Scooter Boy… or not
Hey Sonny… how old are you?
While standing in the middle of our gravel road on Stanford out in front of my house one day, a car pulled up and a man leaned out his window saying, “Hey Sonny… how old are you?” I didn’t know what to say at first, sort of stumbling for words. I didn’t think to ask why but he continued… “I’m looking for someone at least twelve that would like a paper route.” Of course I did the honorable thing… thinking I would like to have a paper route and this was an opportunity from out of nowhere. These things just don’t happen I thought. Some people call it luck but this was more like just being at the right place at the right time. I was only eleven, but I would soon be twelve, so of course the honest Injun in me told him I was twelve. My decision was based mostly on fantasy and greed… the human conditions we are born with, that hopefully gets taught or shamed out of us before we end up in jail.
A neighborhood friend and schoolmate, Ron Kryzaniack, lived on the corner of Stanford and Telegraph. He was a fellow Boy Scout and possessed a Cushman Motor Scooter that I was very envious of. So if I had a paper route, I reasoned, it would satisfy my fantasy and hopefully, if I could save enough money I could buy one. There was another scooter patrolling the neighborhood, a really cool looking Cushman Eagle, and riding it was another neighborhood kid named Gary Broyles, who lived a couple of blocks over on Hopkins. He was a couple of years older and older is always cool even without a scooter.
Soon after encountering the man in the street I was hired and started delivering the Dearborn Press, a local weekly newspaper. Competition was very high then, there were 2 other weekly papers to compete with, the Dearborn Independent and the Dearborn Guide, not to mention daily papers such as the Detroit Times, the News and the Detroit Free Press. There were so many papers then because people weren’t dependent on TV for their news like today, and TV news programming was in its infancy. Plus, TV everyone knew, was for entertainment, like watching the Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, Milton Berle, or The Jackie Gleason Show. None of these shows were newsworthy in the least.
A brief history: The Dearborn Independent was formerly Henry Ford’s Newspaper and as you might guess he was Mister Dearborn during the papers heyday. The Newspaper was sold to Henry Mills in 1928 after Henry Ford, in the Independent, had made some disparaging remarks about Jews in America. The Dearborn Guide (I think) surfaced sometime after the war, and in 1950 was challenged in court by the Independent as not being a local paper because it was assembled and printed in Hamtramck. A long court battle ensued and the Guide came out ahead, so the story goes? The Independent was purchased in 1958 by the Dearborn Press and today Dearborn now has a combined weekly newspaper called the “Press and Guide,”
Back to my Motor Scooter dilemma: I soon realized neither the Dearborn Press nor the Dearborn Independent, as weekly newspapers, provided enough income for me to buy a scooter. Over a period of time I delivered them both. Not only was there not enough revenue but the money itself was hard to collect. It was an early lesson for me about how difficult it was for people to part with their money… even though they signed up for delivery. Collecting for my papers was done on Saturdays and involved my going door to door which I found to be a very painful chore. No such financial instruments existed then, as now, with credit cards and PayPal. All financial transactions were in cash. Knock knock, ding dong… and I wanted to scream “I know you are in there,” and I did know because I could see them scrambling out of sight as I walked up their driveway.
After a long period of peddling weekly’s I decided I needed to move up the food chain. What I needed was a daily paper to deliver, a move that would put me in the chips, so I thought? Other kids had motor scooters, not many, but if they had them then why shouldn’t I? My fantasy grew but it took me awhile to realize that my appetite for model airplanes was larger than for the scooter and so saving money wasn’t happening. Plus, I had acquired another appetite for French toast.
My wish to deliver a daily came true, I was already experienced and the Detroit Free Press came a calling. The neighborhood delivery route for the Blue Streak became available and I jumped at it. The trouble was, it was an early morning delivery, get this… the papers showed up on my front porch at 4:30 AM. That was even earlier than my Uncle, my roommate, got up to go to work for his day shift at the Ford Stamping plant.
