This is a Christmas story.
The year was 1955. I was a young reporter working nightshift at the Oakland Tribune on Christmas Eve, writing about a kid dying of leukemia whose last wish was for fresh peaches.
It was winter in America and there were no peaches, but I was working the kind of piece that would make a sailor weep: a little boy denied his final wish on Earth.
The phone rang. It was the city editor Al Reck. He was calling from home to see how things were going. They did that in those days, because the city editor was king and the city room his kingdom.
It was obvious Reck had belted down a few. He was an alcoholic but only drank at home, never during working hours. He suffered from diabetes and epilepsy and twice had dropped to the floor with grand mal seizures. Booze was the last thing he needed.
But Reck was the boss and he wanted to know what was going on so I told him about the boy and his wish. He listened and then said, "Get the kid his peaches." When I argued that they were out of season and unavailable in this country, he gave me a telephone number to call in Australia, where they were in season.
Memories dim after half a century, but not this one. The contact in Australia would ship some peaches but they'd be held up at Oakland International until they could be cleared. I was trying to figure this out when Reck called again.
He listened then said, "Call this number. He'll clear the peaches."
It was the home telephone number of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. How Reck acquired all these numbers was a mystery to us all. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew him. The Secretary of Agriculture said he would clear the peaches, and say hello to Al for him.
It was almost midnight and about 10 minutes to the final deadline . I was whipping out the story, leaving it dangling with the hope that the boy would eventually have his wish granted.
Reck called again. He wanted me to send a photographer to the airport to assure that the fruit would be delivered to the hospital where the boy was a patient.
I said, "Al, if I don't get this story done it will never make the paper."
There was a moment of silence and then Reck replied in a soft, slurred voice, "I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches."
The moment defined for me what we were supposed to be, not journalists pounding out a tear-jerker, but people who cared very much about those we were writing about. It was a lesson that continues to resonate.
The boy got his peaches but the story had to wait another day to be published. But in the mind of this aging journalist it will never grow old.