Newsboys on the Loose!

newsboy

Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

bike

Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

station wagon

1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

ohio express

“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

barney

Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

newspapers

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be just a children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

Rascal_3

(Author photo)

We Glorious Bastards (Part 2)

blue delinquent

Last time, Bill, Dan and I were cutting up newspaper to make confetti. We were preparing to “decorate” the Parks house on Devil’s Night, a Detroit tradition held on Halloween Eve. In addition to confetti, we had several rolls of toilet paper, a bar of soap, and some candle wax (more difficult to remove from glass).

The night arrived, and it so happened that Wally and Mrs. Parks weren’t home. Their house was dark, the moon was dim, our parents were busy drinking martinis, and we were feeling bold. Bill had several grocery bags of confetti, and he “let it snow” until the front and back yards were blanketed. Dan went to work on the windows with soap and wax. And I flung my toilet paper with abandon, upward toward the stars, over the treetops, until every tree was dripping with thin, white, paper banner.toilet paper

Before we left the house, I added one final, personal touch. I transplanted their mailbox from the end of the driveway to the bushes by the front door. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I know it wasn’t so Wally could retrieve his mail easier.

Well, I slept like a baby that night. We’d done a good night’s work. Instead of “White Christmas,” the Parks property looked like “White Halloween.” We’d played our tricks, and tomorrow came the treats. But, as any addict will tell you: the higher the high, the lower the low.

Bill told me what happened the following day. Wally and his wife returned home about 2 or 3 a.m.   Wally must’ve had more than a few drinks. When he saw what we’d done to his house, he went nuts. “WHO THE HELL DID THIS TO MY HOUSE!!” he screamed, over and over, his voice echoing through the neighborhood. He was so relentless, one of the neighbors, tired of his yelling, called him a baby and told him to shut up.

Our parents instinctively knew it was Bill, Dan and me (the “Three Musketeers”). I don’t know if Dan’s parents ever confronted him, but Bill’s and mine made us go over, apologize, and clean up the mess. By then, Wally had calmed down (and sobered up). He was actually very nice. “Aw, don’t worry boys, I did that stuff when I was your age, too.” After which Mrs. Parks, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, chimed in “And you probably did a helluva lot worse, Wally.” We felt another argument brewing.mailbox

It took us almost all Halloween day, but Bill and I cleaned the entire property. I never determined what Dan’s excuse was for not showing up. But Bill was livid with him, saying he always managed to slither out of things. I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven Dan.

***

My last wave of delinquency occurred after we moved back to northern Ohio. Again, I was fortunate to have a bunch of adventuresome boys to play with: Kelly, who lived across the street; brothers Joe and Dave, a few doors down from him; and Jerry, Kurt, and Dickie, who lived in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

Dickie was funny. He had freckles and orange hair. And since he was the youngest, he got picked on a lot, especially by Joe. When he got really upset, he’d start screaming, and his face would turn as colorful as his hair. Which made Joe laugh even louder.

Their farmhouse was funny, too. It looked like a tornado had touched down inside. Dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, cat poop on the stairs, always dark, and the parents were never around.

It also had a huge apple tree in the back. Sometime around 1970, we formed a club, the Apple Chucking Gang (no, not “Apple Dumpling Gang”). We met periodically on weekend nights, after the sun went down, and worked on target practice. The targets were cars that sped along the road outside the house.

THUD… BAM… THWACK… The apples sounded like giant hailstones when they hit. Usually the cars kept going. Sometimes they slowed, but stopping was dangerous, since there was not much berm. Only once did someone jump out of his car and chase after us.apple

Fortunately, the farmhouse had a walk-in basement. When we heard the car door slam, and saw a shadow running toward us along the road, all five of us ran to the back of the house and into the dark basement, slammed the screen door, and cowered behind the moldy furniture. Dickie was slow, though, and the man saw him squeeze inside at the last minute.

“I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!! YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME!!! COME ON OUT!!! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!!” he screamed over and over while pounding the screen door.

After numerous threats during what seemed like eternity, he finally left. But it scared us enough that we decided to retire the Apple Chucking Gang. About a year later, Kurt, who was in my homeroom, said something about “going chucking again,” but nothing ever came of it. Other than a few garden-variety pranks, like aiming hoses at front doors and placing firecrackers on windowsills, it was the end of my criminal career.

***

I hope no one interprets this two-part reminiscence as glorifying vandalism or delinquency. I’ll readily admit I did a lot of dumb things when I was younger, and I have many regrets.

But our only real crime was being young and energetic. Which is hardly criminal. We didn’t steal, destroy property, play with handguns, or do drugs. And, thank God, we didn’t have smartphones that gobbled up our childhoods. I feel sorry for young folks today. If only they knew what a world of adventure and excitement – and not necessarily prankster excitement – awaits them outside of those little screens they endlessly gaze into.

Today, I’m pretty sure my old partners in crime are ok. I haven’t heard much about little Dickie, though, so I’m not sure how he’s doing. He may be doing 5-10 at the Mansfield Reformatory, for all I know.

But I hope not.