The winter mornings were cold and dark. I arose each morning at 4:30 am, folded papers and stuffed them in my canvas saddlebags and laid them across the rear carrier of my bicycle and headed down our driveway to the street. I recall having about 80 to 90 customers on neighboring streets, then depending on the weather and how deep the snow was, it would take me about an hour and a half to two hours to deliver. I would finish with just enough time to get to school. Telling this today seems like a really big chore for a little guy, and I was a little guy, but really it helped to give me a sense of independence. It was during this period that I gained knowledge of and made an acquaintance with French toast. There was a little diner across Telegraph Road, in the neighborhood of Lehigh and Hopkins that served three full slices for 35 cents. On occasion, when I had a few extra minutes, after papers were delivered I would treat myself.
My Detroit Free Press “Blue Streak” customers seemed like a better lot than my weekly bunch. I didn’t encounter nearly as many people that wouldn’t answer their door when I knocked or rang the bell to collect. They were friendlier and maybe they enjoyed their morning paper more. One such customer, Mr. Nichols and his wife, lived on the southwest corner of Stanford and Westlake. He would meet me each morning at his side gate to receive his paper no matter what the weather was like. They were retired and they owned a brand new Lincoln car. Mr. Nichols, I learned early on, liked to play the horses and not just in Detroit. They were the sweetest, nicest couple, I had ever known at my young age, and would probably rank high in the many I’ve known since.
Each spring he and his wife would drive to Hialeah, Florida to engage in a bit of wagering on the ponies. After returning home he would pay tribute to the local tracks, one being the Detroit Race Track out in Livonia and following that up with the Harness Racing going on at Hazel Park Raceway. One week in the spring, with my parent’s permission, he offered to take me with him out to the track in Livonia. He taught me how to read the sheets on various horses and how to pick them to wager on. He asked me to figure out which horses he should bet on and I gave it a try. He then said “Ronnie, here’is two dollars for you to bet with, so pick a horse.” Well, I really didn’t want to bet with his money but how was I to say no? I would rather have had the two dollars to keep for myself. A good lesson was learned that day and maybe it was intentional on his part? The horses I picked had lost and I really wished I still had the two dollars. Later, even though my flying career had me spending a lot of time in Las Vegas, I have never been a gambler. And I wonder if my lesson about gambling occurred that day with Mr. Nichols?
The Hialeah Park Race Track, in Florida, is one of the oldest existing. It was originally opened in 1922 by aviation pioneer Glen Curtiss as part of his development of the town of Hialeah. The Park itself is on the National Registry of Historic places. Soon after my wagering experience with Mister Nichols, he and his wife headed south for their annual drive to South Florida, to do some wagering with the racing elite.
One evening, shortly after the Nichols left for Florida, my mother pulled me aside and made me promise not to tell, she had a secret she wanted to share and that I couldn’t tell anyone… ANYONE! The secret was, Mr. Nichols had come to our house and asked, with her permission, that when they returned from Florida he was going to buy me a Cushman Motor Scooter. Whoa, can you imagine that? Well, I was pretty high on cloud nine, if that is really the highest cloud there is.
My experience with Mister Nichols taught me another important lesson, even more so than the pit falls that wagering can bring you. A cliché for sure and so true… “One should never count their chickens before they are hatched.” It has remained the longest month of my life, my head never out of the clouds until… the weekday morning when I got the news: my mother , with tears in her eyes, showed me the article in the paper. It read… “Local couple involved in fatal auto accident near Greenville, Indiana.” It went on to say, “Mr. and Mrs. Nichols, of Dearborn Township, returning from a Florida vacation, were involved in a two car automobile accident in which Mrs. Nichols died. Mr. Nichols, although seriously injured, remains hospitalized.”
A few months later Mr. Nichols did return home, he met me at his gate one morning while I was delivering papers, I didn’t know what to say to him. I still don’t remember what I did say or what he said to me? Mr. Nichols died a few weeks later of natural causes and I’m sure it involved a broken heart.
I was never sorry that I wasn’t able to save for a Cushman Motor Scooter or that the gracious promise of Mr. Nichols didn’t occur. I still feel sorry for him losing his life partner in such a tragic way. The result for me was an early lesson about the fragility of our existence. Life isn’t a forever thing and hopefully, its stages, can be appreciated if we can just manage to survive most of them intact with the ones we love. And, not all are so lucky to have the opportunity.