at Christmas

Don Barone

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.

 

“Someday at Christmas…”

Dateline:  Christmas in Connecticut

I need to take you back.

back to when reindeers flew,

back to when Santa knew you,

back to candy canes, tinsel, and angels on top of Christmas trees.

Back to stockings hung, milk and cookies left out, and midnight sneak peeks under the tree.

Back to baking soda frogmen and Barbie and Ken, Chinese Checkers and Pong.

Back to when Mom and Dad held our hands, and Gram and Gramp brought over the Christmas ham.

Back to the way it used to be,

…at Christmas.

So you know, snow ain’t for me, nor is the cold, don’t like slush or scrapping windshields, pulling on boots, or “artics” as Gram called them, shoveling or slipping on ice.

No, winter is not for me.

But come Christmas, it is suddenly my favorite time of year.  Santa hat on my head, Bing Crosby Christmas album on the turntable.  Yankee candles blazing everywhere, Christmas cards taped to the back of a door.  Blow up snowman takes center stage every night at dusk.

Wreaths.

Electric candles in every window.  Gifts in hiding.

Bows,

…at Christmas.

61 Christmas’s now, the first 5 or so in Black & White, snapshots pasted in an old photo album, memories lost in my head, relived only behind wrinkled plastic stuck permanently on a yellowing page.

Kodak photos of sleds and Schwinn’s, Candy Land game box, slot car track, Tom Swift and his Jetmarine, white socks, mittens on string, dreams wrapped in green and red.

Skeet ReeseDon BaroneSkeet Reese
“db,” Skeet Reese is telling me on a phone call from his home in California, “I was like 10 or 11 years old and I got this Abu Garcia 5500 reel for Christmas, to this day I remember opening that gift, hmm, haven’t thought about that in a while, coolest Christmas present ever.”

“It was the year I got my first BB gun, just like the one in A Christmas Story, a Red Ryder BB gun…”

“…you didn’t get a pink bunny suit too did you…”

Kevin VanDam laughs and says, “…ah no, but this one came with a tube of bb’s you poured in, cocked it, and then I went about terrorizing the neighborhood.”

Gerald SwindleDon BaroneGerald Swindle
“A…me too…”  Paul Elias my on-the-road-during-the-tour-roommate, “…I kept asking my parents for a BB gun but they wouldn’t get me one until they were sure I wasn’t going to go out dinging birds and cats, but when I was eight years, there under the Christmas tree was this Daisy BB gun, man I was on top of the world, you could hardly get that rifle out of my hand.”

“So, where the birds and cats in the neighborhood safe.”

Paul, somehow, changed the subject.

Tres BB. 

“At 7,”  Gerald Swindle is telling me while eating soup in his RV parked near Lake Guntersville.  “I got the Red Ryder BB gun, it had leather hanging off the handle, I would take it and go sit out in the field next to the house and I’d just sit there waiting for a duck, a bear, or lion to come walking by, would sit for hours waiting, best gift when I was young.  I was quite the hunter db.”

My other on-the-road-during-the-tour-roommate, Shaw Grigsby when asked,  “Dude what was your favorite Christmas gift as a kid…”it took him about 10 seconds to answer…

“…oh man I was five years old and I got this four big springs cowboy rocking horse.  I wore that thing out, OUT, morning, noon, night I was on it wearing my cowboy hat and shooting my cap gun, I rode it so much I broke every spring but it was a baby sitter in a box for my mother, I rode it for hours….days.”

IkeDon BaroneIke
Another call in from Lake Guntersville, Mike Iaconelli tells me, “It was a Christmas in the early 1980’s, I was 12, maybe 13, just starting to get into Bass fishing and I saw this thing in a fishing magazine called a COLOR SELECTOR.  It was a meter with a cord thing on it that when you lowered it into the water it would tell you what color lure to use.  It was to me at the time the coolest most amazing thing I had ever heard about…and on Christmas morning, there it was under the tree.  Loved it.”

