The target when firing a tightly rolled newspaper like a torpedo out the window of a car traveling at 30 miles per hour was the middle of the driveway. Lawn on either side allowed for a large margin of error. Not that many sleepy homeowners needed to step off into the grass to get their morning fish wrapper– we were pretty accurate. If a paper strayed off range and under a bush, however, it had to be retrieved– a job that fell to the junior enlisted member of the crew, me.
To keep wasted time to a minimum, the retrieve and reposition patrol was often left at the house while Dad finished delivering the street, picking me up on the return. Often, Dad would let the old Ford keep rolling just the tiniest bit while I climbed back in, making it a “frogman pickup.” (The use of military terms to describe what we did is not contrived. Dad invoked “The Service” not because he was some kind of military nut but because it held a certain gravis with my brothers and I.)
Dad only took us on his route when there was no school, so the majority of times I joined him on his newspaper route must have been during summer vacation. For some reason, however, most of the experiences I remember happened during winter.
As I wrote earlier, I remember him using a Zippo lighter as a make shift defroster on our old Ford as we headed down the highway on a frigid morning. I also remember holding a flashlight while he put on tire chains during a blizzard, working with cold hard chains in his bare hands in below zero temperatures. And I remember standing on a suburban curb at 4 a.m. in the dead of winter while Dad drove away to finish the block.
Not that I ever felt in any danger or distress; I thrive in cold weather. You had to in the Fleck household. From ice fishing with Dad to spending hours outdoors sledding or skating in the coldest weather with my brothers, I became inured to the cold at an early age. And even if the taillights disappeared around a corner, I knew with absolute certainty that Dad would be back if, for no other reason, I was needed to chase the next errant shot.
That was how Dad worked: doing a good job while getting it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
He’d also throw a little fun in whenever possible. There was one house near the end of the route, for example, that had a basketball hoop attached to the garage. Since we had to turn around in that particular driveway anyway, Dad would make it a point to go the few extra yards to the garage and allow me a shot at making a basket with the paper. In the earliest days, I was much too little to make the throw but as I got bigger I had a chance.
On at least one occasion I overpowered the shot completely and tossed the paper onto the roof. We dropped a spare newspaper and then returned to the home that evening. Many would have left the paper on the roof to befuddle the homeowner who eventually found it clogging a downspout, but Dad would have none of that.
My allowance was also docked for the price of the paper.
Looking back on my experiences with Dad, I realize in some ways he taught me very little. An eighth-grade drop out, he had nothing to share as far as reading, writing and arithmetic. Since he was almost always working, he didn’t pass on other skills like how to throw a football or make a free throw that many fathers taught their sons.
But then again I did pick up few things while working with Dad, like how to know when I was about to throw up or judge the trajectory of a newspaper thrown from a car.
And I learned how to put your mind and body to a task and get her done.
For this last one I’ll always be in his debt.