Working for a living

I got my first paid job when I was 11, subcontracting a newspaper route for my cousin, Sheffy Miller. Sheffy was the budding entrepreneur in the family, and as soon as he turned 12 he obtained a paper route for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He was good at it, and the district manager talked him into adding a second route to it. He farmed the second route out to me, even though I didn’t meet the paper’s requirement that carriers had to be at least 12 years old. The News-Sentinel was an afternoon newspaper in those days, so we picked up our bundles at the bus station after school. As soon as I turned 12, I got my own route and later on added a Knoxville Journal route as well for a time. I carried papers until I was about 16.

The problem with carrying papers in Jellico is that most of the houses are on hillsides. That meant a lot of up and down walking lugging that heavy newspaper sack. On most routes, the hills were too steep to successfully use a bicycle. Thus, after I got a pony in the summer of 1949, I rode my paper route. Unfortunately, my customers were not too thrilled. Several of them complained to the News-Sentinel, requesting that I be told to either forego the pony or clean up after it. I returned to “shank’s mare” to deliver the papers, because it would have been more trouble than it was worth to try to clean up after him.

In those days, a paperboy was a small, independent businessman. You contracted with the newspaper to deliver the papers. You collected from the customers and paid the district manager, keeping a small margin of profit from each customer. If the customer didn’t pay, too bad; you still owed the district manager. As a carrier, you quickly learned that you couldn’t let people slide. Thursday was collection day. You tried to collect as you delivered, but inevitably you had to go back after you completed the route, making it a long day. You had to turn the money in on Friday, so that meant you either made up any difference or you got out and hit the deadbeats again Friday morning (a difficult task during the school year). I learned that you were more likely to get stiffed by the well-off people as you were the poor. Some wealthier customers were very cavalier about paying such a trifle. “Come back tomorrow; I don’t have any change now,” you would be told. I remember one elderly black man on my route. He lived in a modest house on Hill Avenue. On Thursday afternoon, he would usually be waiting at the door with his 35 cents in hand.

I also learned a lot about dogs. I had had a dog for as long as I could remember and Daddy raised bird dogs. Everybody I knew had dogs, from mutts to purebred hunting dogs. But on a paper route, dogs become more sinister. You come by everyday hurling a missile into their territory. Mostly, dogs would bark awhile then calm down. But there was one dog with which I developed a truly adversarial relationship. It was a huge (or so it seemed to me) Chinese Chow with a red coat and blue lips that belonged to Miss Daisy Peace, the Latin/English teacher at the high school who lived in a modest little bungalow about a block off of Fifth Street. The first day I carried the papers up to her house the chow bounded off the porch and ran toward me when I entered the yard. He never barked or made a sound, and before I could get out of the way he jumped on me with all four feet, knocking me over. Fortunately, some people were on the porch and ran out to pull the dog off of me before he bit me. After that, Miss Peace promised to keep the dog pinned up at delivery time, but I still approached the house with trepidation. Sometimes, I would be walking along the street blocks from her house and the dog would come up behind me, again not barking or making a sound. I would hear his big paws clicking on the sidewalk. I would pull out the large pocketknife I always carried and turn and face him down. After a few seconds of standoff, he would turn and go away. I still don’t like Chows.

When we were younger, Sheffy and I would also raise a little money by collecting all the empty boxes from the behind the stores along Main Street. We would carry them up to Maurice Zauber’s raincoat factory where Mr. Zauber himself would come out and negotiate their purchase, as if this were a main part of his job. He usually paid a nickel apiece for the better large boxes.

