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.I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.
Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.