Saturday, October 11, 2014

My Career as a Stringer

I was a teen-aged stringer.
In 1943, with all the young men away at war in Europe and the South Pacific, girls could go for just about any jobs they wanted.
     My cousin in Boston, drafted after one semester of college, had sent me his Introduction to Journalism textbook. And having memorized the whole book, as soon as high school was out in May I walked confidently “down-street” in Penn Yan and talked to Sidney Ayres, editor of the village's weekly newspaper.  He hired me on the spot, not only as a full-time reporter, but also as – thrilling title -- the Yates County Correspondent for four city dailies.
     I brought in my prized possession, a portable Royal typewriter that had no keys for the numbers one or zero (capital “I” and “O” served instead.) Sid squeezed in a battered little desk out by the job printing presses in the back room, and I was a journalist!
     Each story was written first for the Penn Yan paper, deadline Wednesday noon for publication on Thursday.  (One of my first assignments was keeping in touch with the hospital on Wednesday mornings to see if anyone was going to die in time.)  Then, if the item seemed important enough, I wrote it with two different leads.  One was intended for the state edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the other for that city's Times-Union.   With each I typed a carbon copy, and those went to the Elmira paper and – if I remember right -- Geneva.  I do know my deadline was three in the afternoon, when some copy left town on the Greyhound bus, and the rest went, I believe, on the five o’clock train to Rochester.
      I remember interviewing an old man who had piloted steamboats on Keuka Lake, and taking his picture with the paper’s Speed Graphic, with its 4 by 5-inch film pack.  For that article Sid gave me a by-line; in those days by-lines were seldom awarded and it was my first.  I remember being sent to interview a brand-new war widow only a few years older than I was, talking in her kitchen while she fed her son in his high chair.  All of this, of course, on foot.  I had no license, no car, no gasoline ration. 
     I remember counting the coded blasts on the fire whistle that told where a blaze was located, and seeing all the shopkeepers on the two blocks of Main Street dash out for a little excitement as volunteer firemen.  I remember being sent out on D-Day, sixth of June, 1944, to write about the village’s reaction. It was a beautiful sunny day, and all the church doors were open.  Inside, people simply sitting in the pews or kneeling, nothing going on, not a sound.  Silence.

     After a few weeks, the elderly journeymen in the back room offered to teach me something about printing.  They promised to show me type lice, which nested in between lines of metal linotype slugs.
      “You have to look close,” they said, “bend right down and we’ll pull the slugs apart so you can see them.”  And of course, as soon as I did, they slapped the column of slugs back together and I got a faceful of ink and cleaning fluid.
      “Now you’re a real printer” they chortled, and wasn’t I proud!
     I believe Sid paid me $15 a week, the equivalent of perhaps $200 today.  And in addition, he showed me how to bill the Rochester papers as a stringer.  Each day I’d scan my parents’ copies.  With any luck I’d find something of mine, to clip (alas, without the headline) and paste in a long rolled-up strip.  At the end of the month I’d stretch a string the length of the roll, measure the string, and send in the roll with a bill for ten cents a column inch. 
     Why I wasn't instructed to just measure the roll of paper itself, I have no idea, but I’ve always assumed the process was what made me a stringer.
     I never got to see the glamorous press rooms of those Rochester newspapers, and I spoke with an editor just once.  As September approached, I telephoned (my first long-distance call!) to tell the state editor someone else would be taking over till next spring; I was leaving for college.  And he said – it was one of the most wonderful moments of my life –

“It has been a pleasure receiving your copy.”



1 comment:

  1. When the war ended, did a man take over your reporting duties? If so, how did you feel about that? I loved the details here about how you were taught to be a "real printer" and where the concept of "stringer" came from. I signed up to be notified when you post new blog entries. I look forward to hearing more about your life.