THE BLOG
11/03/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

Returns of the Day with Coffee and Doughnuts

I have many vivid memories of Election Days. First, there were those jolly little Eisenhower-for-President parades in '52 and '56 in the overwhelming Republican town I lived in. Then there was anxiously watching very late into the night the dubious election of 1960 as returns were dragged from (and invented in) Illinois and Texas to hand the victory to Kennedy. My mother, who was, well, crazy, was so angry about the outcome that she tried to throw the heavy new "portable'' TV on which she had watched the returns out the window but was restrained.

After Kennedy took office, my mother developed a weird romantic (erotic?) attachment to the Kennedys and was devastated about the murders of John and Robert -- events that my calm father responded to with remarkable, even eerie equanimity, even for him.

I remember Nixon's graciousness on TV about his defeat, though of course his resentments continued to simmer.

Then there was the dubious presidential election of 2000, with the Republicans taking that brass ring via Florida machinations and the U.S. Supremes, though it took weeks to be sure who officially "won''. To this day, who knows who really got more votes in Florida -- Gore or G.W. Bush? By that time I was too tired of politics to stay up most of the night watching the show, which I had done for decades, mostly because it was (sort of) part of my job.

But one election I remember with great pleasure. In November 1970, the old Boston Herald Traveler sent me to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to get the election returns from Berkshire County. It wasn't a presidential-election year but there was plenty of excitement about close New England races.

I had no idea how to go about getting the tallies in. No one on in Boston gave me any guidance. "Bobby, just get them to us as soon as you can,'' was the directive from the city editor. In other words, be inventive. It was a test of my skills in the face of inexperience.

And not only did the paper urgently need the returns as soon as they were official but, even more urgently, the TV and radio stations they owned did. They were updating about every 15 minutes!

But I didn't have a clue. I first thought that maybe I should go to Pittsfield City Hall and some old Board of Canvassers guy could help me out. Or maybe the headquarters of Silvio Conte, the GOP congressman from western Massachusetts.

As I wandered, increasingly anxious, down the streets of this mill town/county seat, (General Electric virtually owned it) on that wan November afternoon, I came across a radio station.

Maybe someone there could help me. This was before the huge radio station chains took away most of the local sounds (including accents) you used to get on your local radio station, replacing them with national call-in blowhards, infomercials and other canned stuff. In the old days, most of the dominant small-city radio stations had at least one or two local news people and a news announcer with a nice baritone. (He might moonlight as the "Music in the Night'' announcer. Percy Faith and his Orchestra.)

I went into the station and sat down in the waiting room. Some middle-aged guy wearing a tattered tweed jacket came out and asked me what I wanted. "I have no idea what I'm doing. How do I collect all these votes?'' I said apologetically.

He asked me if I knew anyone around there. Well, yes, -- Frank Strom, an uncle of mine by marriage who had run the big local bank. (He later moved to Providence and did a fine job running the Old Stone Bank -- RIP, both of them).

"A great man!,'' he said, noting that my uncle had provided ''half this town with mortgages.''

"We'll take care of you,'' he promised. Then a secretary brought me a doughnut and a cup of coffee and directed me to a phone in the corner. There I camped out for most of night as they brought me sheets of paper with returns scrawled in them (collected by one of the station's newsmen) to call in to the grumpy rewritemen in Boston. The station had "runners'' from all over that hilly county calling in votes.)

From time to time the station manager would relate some tales of local politicians, informed by cynicism and idealism, dislike and affection. I never quite figured out his political affiliation, if he had any.

The tough customers at the Herald Traveler were impressed with my speed and efficiency. I had a very pleasant drive back to the office the next day; the Massachusetts Turnpike had never looked lovelier. Of course I never told them how I got those golden returns.


Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based writer and editor. He is also a partner of Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a healthcare consultancy, and a Fellow of the Pell Center. He is a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune.