My short career in journalism began at age 24 as a paperboy. The Louisville Courier-Journal hired me as a rural carrier. Some guy in a starched white shirt just showed up at my place and offered me the job. My responsibilities were 1) to drop off bundles of morning papers to eleven-year-olds out to earn their own cigarette money and 2) to drive the town route to homes on the back streets around the Peter’s Peak, Walkertown, Wabaco, Du-ane, Darfork, Bomber Ball Park, Airport Gardens, and Frogtown sections of Hazard, Kentucky, my hometown.
The job paid a hundred bucks a week, back when that wasn’t much money. But I was between gigs, as they say, and newly married to Jenny, the somewhat understanding granddaughter of the former editor and publisher of that very same crusading, Pulitzer Prize winning Courier-Journal. Call it kismet. (And here by “somewhat understanding granddaughter,” I mean to say that she did not mind my spending my afternoons in the poolroom playing $5 Rook with guys called Bige, Basso, and Little Doc or my nights carousing with a more prosaic set of pals, but she did think paperboy was just too good a career move for me to turn down at that juncture.)
All I had to do was put an alarm clock in a pie plate for reverb, roll off the mattress at 5 a.m., and motor off toward my appointed rounds. What could go wrong?
In the days before Internet and 24-hour cable news, the paperboy or papergirl (to be fair) was vital to democracy, delivering essential information, insights, and ball scores to the American home. As Mr. Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Knowing I was making a contribution to the republic helped me grow in the job. Within a few weeks I was skilled enough to fling a folded newspaper through the passenger’s seat window, over a thirty-foot lawn, across a front porch and still whack a storm door loudly enough to wake the family in the next house. I was in my prime. And because the paper actually showed up each day, and better yet because it actually came in the morning, customers would flag me down just to sing my praise and compare me favorably to the sorry string of carriers that had come before. There’s nothing like being on the top of your game.
Then a strange thing happened. Maybe there was something toxic in so many ink smudge tattoos. Maybe I just lost focus. One day I started to count all the plaster cast lawn jockeys in the town. What an abomination. Three foot men with painted on silks. Some in blackface. Occasionally one with skin lacquered an oily ivory. Just on my route there was one at a coal operator’s house, one at the hardware guy’s place, one above the radiator repair, and a half dozen of them standing together unpainted at the shop below the Mother Goose Market (still Hazard’s best landmark, a building designed to look like a goose at rest).
It came to me gradually that I might liberate these little fellows. At first it was just a fancy. But slowly I began to think of it as a mission, a para-military operation. How could it be done? What training would be required? Who would drive the get-away car?
The plan suddenly began to crystallize with the approaching American Bicentennial celebration. Of course, do it on The Fourth. Everyone was planning big shenanigans: cookouts, fireworks, historical reenactments. Why not in the true spirit of ’76 attempt something a little more revolutionary? Why not rid the town of these visual vestiges of servitude? (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must acknowledge here that July 4th is my birthday. The prospect of turning 25 without any notable accomplishment weighed heavily and may have informed my decision to start the greater Hazard area liberation army.)
We lived in one of two basement apartments under a dairy bar just downstream from the Carr Fork Dam. The other subterranean apartment was occupied by my pal Robert, a west Kentucky farm boy turned state strip-mine inspector. He was a willing recruit. He loved nothing better than sipping beer and listening to Little Feat records. Going on a commando mission with the paperboy next door seemed like the logical next step. On the big day we dipped out a few jars of Dutch courage, then put on stocking caps and rubbed charcoal from the grill under our eyes. My somewhat dubious wife agreed to drive. And in the wee hours we took off for town.
The first one went quietly. Robert and I rolled out of the well of our borrowed Buick station wagon, karate chopped the figure in lemon and green racing togs, and carried him to the wagon. One down. The second one was tougher. It had been secured in the ground with a cubic yard of concrete and a ganglia of rebar. Dogs began to bark as we called on Herculean might to raise the resistant figure and his mooring from the earth and lug him to the car. We sneaked the third one out of a flower bed without a hitch, but the fourth, proved to be our unraveling.
It was cemented into a pastoral tableau, and as I struggled to free him, his owner began to tap on her window urging me to stop. I find that you quickly run out of words to say to a woman in a housecoat standing on the other side of a picture window mouthing the question, “What are you doing?” From there we made a tactical retreat, suspending further predawn liberations.
This all came up again the next morning when the police car met me as I showed up to pick up my papers. The policeman sent to interrogate me was John X. Begley, an officer who had once before let me go for a minor speeding infraction, and a guy who on this particular morning could not stop himself from laughing. He said he had gotten several calls, but none better than the woman who said that she wasn’t for sure what she was reporting, but she thought she had just seen her paperboy try to steal her statue.
He asked me did I know anything about these missing lawn jockeys. I told him I had no firsthand knowledge, but that I did have a lead on the case, and that perhaps if he could wait 24 hours, I might be able to solve it. This made him laugh all the more. He got to where he could not speak for fear of sputtering spit all over. Finally with tears in his eyes he dismissed me to make my rounds, which went pretty well except for the owner of lawn jockey number 3.
He was waiting for me. He said that he had watched us the night before, and wondered whether or not he should go ahead and shoot me. Though his jockey was painted a handsome red and carried a functioning lantern, I said disbelievingly, “You would shoot a man over that?”
He told me, “You don’t know, buddy. That statue has a lot of sentimental value.” When I brought it back the next day he met me with a carbine cradled in his arms. About then I decided to give the customary three days’ notice and abandon the field of journalism all together.
Still I learned a lesson from the ordeal. Hazard’s duly elected police judge was having one of his periodic bouts with the bottle that week. So when the aggrieved parties came to swear out warrants, they had to go before a substitute judge. Luck was that my Rook adversary, Little Doc, was presiding. No matter what they said, Doc told them just to go on home, that I was a pretty good kid, and no real people were harmed. Turns out in a democracy it matters who you play cards with.