by Mark Tooley
Likely I’m surrendering to post-modernity this week and cancelling my subscription to The Washington Post. Walking down my leaf-strewn, wet driveway on cold winter mornings to retrieve a 5 pound wad of newspaper wrapped in plastic seems increasingly archaic. Apparently all the content is now available at the Post website. And it’s now also available at a small price through Kindle.
Propping my iPad before my plate during breakfast will take getting used to. I first started reading the Post every day over breakfast at age 11 in 1976, the first presidential election year in which I took active interest. During the primaries I scoured the paper for the latest results on Gerald Ford versus Ronald Reagan among Republicans. Jimmy Carter seemed to prevail fairly early against his many Democratic opponents. Although the election ended unhappily from my perspective, the daily Post reading continued. A few years later, in high school, I began 4 years of delivering the Post every morning in a nearby neighborhood, scanning some of the key headlines on my bicycle, and finishing up when back home eating Cheerios.
The online editions of the Post cannot repeat the drama of hard copy headlines. In those days before the internet and 24 hour news, the morning paper delivered bracing and often shocking announcements. As a delivery boy, in the early often cold pre dawn, I sometimes unwrapped the stack of papers to peer at a stunning headline visible only thanks to a street lamp. Soviets Invade Afghanistan! Iran Hostage Rescue Attempt Fails! And, in some rare good news, Margaret Thatcher Elected in Landslide!
Even before my regular Post reading began, I recall the unprecedented and never again repeated giant sized headline Nixon Resigns! A year later I saw a slightly smaller headline Saigon Falls! The following year I recall Mao Dies! (I’m adding the exclamation points, which don’t typically appear in Post headlines.) I also remember the headline about Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975. It called him “Last of the Big 4!,” which interested me as a World War II buff, thinking mainly of the Allied Big 3 as FDR, Churchill and Stalin.
In those years the Post was home delivered almost always by boys or teenagers, although unusually our own delivery person was a girl down the street my own age who must have started when she was only about 10 or 11 and continued for years. Rising before dawn to walk the streets in the dark often in freezing temperatures or rain was a habit rewarded by what seemed at the time as good pay, supplemented by often generous tips by customers from whom I had to collect directly. Learning their early morning habits became routine. Some customers rose bizarrely early. I recall one woman who kept her yard and house lighted like an airport, as she impatiently awaited my arrival at about 5:30. Another awaiting woman at least had the excuse of working at a bakery, necessitating her pre-dawn schedule. Others had assailing dogs, or herds of sulfurous cats, or answered the door not fully dressed. One customer had a doorbell that rang the National Anthem. Another had a toothless man servant named Bruno who seemed to be kept locked in the basement. He liked to joke with me about poor Crazy Mary who lived across the street, muttering to herself, and inexplicably painting the trees and rocks in her front yard.
Many of my friends, and my brother, then were also newspaper delivery boys who rode a bicycle or pushed a cart. Today it seems always to be older, car-driving immigrant men, as is true for nearly all the jobs that boys my age did in those years, such as lawn mowing and leaf raking. I’m not sure younger teenage boys have jobs any more, at least in the Washington, D.C. area. I knew all of my customers, whom I had to visit monthly. I’ve never met the older man who throws a newspaper from his car into my driveway every morning about 4am, sounding a loud THUMP!! Probably few parents today would permit their young children to walk the streets alone in the dark pre-dawn hours, as many of us with relative safety did 30 years ago.
The Washington Post unknowingly led me to my current employment. In the 1980s I read occasionally about the political pronouncements of my own United Methodist and other denominations at least briefly on the Post Saturday religion page. Church Officials Hail Sandinistas! National Council of Churches Back Nuclear Freeze! United Methodists Urge U.S. Apology to Ayatollah! Nobody in my local church, including the minister, ever talked about these issues, or likely even knew much about them from a church perspective. In about 1986 when I was a college student I read a Religion News Service story in the Post about a United Methodist renewal group called Good News. The quoted spokesman was named Jim Robb of Wilmore, Kentucky. I called directory assistance, and reached him in the evening at home. He sent me Good News magazine, which carried an ad for a new book by his evangelist father, Ed Robb, who had helped to found my current employer, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). I wrote Ed Robb about his book by way of the IRD in Washington, D.C. Diane Knippers, then Vice President, opened the letter and phoned me. She later would hire me at IRD in 1994. Ed also became a friend and spoke at my church. Both are now sadly gone from this world. But Jim Robb remains a friend and now serves on the IRD’s board. So I owe thanks to the Washington Post, which I will keep reading, but online, and without any assistance in the dark from a street light.