In the late 1930s, I delivered the Long Island Press newspaper [a daily publication that closed in 1977] to 110 families in the Laurelton section of Queens. From the very start, thanks to my parents, I learned what it took to be a small-business owner. I was 15 or 16 years old.
To begin with, you had to have a sturdy bike, which I already had, but it had to be equipped with a heavy steel basket, and you had to buy a canvas bag with a cover flap that kept the papers dry on rainy or snowy days. Then, you had to put up cash equal to the wholesale price of the papers (13 cents a week) times the number of customers for two weeks.
In my case that amounted to $28.60. The paper was printed six days a week, and it was three cents a copy on the newsstand. The Saturday paper was called the weekend edition.
All these costs my parents put up front, with the understanding that I would pay them back, gradually, out of my earnings. This, in itself, made my business a very real one.
The route I got was a gem. It was three blocks long and two blocks wide, and it was located only one block from the place where the truck delivered the papers for all the routes.
There was a little storefront on 230th Street where the truck brought the papers in bales of 50 papers each. Using the roughly built tables, we took our share of papers and folded them up by tucking in the loose page edge side of the paper into the folded side and giving it a little kink to keep it folded when it was thrown.
The streets of my route were lined with Spanish-style, two-story houses faced with yellow stucco. All the houses were identical, and each had a maple tree between the sidewalk and curb. Being a lefty, and throwing the papers backhanded, I went up one side of the street and came back down the other. The great majority of customers were satisfied with the paper landing on the top step. A few wanted it tucked into the doorknob, so I would lean the bike against the tree and walk to the door.
Collecting was done Saturday mornings. For this job, I had a changer on my belt like a railroad conductor, that kept quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies in tubes. A lever on each tube would squirt out coins.
Most customers just gave the 18 cents each week; but sometimes (especially if a man answered the door), they would give you two dimes, or even a quarter, and say, "Keep the change, kid."
The eastern edge of my route was the Belt Parkway, and on the other side of the highway was a section, still in Queens, but with streets that existed only on a map in City Hall. There were a number of houses just sitting on an open plain. This was the territory of Rudy Hauck, who lived there and knew each of the families. If Rudy got sick, one of his brothers would deliver his route; no one else could.
On Dec. 7, 1941, I was at Madison Square Garden watching a basketball game when they made an announcement that Pearl Harbor was being bombed and that all servicemen in the audience should go back to their posts at once.
The next morning, the entire student body and all the faculty of Andrew Jackson High School stood in the gymnasium and heard the measured fury of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio, saying, "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 . . . a day that will live in infamy . . ."
I knew that soon, I would have a very different route to cover that would involve a new set of duties having to do with the war. After President Roosevelt's address, there were people in the room with me who immediately enlisted and did not live to graduate.
I wanted to enlist after I graduated at 17, but I was underweight and my heart beat too fast, so I started taking classes at Queens College.
My mother didn't want me to go to war, but she knew how much I wanted to enlist when I turned 18, so she took me to a heart specialist who said nothing was wrong with my heart. I was just nervous and fearful when I was being checked.
The doctor's advice was that I should go to the recruiting office every week and have them take my heart rate. "You'll get bored eventually," he said, "and that's when you'll pass." And that's what happened.
I enlisted to train as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but during a series of tests, a sergeant administering the tests saw that I was lefthanded and told me I had to do the test with my right hand. I didn't finish the test in time, so they sent me to radio school to learn Morse code.
--James W. Hoerger, Port Jefferson