In the summer, I would often set up a lemonade stand in front of our house. But my biggest money-making venture was selling books. All of us were inveterate readers and so we collected piles of books. I was very big into comic books, but I never thought of collecting them. During the war years, paper, like everything else, was scarce, and so books, particularly comic books, became harder to come by. In Jellico, the only place to buy comic books was at the Smith Drug Store on South Main or the Central Drug on Main. I made a deal with Mr. Smith, my friend Roy’s father, to hold the new comic books for me when the came in. The Central Drug Store, a much bigger operation, wouldn’t make such a deal, but I learned when the book usually were delivered and contrived to be there when they were put on the shelf, grabbing the ones I wanted before others saw them. The same was true with another popular literary form of the day, the Big-Little Books. These books were about 3×4 inches by perhaps two inches thick. They were filled with drawings but were not precisely comic books. One added feature in most of them was an animated section at the top of each page. You could flip the pages and see the characters move! Whenever I had a good collection of these books, plus a number of Daddy’s cast off western stories and other assorted magazines collected at my grandmother’s house, I would have a book sale at the corner of our lot. Since Daddy and Mother had originally paid for the books, I realized 100 percent profit. For books that were in big demand, I could sometimes get two or three times what they had originally cost, another lesson in supply-and-demand economics. Books were the one thing that my parents never stinted upon. While the budget for toys was extremely limited, I was allowed to buy just about any book that I wanted. Books also were frequent presents, particularly from my dad. When I got older, I got into various boys’ adventure series, tops of which was the Hardy Boys. I also liked the Nancy Drew mysteries but to avoid the “sissy” label I couldn’t afford to own them. So I worked out a deal with Betty Lou Slemmons, the daughter of a prominent doctor in town, to trade my Hardy Boys for her Nancy Drew books. The only place to buy such books was in Knoxville, mainly in the book department at Miller’s Department Store. I still remember the thrill of going there and finding a brand new Hardy Boys mystery.

In the summer of 1947, when I was 12 years old, Daddy put me to work in the logwoods. I performed many chores, from breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer to carrying water for the timber cutters. My main job was helping an old man skid logs with a team of horses. We would take the team to trees that had been cut. I would drive a spike into the log and hook it to a chain to pull it to the sawmill. Logs at that time were mostly being skidded by tractors, which could haul six or eight at a time much more efficiently that a team of horses driven by an old man and young boy. But I suspect it was Daddy’s way of giving work to the old man and getting some use out of the horses.

Daddy always found a job for me in the summer. The toughest was the summer of 1952 after I had graduated from high school. I worked for a contractor building an addition to the Jellico Hospital. I was on my own, working a man’s shift. On one particularly hot day, I was carrying “mud”—mortar—for the bricklayers. I would go up to the cement mixer at street level, fill up two buckets and carry them down into the basement hole where I would set them up on the scaffold for the masons. They had to have plenty of fresh mortar so we mud carriers had to practically run back and forth with the heavy buckets. By mid-afternoon, the heat was insupportable. I noticed that I had quit sweating, and I was feeling dizzy, but I didn’t stop. I remember lifting up a bucket onto the scaffold. The next thing I remember was waking up on a cot inside the adjacent hospital. I had passed out and the bucket of mud had fallen back on top of me, covering me with the fresh mortar.

That same summer, Daddy had received a rail-car load of bricks for the hospital project. The car had to be unloaded that night, so he took a crew including me down to the sidetrack behind Lay & Miller Co. We worked late into the night, tossing brick by brick down a line until all the bricks were transferred from the rail car to a waiting truck. Another crew unloaded the truck at the construction site. I went through three or four pairs of gloves that night. We finished around midnight, as bone tired as I think I’ve ever been. And, for course, I had to be back on the job at 7 the next morning.

The previous summer I had worked equally as hard, but with less structure. Daddy was developing a subdivision in Knoxville and for the first part of the summer after school was out, we drove every morning to North Knoxville where we cut brush and cleared the property. The parcel is east of Chilhowee Drive adjacent to Holston Hills. He called it Sunset Hills.

Later that summer, I worked on a “farm” Daddy was trying to create in the hills around Laurel Branch, one of the old logging sites 11 miles south of Jellico off of U.S. 25W. I also drove a truck some for Lay & Miller, helped Don Willoughby in his grocery store, stocking and delivering groceries, and, best of all, I drove a gasoline truck for my Uncle Hugh Vaughan for about six weeks while his regular driver, Banner Todd, was recovering from hemorrhoid surgery.

Somehow, there was always time during those summers of hard work for trips to Sandy Beach, where I had learned to swim in the coal dust-polluted waters of the Clear Fork, hitchhiking excursions to LaFollette and Knoxville, camping expeditions to Big Ridge State Park, hikes up the side of Pine Mountain, and other activities.

I even went to a Boy Scout camp on Norris Lake the summer after I was 12 (1947). Unfortunately, I was severely bitten by chiggers around my private parts during the first couple of days. I suffered mightily. By Wednesday night, my penis and testicles had swelled to more than double their normal size, and I consulted a camp counselor. Instead of taking me seriously, he made a joke out of it, telling everybody in camp about my affliction, which brought jeers and derision from my fellow Scouts. The next morning I packed my bag and left the camp, telling no one. I walked out to the highway to the nearby hamlet of Andersonville and caught a ride as far as U.S. 441. From there, I got a ride into Lake City on U.S. 25W, and from there I caught another ride into LaFollette. In LaFollette, I stopped by the office of a lawyer who was a friend of Daddy’s. He called Daddy, who sent Mac to LaFollette to get me. I went to a doctor, but there was little that could be done about chigger bites. I still got some ribbing from my brother, Mac. That ended me with the Scouts. I didn’t want anything else to do with the organization after that.

