Our focus this school year is on books or events that shaped our lives. I have been shaped by reading newspapers. I love reading the newspaper and lament the troubles that surround the news business. Whenever I have relocated the two things I do first have been to find a barber and to get the paper delivered. Over the years both have become less important with the advent of the web and the absence of hair.
I have read some interesting papers. There was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Abilene Reporter News, the Times Record News in Wichita Falls, TX, the Dailey Record in Vernon and the Terrell Tribune.
In a time when I cannot remember most of what I did yesterday, to let those names fall off the tongue is satisfying. The most important papers are the easiest to remember. When I discovered the New York Times my world changed. I learned that everything beyond the Hudson River was in the West. At least that is how the football scores divided up the world. To learn that Ohio was in the West taught me that parochialism was not limited to the people I knew. The deal was sealed when people in Massachusetts asked me "How do you like your President?" thinking that somehow I was connected to Lyndon Johnson by virtue of time spent in Texas. What they lacked was what newspapers had given me: lenses to view a wider world than the one I lived in.
It had begun with the Los Angeles Times. I learned that if I woke up early and went out the back door I could get the paper first and have read it all by the time others in the family stirred. That may well have locked in my penchant for early rising since there were no chickens to feed that I could blame the trait on.
Being honest I should add that the newspaper gave me access to the sports news that dominated my world. What had happened to the Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, the L.A. Rams or the L.A Dons or the Los Angeles Monarchs was important. Note again how the names fall off the tongue and you learn how some young men learned to sort and classify the world. And even more importantly in California, how you learned to recognize the seasons in the perpetual summer that was Southern California. The Rams marked fall, the Monarchs winter and the Stars and Angels meant it was spring and summer no matter what the weather said.
More importantly, the newspaper taught me the important lessons of life. I learned about mortality from them. I once asked my favorite aunt what the newspaper meant when it said a boy my age had fought a heroic but doomed battle against the burns he had suffered when flammable liquid set his body on fire. Heroism was important, but how could you be heroic when you had managed to set yourself on fire? I have noted since that often those who die due to accidental events or illnesses that cannot be cured are defined as heroic or courageous. It seemed to me they had suffered a bout of really bad luck, but the nuanced insight into the complexities of living was an important learning. A young boy could be heroic and still die.
I learned from the L.A. Times that the world was a dangerous place as the headlines told me in June of 1950 when the North Koreans invaded South Korea. The Times had maps to prove it with arrows that showed how dangerous the situation was. North Koreans were not the bumbling ogres we hear about today. They were evil incarnate and as the Korean War played out in the L.A. Times you would have thought they were just off shore.
The complexities of the world were reinforced when the headlines of the Los Angeles Examiner told me that my favorite teacher in the seventh grade had once been a member of a union influenced by the Communists. So had a relative of Lucille Ball, but in those red baiting years it was my teacher who was not at school the next day who meant more to me.
You see what I mean about lenses through which to see the world? Sports, life and death, and a world filled with those who would do us harm some of whom lived right next door. And I have not even gotten to sex, drugs and rock and roll. I have not mentioned Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, or Johnny Stomp as he was known by the friends of Mickey Cohen, a Los Angeles gangster who was at one time his boss.
I can make the case that the newspapers gave me my education long before the doors opened at school. Certainly they could be lurid and manipulative. But sometimes you could fight back and that was how I learned that you did not talk about politics unless you knew your audience.
In the run up to the 1952 election, I put "Vote Stevenson" bumper stickers in all of my Los Angeles Examiner newspapers. The Examiner was a Hearst newspaper and Hearst was not a fan of Adlai Stevenson, but what did I know of those nuances? Having delivered the afternoon papers, I returned home to find my parents waiting for me with the look of those whose son has become a serial killer. "What have you done?", they wanted to know. The phone was ringing off the wall. How comforted they were when they found out. Dad was a yellow dog Democrat and he had taught me how it would be possible for Stevenson to win despite the polls. Now he had to teach me how to apologize for my gaffe. He did and I was even able to convince my boss, known as "Frank Birch, the son of a bitch." to the paperboys, that I was not terminally stupid. See how the words flow... I owe a lot to newspapers.