“Lincoln logs man,”  says my good bud in Arkansas, Kevin Short.  “I got a set of those one year and it was then I found out I could build stuff, build all kinds of neat things by myself, build it any way I wanted to and then take it all apart and do it all over again.  I thought I was pretty darn cool.”

“Millennium….Falcon!”  James Niggemeyer is somewhere in the Lone Star State, “…about 40 minutes from home….but db I was like 9 or 10 years old and really, REALLY into Star Wars (for the record I’m NOT, only saw the first movie, fell asleep and never went back to see any of the other ones).  I remember it to this day, that Christmas seeing that under the tree.  Will never forget it.”

“A purple K2 Dart snowboard,” a somewhat sleepy Brandon Palaniuk tells me from his home in Idaho.  “My mother was the first person certified on a snowboard like the ski patrol, she was certified to be a ski patrol person on a snowboard.  But that purple snowboard was the coolest gift I got.”

“How old were you when you got that.”

“Six….best thing I ever got…

…at Christmas.”

“…there'll be no wars…”

My father sat playing with his pancakes, I've seen it before, and I know why.

Iwo Jima.

My father never talked about it much, once told me he wished he could brush it out of his mind as easy as he brushed the sands of Iwo Jima from his uniform.

Seven years and three months after he left the beach behind, I was born.

On Father’s Day, 1952.

“I was in the waiting room, just lit up a cigar, I was a dad, had a son, when a priest walks out and tells me I need to come with him…”

My father is telling me this in a Buffalo, NY Bob Evans Restaurant over coffee and blueberry pancakes, Alzheimers is starting to win the war, short term memory is sketchy, but, the sands have never left.

“…I go back in this room with the priest and he tells me you might not make it and he is going to administer last rights but before he does, he says I need to give the baby a name, and your mom is knocked out and it’s up to me to name you so I tell him my name, give him my name…”

I was born a Catholic, I was baptized and given last rights in my father’s arms.

I was an hour old.

“…so as I held you I prayed to God, don’t take him, don’t take my son, but I had left God during the war, I told him I was sorry for leaving him, asked him to forgive me, just please let me have my son…”

A tear splashes in his coffee.

“…I told him that if he gives me you, I would never ask for another gift in my life…”

As we leave the restaurant, in the parking lot he suddenly gives me a big bear hug and says…

“…you’ve been my gift for 43 years now…

…at Christmas.”

“…hate will be gone and love will prevail…”

My best grown up Christmas gift ever, came two days late.

On December 27th, 1983.

The day MY first child was born.

Ashley.

Unlike my father who rode the whole birth thing out in a waiting room, I was right in the mix of the “birthing experience.”

Went to the birth classes, knew how to count those short little breaths that Barb was going to do that would somehow take the pain away.

Yeah right.

When the nurse asked Barb if she needed the pain meds yet Barb said no, I said, “Can I get them…”

They said no.

“Mr. Barone would you like to cut the cord?”

I’m thinking, Doc, whaddya nuts, you’ve got like a million years in med school and you want me to finish this “Birthing Experience” up, jeez man the first little baby I’ve ever held, is going to be this one who is now mine....

“No….you know…Thank You.”

Thirty years later now, and I still can’t cut the cord.  When we brought Ashley home from the hospital she was like two days old, this little thing in the biggest armored car seat I could buy at Toys r Us, we walked in the house and placed her under the Christmas tree, took her photo, and as I did looking through the camera lens I thought to myself,

best gift ever…

…at Christmas.

Shaw Grigsby and his grandsonDon BaroneShaw Grigsby and his grandson
“You know d…” as Shaw calls me, “…at this time in our lives we pretty much have everything we want, you know material things, now, now it’s all about family.”

For those of you not quite there yet, let me tell you, your best Christmas’s are about to come.  Every Christmas Barb and I ask the kids, ask each other, for a Christmas wish list, “…give us an idea of what you want for Christmas,” we tell the kids, we tell each other.

