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As I trudged up the dirt driveway after school toward our little house, I spotted a strange car parked near the front door. What happened inside during the next hour set the stage for a dramatic change early in my 11-year-old life.
It was 1949 in Arcadia, Calif., and Mom and Dad did not have much money to raise us three growing boys. Dad had trouble with arthritis in his right shoulder. That was a real hardship for a house painter.
To his credit and our benefit, he worked nearly every day he was able to raise his right arm. We could not afford health insurance, and Mom and Dad were too proud to ask for help.
The 800-square-foot “garage house” was recently constructed and had bare studs inside. Our kitchen cabinets were orange crates nailed up on the walls with chicken feed sacks serving as their doors.
There was a gentleman sitting on our couch dressed in a white shirt and tie with a briefcase resting between his feet. Mom introduced me, and he stood up and shook my hand. I sensed that something big was about to happen.
He was a district manager for our morning newspaper, The Pasadena Independent. I saw it on our kitchen table. Mom had spotted an ad for news carrier boys and had called in my name. This was “news” to me!
I knew we needed the money, so I listened to his pitch and signed up. Mom beamed her approval. During the interview, he passed judgment on my abilities then and there.
I was doing well enough in school, had a bicycle, was in good physical condition and was the first-born in our family. My profile predicted success in the new venture and set the stage for the rest of my life.
He gave me a route list of 35 customers, a delivery bag and suggested I preview the house locations with Dad. It was Tuesday, and he told me to start no later than 5 a.m. Thursday.
The route was in a part of town I never rode my bike in. It was six blocks from home, and it was dark—the sun just starting to break the horizon. It was good that it was warm and not raining.
There was another boy folding and banding his papers. He showed me “the ropes,” and we became good friends during the next six months. I discovered the camaraderie that comes with employment.
My first week was memorable. I missed delivery on some of the customers, and there were four complaints in my route envelope that next day. I was devastated.
I found out not all houses have the addresses posted. Then there were the dogs that came out and chased me, snapping and barking at my legs pumping those pedals as fast as they would go. They bit me on more than one occasion.
I found my customers appreciated good service. As my skills improved, I was able to routinely backhand a banded paper 70 feet or more onto the porch doorstep from the street as I rode past—and at the same time each day, rain or shine!
The route manager introduced me to the procedures for collecting the subscription fee from my customers once a month. Collection time taught me that some people tell the biggest lies imaginable when it comes to money.
As I knocked at the door, I could hear them moving around inside and not coming to the door. Then, when I did get them to answer, it was a matter of having to return when they “had the change.”
On the positive side, I built the route up to 60 customers before I accepted an unsolicited offer from our evening paper, The Pasadena Star- News, to take on a route with 85 customers. When I left that route several years later, I had it built up to more than 200 customers.
As long as I lived at home, the house rule was I would hand over to mom 25 percent of all I made. The rest was spent on my clothes, school supplies and braces on my teeth. Then, there was the usual tithe for the church, of course.
Nonetheless, the Lord has provided well for me and has ever since.
Life’s Important Lessons
As a special agent with the FBI, I revisited the bureau’s motto of fidelity, bravery and integrity—vital principles that I learned as a young newspaper carrier boy.
Fidelity: Faithfully carrying out my duties regardless of weather, health, dogs, ornery customers and to the Protestant ethic of thrift, hard work and endurance.
Bravery: Courage to face working during the hours of darkness in unfamiliar territory and biting dogs.
Integrity: Collecting all the subscription money without embezzling any before properly turning it in to my manager. (This proved to be the downfall of many carriers.)
I recently called the “Pasadena Star News” and spoke to one of their editors, Janette Williams. She told me the use of carrier boys and girls was discontinued 15 years ago. Now, adults with vans deliver the papers on big routes of 1,000 customers. We reminisced about the “old days.”
My early experiences as a newspaper carrier prepared me well for a lifetime of successful employment. I was able to leave home directly after high school graduation in 1957 and not return—the same for my two brothers, two sisters and my own daughter and son. Proper parenting and “tough love” pays off.
It is different these days, as young adults continue to live in the homes of their parents and depend on their support. They are called the “X” and “Y” generations—young adults who have not developed the critical life skills necessary to survive independently during the challenging hard times now coming to the United States of America.
Hard times do not build character—they reveal it.
John Heidtke has been employed by municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.