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My oddest (and fondest) Christmas memory

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“You came to me with love and kindness/But all my life I’ve been a prisoner of my own blindness/I met you with indifference and I don’t know why”

— Bruce Springsteen, “Back in Your Arms”

I had no idea where Bruce Springsteen was coming from until I found my high school principal, Joseph “Doc” Viglietta, sitting behind a desk in front of Mr. Williamson’s history class, playing an acoustic guitar and singing.

It was the day before Christmas break my senior year at Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, W.Va.

I had no idea that “Doc,” as we students called him, played the guitar or was a Bruce Springsteen fan. I also could not understand why, in the middle of the day, our principal — a generally lighthearted but academically serious person — was disrupting a history class to play songs by a popular artist. And finally, further confounding the issue, I could not understand why on earth he was playing Bruce Springsteen and not a Christmas carol of some kind, this being, after all, the day before Christmas break.

But, above all, there was something inexplicable, dare I say magical, about that moment.

I suppose the incongruity of the scenario spoke to some incongruity in me. Some love of the unexpected and absurd and some notion that the things that don’t quite fit are the most precious things of all.

That memory has stayed with me for years. It’s my fondest (and oddest) Christmas memory.

But I could never quite remember exactly what song he was playing. So, last week, I decided to find out.

“It might have been ‘Back in Your Arms,’ or it might have been ‘The River,’” Doc told me when I finally got in touch with him.

Getting him on the phone took some doing. He had retired a few years ago and moved to South Bend, Ind., with his wife to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

I wrote him an email and then, around 2:30 p.m. on a Friday in late December, just as suddenly as he had gone out of my life, Doc came back into it.

I picked up the phone at my desk. On the other end of the line was my high school principal.

He sounded exactly the same.

I asked Doc why he played the guitar that day.

“I’m a firm believer that there is greatness in every single person ... I just never liked stereotypes. I didn’t want to act like a principal. That was my gift to the students. If they wanted a principal they could have a bought a cookie cutter and made one. I wanted to inspire them to greatness,” he said.

Hearing my principal’s voice, hearing him explain why he played that song on that day was like being transported right back to those hallways.

But it’s been a long time since high school. And as I reflected on this memory and struggled to ascribe some meaning to it, suddenly it struck me.

The answer was so simple it felt too easy. But the logic was unassailable.

That was the last Christmas I ever really spent at home.

Sure, I came back to visit several times over the years, but it was the last time my parents’ home was really my home as well.

And my teachers, classmates and friends — what Doc would call the Central Catholic family — that was the last time we were all in one place for the holidays too.

A few months after that, we fell across the country like glass from a shattering window.

Once held in place by the chemical bonds of a common locality, we were gradually scattered near and far to live out our own atomic lives and think of each other in groggy early morning recollections and see each other on holidays, if at all.

That day, that Springsteen song, that principal, that memory form one of the few remaining recollections of a different life in a different time and a different place.

Some of the lyrics to the song “Back in Your Arms,” ostensibly about lost love, could also be about taking the safe harbors of youth for granted, as we all did in those early days.

Doc, a formative presence in my life, was someone I took for granted as a teenager — someone I met with indifference along with many others.

At the end of the song, Springsteen sings of waking from a dream to a world “where all is shadow and darkness and above me a dark sky unfurls.”

Tell me about it.

Before I hung up the phone to go to a press conference, I asked Doc one final question.

In my memory, sometimes I see a red bandana wrapped around his forehead like Springsteen in the early days, his dark, curly hair spilling out over it. (When I was a freshman, I seem to remember him having gray hair — but that’s a question for another time).

I asked Doc if he was wearing a bandana that day.

“I don’t remember that,” Doc said. “I remember the songs.”

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