So this year I sat at the laptop and did my normal shopping to fill the wish list, couple hours later my list was still empty, when Barb asked why I told her, “…don’t really want anything but for you and the kids to be happy…”

I meant it.

When Ashley emailed me as to what I wanted for Christmas this is the email she got back, “You being home here will be the best gift for mom and me.”

We pick her up at the Airport on Christmas Eve.  As she walks off the plane ramp, now a 30 year old young lady, all I see is the two day old baby under the tree…

…at Christmas.

Shaw:  “d…just having my whole family together…watching them on Christmas morning…watching them be happy and enjoying everything, that’s the only gift I need…”

“It’s all about the kids now, not me,” Skeet says as I hear his two daughters and wife, Kim in the background, “the kids happiness about the whole Christmas season is pretty awesome to watch, gimme that, that’s all I need for Christmas, my family altogether.”

KVD and me.Don BaroneKVD and me.
“Not about the material things anymore, it’s all about the boys,” KVD is telling me this from his home in Michigan, “You know I travel a lot but come the 2nd week of December until the first week of January, it’s the one time I don’t travel, I’m home, that’s my gift, being home with my family, just spending time with them…that’s all I want.”

“Stuff isn’t what’s important, “Kevin tells me as he chews on a Christmas cookie, a box of which Barb and I sent him and his wife Kerry, “nothing I want out there that if I didn’t get I would be all disappointed, but having your family around means so much more on a whole different level.”

“Being home and not travelling, being there with the kids,” Mike is saying as a dad of two teenager and two young toddlers, “I can just forget about everything and just be there with the kids, you know db when you think of it, I’ve got all I ever wanted.”

James NiggemeyerDon BaroneJames Niggemeyer
“My wants are much less now,” James is telling me as he nears his Texas home, “as a kid I wanted toys but now I just don’t covet things anymore. Christmas for me is when time slows down and I’m just more in the moment with my family.”

I hear LuLu in the background say, “Tell db and Barb Merry Christmas and Love from me as well.” And Gerald says that, almost, “You know I love you you old hippie, Merry Christmas my friend, Christmas now for me, for LuLu (Gerald’s name for his wife LeAnn) Christmas is being with family, going to the parents house and giving them big hugs, but also for the last fiver years we have met with our Pastor and asked him to find some family needing help at Christmas and when he does we help that family, they just never know who it comes from.”

Brandon PalaniukDon BaroneBrandon Palaniuk
“Living way up here in Idaho as I do,” Brandon, “I’m on the road most of the year, but at Christmas I come home to be with my family and friends, it’s my down time, my special time, here I can unwind, hunt, snowboard, just hang out with family, that’s all I need at Christmas.”

And then comes home, baby Ethan.

I’ll let Grandpa Paul Elias tell it:  “We are blessed db, our Grandbaby just came home after spending 5 months in Intensive Care, will be the first time the little guy will be home, he was born with intestinal problems, still has some, but he’s home now, we are very lucky and thank God everyday for the care Ethan got up there in the hospital in Boston.”

Paul EliasDon BaronePaul Elias
For tiny little Ethan, welcome home, and know that no matter what else is around that tree on Christmas morning, Ethan, you being there is the best, coolest, gift…

…at Christmas.

“…there'll be no tears where all men are equal and no man has fears…”

Christmas in Connecticut.

That’s how it’s been for us for the last 20 years now.  I left WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October of 1993 to begin work as a Feature Producer for Sportscenter at ESPN.

Had never lived in Connecticut in my life, only drove through it once in awhile to get to Boston, or the rest of New England.

Rarely stopped.

‘till we moved here.

Come see where we live, it’s a town founded in 1645, yeah you read that right…1645…just 25 years after the MAYFLOWER LANDED.

"Main Street"Don Barone"Main Street"
In fact, in town we have people whose ancestors were on that boat.  Most homes up and down this “Scenic Drive,” know as Main Street to us, many of the homes on Main Street were built in the late 1600’s early 1700’s, and people still live in the homes.

