Alaskan Paperboy

A year after our fateful moose hunting trip, I met a kid in my class with a torn-up, double-satchel, blue canvas newspaper bag inscribed with the words and logo of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

“What’s that for?” I asked inquisitively.

“It’s for my paper route.  I deliver newspapers every day after school,” he replied.

“Where do you deliver?  How many people?” I continued.

“Over in the Tanana Trailer Village.  I’ve got about seventy customers,” he answered.  “I want to give it up though.  It’s a lot of work and I don’t have time anymore.”

We kept talking and I asked about the pay and such.  It turned out that a kid could make between $75 to $125 per month!  For a nine year old that was some serious bank.  And conveniently enough I also lived in that same trailer park.  So I told him I was interested and ran home after school to talk to my parents that night.  Shortly thereafter he was teaching me the ropes.  The next thing I knew I was doing it on my own.  I ended up delivering newspapers for four years – from nine to thirteen – six days a week, hell or high water, rain or shine, hot or cold.  And every month I also had to collect fees from my entire customer-base while also prospecting for new subscribers.  Thinking back – that was an amazingly tough job for a little guy… made that much harder by our family’s never-ending house building project that started when I was about twelve.  I spent more time outside in the cold from twelve to thirteen than most people likely spend in their entire lives.   Even so – as with the house building – there were days and experiences there that I will remember and treasure for as long as my heart continues to beat.  And by the end of it my parents had made me save just about every penny – enough to buy my first car when I was almost sixteen.

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Construction on the eight-hundred mile Trans-Alaska pipeline began on March 27th, 1975 and ended on May 31st, 1977. I just happened to turn nine and start delivering papers around September of 1976.  It was the gold-rush in Fairbanks all over again, only the riches were to jet black this time.  I took on the route during the period when the trailer park was roaring with activity.  People were moving in as fast as the money was flowing until the very month the pipeline was finished.  And then just as suddenly, they started to leave and never return.  I went from seventy customers at the peak in late 1976 to about forty-five in 1979 and ’80.  It took constant hunting just to maintain forty-plus customers in those last two years.  Toward the end of my career some trailers were even just abandoned and the entire mood started to change.  The homeowners at the beginning were busy blue-collar types, many of which were from far off places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  Then the occupants slowly devolved into what we all know of as ‘local trailer trash.’  And I had the unique opportunity to witness this process intimately while delivering, collecting and prospecting day by day.  By 1980 trucks on blocks, engines in kitchens, angry pit-bulls, and wife-beating drunks were a common site in the trailer park.  It was just one more reason my parents got out of there sooner rather than later, regardless of how uncomfortable the alternative of an unfinished house was.  And yet we were still in a time and place where a kid could walk around independently delivering and collecting day or night without the fear of being abducted.   I learned and did a lot of things alone that otherwise would not have been possible.

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Now logistically speaking, even with two satchels, the paper bag – and my little body for that matter – could not usually carry all forty to seventy papers. So I ended up delivering a batch and then coming back for another, and another.  The average time spent delivering per day was about two hours, regardless of weather conditions.  I’d come home from school every day and there they’d be – two to four bundles of papers stacked up on the porch by our local delivery driver.  On Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and July 4th, there’d be about the same number of bundles only five times as tall since the papers were five times larger.  Those were the days I remember most.  Sometimes it took up to four hours to deliver them all.  I’d smash as many as I could carry in that bag, which usually ended up being only about twelve to fifteen.  Then I’d climb to my feet, shoulders aching from the strain, and start walking just to get back to a starting point where I left off after the previous fifteen drops.  There was only a couple times my Dad ever came out to help me deliver or collect after I turned eleven, and one of them was on Christmas Day, 1979.  It was so cold and the papers were so heavy that it was taking way longer than expected.  At -45 Fahrenheit the air was barely breathable.  I had to take short, shallow breaths just to keep my throat from freezing even with a scarf wrap.  But the papers were so heavy that my heart was beating like crazy and I needed all the air I could get.  So I had to keep stopping to huddle down and take exhaustion breaks.  I’d crunch down and stick my hands between my thighs in the snowsuit where the two kerosene hand warmers were located.  That went on until I could muster the energy to clamor back to my feet again and keep going.  Evidently my Mom was getting worried that day, because she sent Dad out to find me.  I was so tired and hunched over when he drove up that I didn’t see or even hear the truck until he called out for me.

“What are you doing?” he asked while rolling down the window.  I looked up from my stoop near the apartment complex I’d parked it at.  I was never more happy to see him.

“How’d you find me?” I replied bewildered.  “It’s pitch black out here.”

“I drove your route.  You still got a long ways to go,” he remarked jovially.

“I’m so tired Dad,” I said.  “I’m taking a break to warm up again!  This is the worst holiday delivery ever.”

“Hop in – I put the rest of the papers in the truck.  We’ll drive around and finish after you warm up,” he offered.

“Oh thank you.  My shoulders are killing me.”

