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At first I learned of the News Agency through stories Dad brought home.
Since the yarns came from Dad– no stranger to telling a whopper just for the heck of it– I had no way of knowing the accuracy of anything he told me.
One of my favorite stories, true or fabricated, is how they dealt with a rat infestation. Before the regular crew arrived, the story goes, a few men laid newspaper across the entire concrete floor with a few stale donuts strategically placed here and there. Next the would-be exterminators loaded shotguns, took up a central position on top of a mountain of newspapers and turned out the lights. Zeroing in on the sound of paws on paper the men blasted away. The lights were turned on only to do a body count and re-bait.
In years to come, many of my own experiences there would be as wild but in the early days I stuck pretty close to Dad’s side while we were at the agency.
Each man was responsible for gathering the newspapers needed for his route and preparing them for delivery. Papers were hand rolled into neat little tubes and then tied shut using a rolling machine. The paper cylinder was put into position, a crank was turned by hand, a metal arm threaded with string came down and tied a knot. Once you got the hang of it you could roll and tie 20 or 30 papers a minute.
The tied papers were laid on a bench with a rope underneath. At the end of the rope was a metal clasp. When a bundle was ready to be tied you held the clasp with one hand and pulled tight with the other. Synching up the rope was an obtained skill. If you didn’t have the right amount of pull in just the right direction the papers would go squirting out, causing a time consuming redo.
Since there was only one rolling machine per man and the job of roping the papers was too demanding for an 10-year-old, my job was to count papers and stay out of the way while we were at the agency. (I spent most of my time trying to avoid standing near donuts and scouting for a place to duck in case someone flipped off the lights.)
But once we actually left for the route, the work and fun began.
And that’s the thing I remember and gained most from working with Dad – he always seemed to be happy while working and he always had a way of making work seem like fun.
I was a willing disciple of this outlook save for one small problem: motion sickness. I suffered from it then and I suffer from it now. It’s a great irony that the very organ that has served faithful, yeoman’s duty in the digesting of great globs of foods of questionable origin is the same organ that mutinies at the slightest motion.
I also suffer from seasickness. Once on my honeymoon I got sick before the boat left. My stomach turned over by itself just listening to the captain’s talk about what to do in case of the mal-de-mer. Unlike seasickness, however, my motion sickness ended after one hearty cookie toss, so I was able to resume my duties as paper deliverer assistant almost immediately. (On the honeymoon cruise, I had to wear a bucket around my neck the entire cruise.)
Dad and I soon reached a working solution to the problem: I gave as early notice as possible to any eruptions and he pulled over to the side of the road instantly. It was not coincidence that there were green splotches of grass scattered here and there along our route.
My main job was simple: sit in the back seat area – the actual seat having been removed to allow for more newspaper storage – and pass papers to Dad in the front as needed. With that function filled, I was also allowed to toss papers out my side of the window at Dad’s direction. “Trib (Chicago Tribune), third paved drive on right,” Dad would intone like a B-52 pilot giving commands to the bombardier during a sortie through enemy territory, “give plenty of lead because we’ll being doing 30.”
It was boy heaven.