By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
I was only two months into my first job on a real newspaper. I was "the kid," the "gopher." Even on that Christmas Day in 1963, my work never let up.
"Hey, kid, go for coffee! Go for sandwiches!"
Newspapers are like that. Holidays are special sometimes, but other times they are just another day. Work still needs to be done, stories still need to be written, and gophers still need to go for coffee and sandwiches. If we'd had a ladder of hierarchy at the Albany Times-Union, I would have been just below the first rung.
But I had made a deal that day. I'd make an extra run to the White Tower—the diner up the next block that never closed—if I could come back and sit by the police radio and listen to the chatter. I could play police reporter. I could uncover a robbery or maybe even hear a raid in progress.
Christmases are slow times for police and for criminals. I know that now. I didn't know that then.
They're so slow that every police reporter in the country can tell you a story about Christmases in which no one was arrested, no one died and no one called for help. And everyone who's ever covered the police beat on Christmas Day can tell you stories of cops singing carols on the police radio—unauthorized, of course, and unreported in the police logs. "Jingle Bells" doesn't get listed in the rough handwriting that's entered on the blotter.
But the first time I heard it, an hour into my session at the police scanner, I called everyone over to hear the tinny sound coming out of the speaker at the side of the radio. I could hear a gruff voice singing the first verse of "We Three Kings" over and over. The cop at the microphone didn't know the rest of the song. He could barely get the tune straight.
Everybody else laughed.
"They always do that," Mick said. Mick never celebrated Christmas. He'd work every day of the year if you'd let him.
They went back to their typewriters and fat lead pencils, and I went back to the radio.
"O'Brien, is that you again?" someone said on the radio. The song stopped. The clipped voice of the dispatcher came back on, telling some of the cars to come back in. Shifts were changing. Long periods of silence were filling the rest of the evening, broken only by the dispatcher's quick announcement of the time every now and then.
And then I heard it again—different this time, softer and clearer, a boy's voice, maybe. I brought the radio closer and turned the volume down so the others wouldn't hear it, so they wouldn't laugh.
"O little town of Bethlehem …" the voice began in a slow and haunting tenor.
Just as suddenly as it had started, the singing stopped. The radio was silent. But I could sense that everyone was listening, out in the patrol cars, out in the shadows.
The voice began again, stronger than before, but just as slow, just as plaintive.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The radio fell dead. Finally, the dispatcher came on and gave the time. No one else spoke for many minutes. When the patter of police work resumed, no one mentioned the song that everyone on the beat must have heard.
"Kid?" Mick was saying. "What's on the radio?"
"Just the usual," I said.
The usual—for Christmas Day.