My Career In Newspapers Started With A Crime
I had journalism on my mind at a very early age.
In fact, with my neighborhood buddy Mike Wehmeyer, I was the editor and publisher of a newspaper at the age of 13. Well, sort of a newspaper.
The Taggart Times.
Named after Taggart Street, a small side street in east Dayton, Oh., that was home to about two dozen families and abruptly ended into an alley at the end of the street.
And I was willing to commit what technically was a crime – well, in actual fact, a crime – to get our publication printed. A third-degree felony. Punishable in Ohio by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Now, before you get all uppity on me and telling me what a bad boy I was, remember that this was over 50 years ago and I am pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out.
And it was most assuredly a non-violent crime. No one got hurt.
But more on that later.
The Taggart Times was half typewritten, half scribbled in block letters, with cartoonish illustrations instead of photographs and a comic strip, written and drawn by yours truly.
It purported to report the news from Taggart Street and its close neighbors. While most of it was true, there was some considerable exaggeration involved and we were accused of having a rather warped sense of humor.
My family's house was on Pursell Avenue, a much longer street. But our house looked directly down Taggart Street and, from my second-floor bedroom and with a decent pair of binoculars, I could see what was going on outside every one of the two dozen or so houses on Taggart.
And I spent as much time on Taggart with Mike as I did at my own house. To some on Taggart, we were the good kids who kept their lawns mowed in the summer and their sidewalks shoveled in the winter; to others, we were pests and pranksters and should have been run out of the neighborhood long ago.
Both sides had a good argument.
Then, we went into the publishing business.
Despite a nearly complete lack of capital and equipment, we managed to put out several issues before we had raised such a ruckus with our gossip-ridden rag that there was nearly open warfare on the street, which threatened to spill over onto to Pursell and eventually take over the entire Ohmer Park neighborhood.
So, what was considered news in The Taggart Times?
Well, for one thing, regular reports on the mean old man in the neighborhood, A.J. Heit. Meaner than a snake. Hated kids. Mike and me in particular.
We often had pick-up ball games – baseball, wiffle ball, football, kickball – in the middle of the street, with a bunch of neighborhood kids involved.
Taggart was a narrow street. Balls would often fly into people's front yards. Ordinarily, we'd just run over and get them. But if it landed in Heit's yard, he would suddenly materialize, running out his front door to go grab the ball and take it inside.
We would do a column with a running total on the balls the old man had snatched:
Last week: Six wiffle balls. One kickball. Two softballs. Three footballs. The Taggart Times has a question for you, Mr. Heit. What do you do with all of these balls? Do you have a special room for them? Do you play kickball in the living room with Mrs. Heit? Are you familiar with the idea of 'theft of private property?'
There were very nice people in the neighborhood as well. Next door to Heit was a Polish couple, the parents and grandparents of the family across the street. We called them by the Polish names for grandma and grandpa – Babcia (Bab-chya) and Jadek.
Jadek spoke very limited English but Babcia would yak with us constantly, filling us in on all the Taggart Street gossip, most of which found its way into the Times.
Babcia may well have saved my life one time.
One day, after a kickball flew into Heit's yard, I ran up to get it. Heit bolted out the front door, ran me down and tossed me to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
The man had his hands around my throat. I was scared to death, screaming bloody murder. People started showing up on their front porches, but no one came to my rescue.
She was a big woman, and she stood over Heit in her apron as he held me to the ground.
Let him go, Heit. She made sure he saw the huge butcher's knife in her right hand.
He looked up, quizzically. Then his eyeballs got really big and you could tell that the man knew he was in over his head.
LET HIM GO!!!! Babcia meant business.
He immediately loosened his grip and went running into his house. We could see him peeking out through the curtains.
Babcia got me to my feet, dusted me off and told me it was time to go home.
That man crazy. You no make him mad again. Stop it or I won't be able to save you.
Yes, Babcia, I said, and ran like the wind across the street to Mike's house. He immediately wrote up the details of the incident for The Taggart Times. It was a sensation.
Then there was the editorial we were forced to run about Mrs. Moomaw, who lived on the other side of Heit.
Mike and I had a summer business – W&W Landscaping – which consisted of one gas-powered lawn mower, one old-fashioned push mower and a pair of manual hedge-clippers.
We had quite an extensive clientele, one which went well beyond Taggart.
Mrs. Moomaw, a widowed lady, was very hard to please. We did the best we could with her yard. But still, she went all over the neighborhood saying that our service was bad and that we weren't worth the money. Plus, she said, we kept stopping to drink water out of her garden hose (which was true).
