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 Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)