Our house was built in 1987 and two of the five toilets don’t work, yet a guy I know has a Jacuzzi in a 328 year old home.

Most of the main part of Main Street is dominated by Miss. Porter’s School, a private school for girls that was founded in 1843 by Sarah Porter who believed that young women should get the same education as young men.

Miss Porter's SchoolDon BaroneMiss Porter's School
At the time a pioneer in equality.

Guess it worked, alumni from the school have names such as:  Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Bush, Pulitzer…and the name atop the list, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Farmington, the town was here 131 years BEFORE America was here.  George Washington DID actually come here…twice in 1780 & 1781 and was “quoted” as calling the place, “the village with pretty houses.”

You can still buy postcards with that saying on it around here.

Don Barone
Pioneer in Equality…if you happened to see that movie, AMISTAD,  this church whose congregation dates back to 1652,  was a huge part of the Underground Railroad and housed the slaves of the Amistad during their trial, when the slaves were set free, they came back here and stayed for awhile before heading back to home Africa.

It’s a Norman Rockwell town, that for me comes alive at Christmas time, the Farmington River, one of the best fly fishing rivers in New England, runs through town and slows down during winter, snow sticks to trees and makes for winter wonderland postcard scenes, skates get sharpened and backyard ice rinks are grown.

The Farmington River, just a couple of blocks from Main Street.Don BaroneThe Farmington River, just a couple of blocks from Main Street.
Basically, my children grew up here, Jimmy from Kindergarten, Ashley from the 4th grade, ever day they were exposed to all the history around them, they basically lived in a living museum, I wondered if we did the right thing by them for staying here,

staying in a town with a history of helping people, in a town that sent townsfolk to fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War,

Ashley is studying to be a nurse, Jim is a school teacher in a nearby town, both are loving, compassionate people who always step up to help others, and for that I have to give some credit to the, “village of pretty houses,” and the spirit of  human rights and Freedom that floats around here especially…

…at Christmas.

“…someday all our dreams will come to be…”

There is one thing missing…

…at Christmas.

And that is, simply, The Family, Of Us.

AKA:

The family, Elite

The family, Service Crew.

The family, Sponsors.

The family, B.A.S.S.

The family, Fans.

For eight, ten, maybe twelve weeks a year, we travel together all over the country, to tournaments large and small, to lakes large and small, to towns large and small, and we do it together.

We eat together, we live together, we laugh and cry together, we celebrate winnings and mourn defeats, together.

On the road.Don BaroneOn the road.
We compete and commiserate, together.

In our house, and I’m sure in the homes of many of us, there is a place we put the Christmas cards we receive, in our house the cards are taped to a door in the family room.

And it is that door that makes me homesick for The Family, Of Us.

Hanging there have been cards from the VanDams, Shorts, Reeses, Murrays, Niggemeyers, Kennedys, Crews, Howells, Chapmans, Cooks and many others.

Kevin ShortDon BaroneKevin Short
“You know dude, I miss many of the people, we are like a whole family but a family who doesn’t get to spend the holidays together,” Kevin Short is telling me as he opens the box of Christmas presents we sent to him and Kerry.

Paul:  “It’s like a separation anxiety thing, we spend so much time together, and then suddenly we all go our separate ways for several months.  I agree with you 100%, I miss everyone.”

“About now I start to miss the guys as well,” KVD tells me as Barb hangs a Christmas card from Sherry and Kevin up on the door, “about now I’m starting to get ready to get ready.”

“d,” Shaw says, “d, come Christmas day my phone lights up with text messages from all the guys, the families out there, yeah I sure do miss them, absolutely miss the people, all of them, from the guys in the other boats to the service crews to the fans who show up.”

“Absolutely,”  says Mike who pretty much lives in a crowd on the road, “it’s weird when the season ends we all go our separate ways.  These people are like our second family and yet we don’t get to spend the holidays with them.  I do miss them.

