True Grit

Chapter 23

October 27, 2011

Candice Millard gave an interesting talk Saturday about her book, Destiny of the Republic.  Inez Harris filled in some details about her great grandfather, James A. Garfield, and much to her (Candice’s) chagrin, Glenda Singleton told some stories about growing up with her cousin.

Sally Oswald needs three people to help with the parade on Monday.  She says there will be a BIG surprise at the Halloween dance that night.  Is Alice Cooper really bringing his snakes to Walnut Shade?

The Aeolian Acting Company’s first performance of Of Thee I Sing was on Saturday, a week earlier than had been scheduled.  Two of the principles in As You Like It came down with the flu and were told to stay in Kansas City.

Harry Morris has accepted an invitation to install a piece of art at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City.  It looks like the opening will be in May next year.

Inez Harris met with Governor Brownback on Monday to discuss his decision to cut funding for the arts in Kansas.  The meeting was re-scheduled from a couple of weeks ago.  Word around town is that the Governor is afraid of Inez and wants to put off the meeting as long as possible.

The Excelsior Book Club will meet next Wednesday to select its next book.  Dorothy Westover is nominating Beekeeping for Beginners, by Lauri King.  She says that her father always kept bees on the farm and she’s interested in learning more about it.

Bach’s Lunch will have a special Halloween Howl menu on Monday.  One can only imagine what Susan Hall has come up with this year.  The “Eye of Newt” last year was pretty amazing, once you got past the name.

Dorothy Norman and Patsy Powers were in Manhattan last week for the annual K-State Extension Conference and meeting of the Kansas Association For Family And Community Education.  Dorothy says she still has a hard time remembering the “new” name, even though it’s been the KAFCE for two decades now.

Dorothy, I can completely sympathize.  I grew up listening to games between the St.Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants.  I’ve never completely gotten used to the “San Francisco Giants.”  Or the “Los Angeles Dodgers.”  And what in the world is a “Tampa Bay Ray?”  Modern baseball has me baffled.  But…

Until next week, I still remain
Your Faithful Correspondent

When I was growing up, there were two kinds of kids:  those who got allowances and those who didn’t.  I’m not sure what the system is these days, but back then allowances were actually payments for labor performed around the house, called chores.  Now, every kid in Walnut Shade in the ‘50s did chores, but not everyone got paid for them.  A better indicator of wealth in town than owning your own house or driving a fairly new car was whether or not you gave your son or daughter an allowance.  I didn’t get an allowance, so you can guess the relative position of my family on the income scale.

Those of us who didn’t get an allowance managed to meet our daily financial needs and/or obligations by doing odd jobs around town and even, occasionally, doing the chores of the kids who did get allowances.  If Bruce Wilson didn’t want to mow his yard (which he almost never did), he’d “hire” one of us to do it for him.  At the time, none of my non-allowanced friends were very entrepreneurial, so we didn’t realize that Bruce was hiring us at half the price he was getting from his parents to do the same job.  He, obviously, internalized the lessons of “Tom Sawyer” much better than the rest of us.  He even had a “franchise” to sell White Cloverine Salve, getting his gullible friends to do the actual selling while he skimmed a percentage of the profits.

Besides mowing yards, shoveling walks in the winter, chopping wood, and painting a garage or other similar out-building, there were a variety of jobs to be had in downtown Walnut Shade.  My sister and several of her friends worked at the Tasty Freeze after school or Maison Bon Ton, the local dress shop.  There were also jobs for the girls as “checkers” at the Ben Franklin and the IGA, and many of the boys worked in the stock room and as janitors in the stores.  

When I was ten, I was selected for what was then considered something of a prestigious position as salesman of the weekly newspaper, Grit.  For those who lived in small towns across the Midwest, newspapers and radio were primary the links to the outside world.  Besides the Fremont Ledger, folks in Walnut Shade got their news from WIBW in Topeka, Life magazine, and a variety of specialty publications depending upon whether one was interested in mycology, art history or the philosophy of Kierkegaard.  Walnut Shade was also unusual among small town in this part of the country in that the New York Times was available at the library and by the end of the week, it was nearly consumed.  Inez Harris’s father’s pharmacy, in fact, was the only store in Kansas, besides the college bookstores in Manhattan and Lawrence, that sold Scientific American and Aperture alongside Women’s Day and Successful Farming.