By then I could handle most other days on my own, regardless of how extreme it was.  I’d just light up the hand warmers, pocket them on each inner thigh and start walking.  The colder it got, the more clothes I wore, slower I walked, and shallower I breathed.  It was a matter of self-preservation and efficiency, and the only way to make it through the entire route.  There were times it was so cold that there wasn’t a single living thing out there except for me and possibly some ravens.  At -20 to -50 Fahrenheit, Interior Alaskan snow becomes dry and crisp like fine sand or powder.  You can’t even smash it into a snowball because the crystalline flakes won’t actually stick together properly.  This self same material also makes an odd pitched squeaking sound as it crunches beneath your feet.  Sometimes this was the only sound I ever heard on those frigid days, besides my own breathing.   It was a surreal experience to say the least, like walking on the moon, especially during the winter solstice period (December 21st) each year.  The shortest day of the year would fast approach as we headed toward Christmas, leaving us with a pittance of only three hours of usable daylight in Fairbanks.  From 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM the sun would limp onto the horizon to twilight us with its orangish-pink presence before retiring yet again to sleep.  I spent many a late afternoon during that period going from one porch light to the next in the pitch-black void while mesmerizing on the sounds of my own breathing and crunching snow.  It was the most eccentric form of sensory deprivation I’ve ever experienced, especially at temperatures below minus-forty.  Under these conditions, house exhaust plumes would crystallize while exiting the smoke stacks and just hang there as if transfixed in space.  Then inversion layers – blankets of ice crystals – would slowly form just above trailer height as the plumes struggled ever so slowly toward diffusion.  Within days everything would be covered by a thick powder of these minute particles, and the air saturated to a dense fog.  Halos would encompass and then begin to smother my guiding porch lights, leaving only dim remnants in which to travel by.  The fog was sometimes so thick that visibility dropped to one ghostly lamp, even against the contrast of total darkness.  I’d reach one trailer and just barely be able to see the rays from the next… and it was only fifty-feet away!  These were the days where the imagination would begin to wander until suddenly I’d find myself actually pretending like I was on the moon.

“Khhhhhhhhk!  Khk!  Houston – can you read?  The beagle has landed.  I repeat, the little brown beagle has landed.”

“Khhk.  That’s one small step for dogs…  Khhhhk!… And one giant leap – oompf! – Make that ‘hop’ – for dog kind.  Khhhhhk!

You couldn’t really jump far in snowsuit and loaded paper bag.  No matter – It was still fun.  And nobody would ever witness any of it except for the ravens anyway.   They were such mystical creatures for their endurance.  I could barely put up with two hours of that punishment and they were out there all day and night.  This aspect alone made them extraordinary company.

Clear sky afternoons and evenings out there were somewhat less introspective.  I’d walk and stare up at the stars, watching as the Big Dipper spun around on its northern axis.  Then count its stars to make sure that they were all still there.  Then count them again.  Then imagine that one might actually be an alien spaceship waiting to scoot away… and then count them again.  I’d arrive home at last with a stiff neck from craning skyward for two straight hours.  The same would happen on days when the northern lights came out to play.  I’d walk like a zombie while watching them dance and dive, sometimes almost within reach.  And then I’d pretend like I was pulling them down like ribbon from a floating spool.  And when they were all finally grounded in a tangled heap I’d take the pile and throw it back up again, watching as they all unwound and drifted away.

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My paper delivery career finally ended in 1980 because of two reasons – the first being that we were supposed to move out to the house Dad was building the following year. It was out in the sticks about ten miles or so from the trailer, making the job impossible.  And the other reason was because I, like my predecessor, grew tired of doing it.  They were moving up to seven days a week and I’d had enough of being tied up with work all the time.  Six days was already too much for a kid!

Toward the end there I only had one goal as a paperboy – to win the carrier of the year award.  And I focused on that and worked like hell that last year delivering, collecting and prospecting to do it.  Seven kids ended up with the title, me amongst them.  We were all spotlighted in the newspaper and received our own gold colored paper bags to distinguish us from everyone else.  We also got a trophy at a little banquet and awards ceremony – the Inland Daily Press Association Award, aka the IDPA award.  To this day my family absolutely loves giving me crap about winning the IDPA award since it sounds like “putz” or “boob” or some other derogatory four-letter word.  No matter – I got what I wanted and then quit shortly thereafter.  Then I laid that treasured golden paper bag into my favorite footlocker as a memento of the triumph over four years of adversity.  Coincidentally, the days of young kids delivering and collecting for the routes also ended within ten to fifteen years of my own tour.  It became too dangerous for children and therefore too much of a liability for the newspaper company.  In addition, more efficient and cheaper ways to deliver and collect money emerged that simply started making us obsolete.  I’m betting that there’s still a few routes somewhere that kids (likely teenagers) are probably running in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, but most are now exclusively delivered by adult runners or other methods.

So there we were, out of the trailer and into the house.  And although we all moved on in life, the experiences from miles of thinking and walking that route are woven into the very fabric of my being.  I guess it would be appropriate to say that you could take the kid out of the trailer park but never really take the trailer park out of the kid. This tradition of literally walking my way through tough situations started with our moose-hunting trip, continued with the paper route, and resurfaced even during cancer treatment.  One of the first commitments I made on the way into treatment was to walk in there on my own two feet, walk out in one piece, and keep on walking until I got nice and old. It seemed simple enough, but was actually a tall order considering the spinal tumor and chemo drugs that were threatening to kill me.  All a person can really do is make a commitment to the individual steps – to each literal and figurative step necessary to get through those tough times, regardless of how heavy each may be or how many thousand or ten-thousand might be coming.  I was brought to my knees by treatment and recovery many times.  But like holiday delivery on the paper route, I’d clamor back to my feet with some help and just try to keep going.  And however simple the approach seems, as with the invisible but unrelenting force of gravity, this too is a force to be reckoned with.

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