I worked on construction again in the summer of 1954, helping build the Third Creek sewage plant in Knoxville. The work wasn’t as rigorous because I was assigned as the helper to a surveyor. He wasn’t too keen on working up a sweat that hot summer so we spent a lot of time sitting in the shade, drinking ice water.

If Daddy’s idea was to get me to like working in construction and to study civil engineering, it backfired, because working in those jobs made me desperate for a job in the city where I would wear a suit and a tie.

Photography: Harbinger of a career ahead

Sometime during my high school years I came upon a new hobby: photography. I don’t recall how I got interested. Nobody I knew was doing it. Daddy had an old Kodak camera that was pretty good, and Uncle Kyle had just bought a neat little 3 1/4-4 1/4 Crown Graphic, a smaller version of the 4×5 Speed Graphic cameras used by news photographers in those days. He frequently let me borrow it. My first darkroom was the bathroom, but since we had only one that was constantly in use, Daddy soon built me a small darkroom in the basement, complete with running water. I spent hours there, developing and printing. It also became my secret hideaway for just getting out of the way and being by myself.

It was Uncle Kyle’s little Crown Graphic that gave me my first taste of the news business.

It was a typical spring Saturday night in Jellico—the weather was balmy, the streets were packed with people window shopping and visiting with friends, and I was wandering with Uncle Kyle’s Crown Graphic looking for interesting pictures. I was on the north end of Main Street when I heard a crash. I ran toward the noise, thinking it was a car wreck. What I found was a Ford truck sitting in what had been the plate glass window of the Mountain Bus Station. On the door of the truck were the words, “Property of Brushy Mt. Prison.” I started shooting pictures, and piecing together the story.

Dick Rue, a trusty at the state prison in Petros in Morgan County about 50 miles west of Jellico, had driven off in the prison truck after getting a letter from his wife, a waitress at the bus station café, saying she wanted to divorce him. In Jellico, he had to drive past the intersection of Fifth Street, Main and South Main where Police Chief Drew Roberts always kept a vigil, particularly on Saturday nights. But Roberts apparently didn’t notice the prison truck. At the bus station, Rue called her outside. After a discussion, she went back in and he got in the truck, drove about 200 yards to the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, turned around and smashed the truck into the plate glass window.

He jumped out of the truck cab and hit his wife. The restaurant owner pulled a gun and shot Rue, wounding him superficially. Sadly, a man playing a pinball machine just inside the restaurant and a 15-year-old crippled boy who was on the sidewalk were killed in the incident.

Police Chief Roberts arrived on the scene and arrested Rue. He was taken to Jellico Hospital, a block from our house, for treatment of his wound. Mac, my brother, had shown up at the scene in the meantime. I gave him the camera to shoot a picture of Rue when he came out of the hospital and I raced home to call the Knoxville newspapers. I first called the Journal, but Juanita Glenn, the state editor, wasn’t interested. Next I called the News-Sentinel. State Editor Warner Ogden was extremely interested. He took down everything I gave him and asked me to send the pictures on the next Greyhound bus.

My story was at the top of Page One in the News-Sentinel both Sunday and Monday. The follow-up reported the death of the second victim, the teenager.

I earned the great sum of $29 for my efforts, $10 each for the two pictures they used, and $9 for the stories. It wasn’t a bad evening’s pay in 1948. I should have shared my bounty with Mac because he actually shot one of the pictures, Rue leaving the hospital after being treated.

More important than the immediate payment I received was being hired as Ogden’s Jellico correspondent. From then until I graduated from high school four years later, I covered all the news events in Jellico and the northern end of Campbell County.

Ogden was a small, retiring man who always wore a green eyeshade and garters on the sleeves of his white shirt. Years later when I was on home leave from my post as AP correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, I stopped by the News-Sentinel newsroom to say hello.

“You were the best correspondent I ever had in Jellico,” he commented. “If you ever want the job back, just let me know.” I don’t think he was being ironic.

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