To say that Walnut Shaders devoured information was something of a understatement, so delivering a newspaper was a sought-after job.  That I didn’t seek the Grit job made it all the more unlikely that I would have landed it.  It happened like this:  My friend Marshall’s older brother JJ (named for the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Marshall’s father had written his senior thesis on John Jay) had been the Grit” news carrier in town for four years, but he had reached the age when hanging out with his buddies at the Tasty Freeze (where the high school girls worked) was more intriguing than riding his bike all over town, delivering the news.  He tried to pass the Grit job on to Marshall, but Marshall had broken his leg sliding into second base and was walking on crutches, so managing a sack of newspapers was out of the question.  I agreed to help Marshall out for the summer, with the agreement that he would take over the paper route in the fall when he was able to walk and ride.  JJ contacted the Grit circulation department and transferred the account to his younger brother and the Thursday after the 4th of July in 1958 I went to Marshall’s house to picked up two bundles of newspapers and a canvas sling bag with the name “GRIT” emblazoned in a big red circus-type font.

Now to people who lived in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or even Kansas City, Grit would have been a curiosity.  What would be called today a “lifestyle” newspaper, it featured information and articles that would appeal to stereotypically rural and small town audiences (Walnut Shade was home to a few of these folks, but most people here were more oriented to The Paris Review than Reader’s Digest).  The fact that fifty copies were sold in town every week was astounding and a tribute to JJ’s salesmanship and ability to convince people that they needed something they didn’t even know they wanted.

On Friday morning, I loaded the bag with newspapers, secured it in the basket on my bicycle and set off with JJ’s list of customers.  Now, JJ was something of an organizational fanatic and not only did he give me his list of customers, but he alphabetized it, gave each person’s address and included their payment history for the last six months.  Immediately, my task became more complicated since there was no simple sales route to follow. Now Walnut Shade is (and was) a small town geographically, but to a ten year-old on a bicycle, it can take a while to get around.  I looked down the list of customers and tried to find someone who lived close to me.  Well, that wasn’t hard, since I discovered that my father bought Grit every week.  Who knew?  I never remember seeing him read it, but I do remember that there was a big stack of newspapers in the garage that he used to start the fireplace in the winter.  I can only imagine that a number of weekly Grits were in that stack.

My father was at work, so I removed one of the papers from my bag, walked around to the front door and knocked.  My mother came to the door with a puzzled look on her face and when I told her that I was delivering her newspaper, she burst out laughing.

“That will be fifteen cents, please,” I said in my best Sunday School voice.

“Just a moment, young man.  Let me get my purse.”

She came back a few seconds later with the fifteen cents and handed it to me as I handed her the newspaper.  My first sale!

“Thanks, mom.  See you later.”

“Be careful,” she said as I rode off on my sales trip.

In my excitement at selling my first paper, I forgot about identifying another customer close by.  Instead, I started at the top of the list with Doris Adams who lived almost exactly on the other side of town.  It took me fifteen minutes to ride the eight blocks because maneuvering my bike with the twenty-pound bag of newspapers took some getting used to.  The bag sat unbalanced in the basket and in the first couple of blocks, it fell off twice, scattering the newspapers on the ground.  Good thing that first Friday was a dry day.  A couple of the papers were a bit bruised by falling on the asphalt, but I didn’t think that would be a problem.  I soon found out that JJ’s customers expected pristine copies and rejected the ones that had scratches, tears or creases.  I later found out that JJ prepared for mishaps by ordering five extra copies each week, which, if they were damaged, he would sell to Dr. Keen, the veterinarian at that time, who would shred them and used them as bedding in the dog kennels.

By noon, I had criss-crossed Walnut Shade a dozen times and had delivered about half of my papers.  I began to do the accounting in my head:  30 x 5 cents equaled $1.50.  I was rich!  The sales system that I had signed on for was that I would sell each copy of Grit for fifteen cents, send ten cents per copy back to Williamsport, PA, the headquarters of the company, and I would keep five cents.  If I sold all fifty copies, I’d make $2.50 a week, a fortune for a kid at the time.  Of course, there was a slight catch:  JJ ordered fifty-five copies but only had fifty steady customers, so if Dr. Keen didn’t buy the extras or I couldn’t find someone else to buy them, my profits would shrink by fifty cents, since I had to pay for all fifty-five copies whether I sold them or not.  Another flaw in the system, at least to my ten year-old mind was that not all of my customers were at home when I stopped by to deliver their papers, or sometimes they told me that they didn’t have the fifteen cents then and would pay me the next week.

I had been lucky in the morning to collect from everyone, but the afternoon was different: eight of my customers were not home.  I left the papers and decided I’d go back on Saturday to collect.  Dr. Keen was out of town when I stopped by his office and his wife didn’t know about the arrangement he and JJ had made, so she suggested that I come back on Monday.  Bad news, because I was supposed to put a money order in the mail on Monday for the fifty-five copies of Grit that had been entrusted to my entrepreneurial abilities.  By the time on Saturday that I had revisited all my customers who had not been home on Friday, I had collected a total of $6.90.  Quickly doing the math revealed that I needed to send the Grit office $5.50, leaving me only $1.40.  I was actually ten cents less rich than I had been on Friday morning!  I had learned a valuable lesson about sales:  not every sale you count on actually counts.