This lady flapping her gums all over Ohmer Park was starting to cut into business. We had to do something, and do it fast.
I knocked out a hand-written editorial for the next issue of The Taggart Times – probably the most self-serving editorial in the history of American journalism. It went something like this:
Please, friends and neighbors, do not listen to Mrs. Moomaw when she comes around tearing down W&W Landscaping. Mike and I have many satisfied customers and work hard. Mrs. Moomaw just likes to stir up trouble. There is no pleasing her. And, yes, if it is 95 degrees outside and we stop to take a drink out of your garden hose, we believe that is fair. We will also give you the best service. Mrs. Moomaw, cease and desist!
Once, Mike decided he would do a feature on the Evel Knievel act that I used to do on Taggart Street on my 10-speed Raleigh bike.
Taggart was a straight street, but it had a considerable dip at the end.
In fact, it had enough of a dip that I could make my bike go airborne. I would pedal that 10-speed as fast as I could. When I hit the dip, I would pull up on the front tire, shift gears and go flying straight into a hedgerow at the end of the street. I would disappear into the hedgerow, stopping myself by hitting two thick branches that would keep me from crashing through to the other side.
I did this hundreds of times. Occasionally I would bang my head pretty hard in the bush (some say that explains a lot about my future behavior). And I would get a scratch or two now and then. But basically, I would walk away unharmed.
Entertainment was at a premium on Taggart Street and my disappearing act would draw dozens of the good citizens of Taggart onto their front porches to watch.
I would eventually emerge from the hedgerow, raise my arms in triumph and bask in the applause of the people. Often there were cries of, Do it again!
I never disappointed an audience.
Mike wrote a short story on the geometry and mechanics of pulling off this stunt, and how I had practiced it hundreds of times and got countless cuts and scratches until I perfected the crash into the hedgerow.
It was a thing of beauty.
So how did this compendium of "news you can use" get published? Surely, there was no printing press on Taggart Street. Places like Kinko's didn't exist back then. So, what about the printing?
Well, that's where the criminal activity comes in.
Our family went to Oak Street United Methodist Church, which wasn't in our neighborhood but was several miles away. But it was an easy bus ride down there.
I would wait until dark (after making up some cover story about going to the Belmont Theater to see the newest Cinerama movie) and take the bus down Wyoming Street. I'd get off a couple of blocks away from the church and hike over, with the proof sheets of The Taggart Times in hand.
I would make sure ahead of time (through church bulletins, etc.) that there was nothing going on at the church that night – no worship services, no meetings, no pot-luck casserole suppers. I needed the place empty.
I knew something that no one else at Oak Street knew. I knew that there was a basement window that, if you jiggled it just the right way, would pop open. It couldn't be locked from the inside.
I'd pop it open, and, since (believe it or not) I was a skinny little kid, I'd wriggle in and drop about five feet to the floor of one of the basement Sunday School rooms.
I guess, at that moment, I was guilty of breaking and entering.
Then I would high-tail it through the darkened basement (I knew every inch by heart) and went up to the steps that led to the sanctuary. Right next to the pulpit there was a door (never locked) that led into the pastor's office (also never locked).
From there, I would go into the adjacent church office and head for the old-fashioned mimeograph machine. For those who don't remember the mimeo machine, it was a duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper.
You used a crank to operate it.
The entire newspaper was done with stencil copies. I always had my stencil copies attached to the drum, and went to cranking. I would churn out about 50-60 copies.
Then, once I had the copies made, all I had to do was leave the office and enter the parlor, where there was a door to the outside.
And I was back to the bus stop.
Did I feel guilty? Yes, I did. But I did it for a good cause. Or a sort-of-OK-cause-that-wasn't-that-great that Mike and I thought was good. We'd go around stuffing copies into the doors of all the houses on Taggart and a few blocks of Pursell.
The Taggart Times lasted only about four issues before it went under. It did not do much to promote good relations among neighbors.
The cost-benefit analysis pointed to the demise of The Taggart Times. We learned a lesson – journalism is good. But only good journalism.
By the way, I was only spotted once in my nighttime excursions to the church office.
I was coming out the church parlor door one night, papers in hand, when Walter, the church janitor stepped onto the back porch of his house, which was next door to the church.
Walter, whom I knew well, looked me up and down, saw the papers and shook his head.
What the hell are you doing here? Walter said.
I started to tell him; I was ready to confess my sins to the church janitor. But Walter raised his hand and told me to stop.
I don't want to know, Walter said. Just get out of here.