James:  “You know if we had normal jobs our friends would be people we work with and the would be around us, office Christmas parties and house parties, but all our friends that I work with are scattered all over the country so we don’t get to get together during the holidays.  I do miss that.”

“Why you asking if I start missing the guys at Christmas,” Gerald, “You know I call you on Christmas, you know I miss the hell out of you and the rest of the guys, huh, what was that, oh, and LuLu says she misses you and everyone else too.”

“Me too db, there’s no one even near here in Idaho out on the tour with us so when I get off the road, there’s nobody, and it’s weird because I spend so much time on the road, we’re like gypsies, we travel together, watch out for each other together, it goes from suddenly seeing the guys everyday, to not at all, I text a whole bunch of them…

…at Christmas.”

“…hate will be gone and love will prevail…”

Comes the neatest, coolest gift as I child I ever got…

…at Christmas.

Every year, on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, at midnight, my father would wake up from sleeping on the couch watching TV,  go walk around the living room looking for his slippers, put the slippers on, go out our front door and stand in the cold on out front porch,

take a deep breath and yell at the top of his lungs,

“MERRY CHRISTMAS (or Happy New Year depending on the night)”

Mother would yell down the stairs from their bedroom, “Now Don, stop you’ll wake up everybody in the neighborhood.”

And dad would stand on the porch just smiling, and listening, listening to the quiet all around him. “Donnie on Christmas the world seems to stop, you can’t wrap that gift of silence, can’t put that under your tree.  But someday, someday the whole world will answer and it, and every day will be Christmas after that.”

I can still see him standing there, still hear the silence.  Still, listening.

We lived on a close-knit street of Italian and Irish immigrants, working stiffs except for the attorney four doors down who snuck in.  We were all good friends, and we were actually related to a couple of the families.

On my 10th, maybe 12th Christmas, me and my friend, Joey Toes (not his real last name but his nickname since he had the ugliest toes on the block), me and Toes go all around to the neighbors asking for a gift.

Christmas Eve, dad wakes up, finds his slippers, upstairs I can hear Mother getting out of bed and coming to the stairs to yell…

… out on the front porch, after two coughs, comes bellowing, MERRY CHRISTMAS…

…and dad smiles and turns to come in when…

…when suddenly all up and down the block, on cue from Toes comes this…

“MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU AS WELL MR. BARONE.”

Came not once, came not twice, came not three times, but all the way up and down the block.

The gift we asked our neighbors to give dad.

And dad just stood there, Toes comes running down the street and we both look at dad and say Merry Christmas and as he is bending down to kiss my head,

the front door of the rectory of St. Pauls Church opens up and father Dominic yells across the street, “Merry Christmas Don,”

and Toes, the only altar boy on the block looks at me and starts giggling and just as dad, not much of a church-going guy, starts yelling back to Father Dominic , Merry Christm….

the church bells of St. Pauls start ringing,

the first time ever on Christmas Eve,

and Mother stops mid stairs and yell,

and all up and down the block front doors open up back up and moms and dads and their kids come out.

Father Dominic comes across the street and he says exactly this to dad, “For the past several years I’ve heard you yell Merry Christmas, this year, Jesus yelled Merry Christmas back.”

And a tear rolled down dad’s cheek, and a smile broke across his face, and he reaches down and messes up my hair, Toes’s too, and gives me a kiss on my cheek and says, simply, “I love you son….and maybe you too Toes.”

And for me, that was the coolest, neatest gift as a child I ever got.

When Jesus said Merry Christmas back, to our block, to my dad…

…at Christmas.

“…someday a new world that we can start with hope in every heart.”

Someday at Christmas

Stevie Wonder

May your Christmas be filled with snowboards, toys, BB guns and fishing stuff, may it start with Christmas bells and be filled with family,

and Love.

Merry Christmas,

db & bb, Ashley & Jimmy Barone

 

 

 

 

 

 

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