I also learned the value of being well-organized like JJ.  He had recorded his weekly sales for each of his customers, something that I neglected to do for a few weeks, with the result that I didn’t know who owed me from the previous week.  I relied on the honesty and memory of my customers, most of whom were scrupulously honest, but not all of whom remembered that they had not paid me the fifteen cents the week before.  One day when I was at Marshall’s house, I lamented the fact that some of my customers owed me money, but I couldn’t figure out which ones.

Overhearing the discussion, JJ piped in.

“Boy are you dense.  What did you do with the record book I gave you?”

“I don’t think I looked at that,” I said, realizing I had missed the second-most important document that JJ had left with me.

“That’s the official Grit ledger and it will help you keep everything straight if you use it every week.  Boy, what a dope.”  JJ had little patience for his little brother and his little brother’s friends, even though I was doing Marshall, and by extension, him a favor delivering the papers that summer.

Beginning then, I made sure that I carried the ledger with me and carefully recorded each sale.  On Monday morning when I went to the Post Office to buy a money order and send it to the Grit office, I knew precisely how much I had made that week and which of my customers I needed to collect from when I delivered their next paper.

The other lesson I had learned by the end of the first month was time-management.  When I started out, I was delivering the papers in alphabetical order, meaning that I back-tracked and circled around town several times.  While that made recording my sales easy, I realized that I could complete my job quicker if I made stops that were close together instead of biking from one end of town to the other.  During the first few weeks, I spent all of Friday and Saturday morning on my delivery route, but once I mapped out a new series of stops, I was able to complete my rounds all on Friday.  I didn’t anticipate that a one-day delivery schedule would come in handy once school started, because I understood that once his leg was healed, Marshall would take over the deliveries.  As it turned out, that didn’t happen.

Marshall had broken his leg at the end of June in our Little League team’s game against the Parkersburg team.  The break was a bad one and about a month into his recovery, he developed an infection where one of the pins holding the bones together was located.  An operation to remove and replace the pin and reset the bones seemed to be successful, but his recovery was prolonged for another month and by the end of August, and the start of school, he was still on crutches.  And I was still delivering Grit.

“Dr. Orr says that I won’t be able to play basketball this year.  My leg seems to be healing slow,” Marshall told me one day.  “I think you should take over the Grit job for good.”

While I wanted to help out my friend, the prospect of continuing to deliver the newspaper wasn’t as appealing as it once was.  I had developed an efficient delivery system and managed to collect most of what was owed for the papers, so I had money in my pocket, at least for a couple of days each week.   But as school was starting, I realized that most of my Friday deliveries would be curtailed, which left Saturday to do the job (selling a newspaper on Sunday was frowned on at that time; not even the IGA was open).  For a ten year-old kid, Saturdays were sacrosanct, especially Saturday mornings once we got a TV, which started with Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody and moved on to Roy Rogers, Sky King and the weekly serials like Buck Rogers or The Three Musketeers.  Afternoons were occupied with impromptu baseball or football games, doing the chores that had been put off during the week, or just hanging out in the park.  The idea of working never really entered my mind.

“I don’t know, Marshall, maybe JJ would be willing to take it back just until you are able to start.”

“JJ just got a job working after school and on Saturday at the drug store, so he doesn’t want to do it.  I just don’t think I’m going to be able to handle it for a while,” Marshall said, looking really sorry that he was pushing the job off on me.

“Well, OK.  I guess I can take over the job, at least until I can find someone else to do it.”  I wanted to say “some other sucker,” but I knew that wouldn’t be polite.  I was stuck and that was all there was to it.  So for the next three years, I delivered Grit to my customers in Walnut Shade, rain or shine, in sickness and in health (wait, that last part is about marriage; but being a newspaper delivery boy was a bit like being married to your customers, especially the sickness and health part; I don’t know how many colds I got and gave during my Grit years, coins being an incredibly efficient germ delivery system).  I was finally able to obtain a divorce from the newspaper business just before my thirteenth birthday, when I convinced Marshall and JJ’s little brother, Charles Evans, that it was his family duty to resume the job.  In an odd twist, Charlie became an editor at Cappers Weekly, a sister publication of Grit, both of which are now produced in Topeka.  To this day, ever time I see him, he thanks me for getting him started in the newspaper business.  Charlie, you are entirely welcome.

About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
This entry was posted in Art, Observations, Small Town Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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