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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 6

HANG YOUR CAP over here," Big Ed directed me, pointing to a coat rack in the corner that was used by the office boys. Big Ed Huneker was eighteen and had been there for two years. He knew his way around. He was not only head office boy, but he was the boss, and he knew it.

I had been on my job for only ten minutes, and already, in Big Ed, I had run against my first problem. I determined that no matter what he said or did I would go along with him on it. I was willing to overlook anything.

Big Ed showed me around, pointing out who everybody was and telling me what I was supposed to do. I made a list.

"What's the matter, can't you remember anything?" he demanded.

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"Yes, but I just want to be sure," I said.

Somebody shouted, "Boy! Boy!"

Big Ed said to me, "Go over and see what he wants. On the double!"

The man on what Big Ed told me was the copy desk was holding up a sheet of paper.

"Composing room, in a hurry," he said. I didn't know where that was. Big Ed hadn't told me. As I hesitated, a short, fat, bald-headed man looked up from the next desk.

"Lost, kid?" he asked, smiling. "Here, I'll show you the way. You'll have to learn sometime. You're new, aren't you? What's your name?"

I told him. He repeated it, laughing.

"That's good," he said. "Seltzer -- Bromo Seltzer. That's your name, is it? That's good, Bromo Seltzer."

When we got to the composing room, he showed me around, and introduced me -- always as "Bromo Seltzer."

I learned that his name was Henry Walter, and that he handled "wire" news. Everybody called him "Hank." He became a good friend as time went on, but he fastened a nickname on me that first day which has lasted through almost all my newspaper life, and still crops up now and again in many places.

From noon until dark I was kept busy, rushing everywhere. I filled paste pots, ran copy, went after sandwiches and beer, carried big, heavy canvas mailbags from the Post Office two blocks away. In the late afternoon, the Make-up Editor sent me down to the pressroom in the basement of the building, carrying a batch of white sheets with lines and numbers on them.

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I didn't know what they were, but the pressroom foreman snatched them from me and instantly started to pass along instructions. I could hardly tear myself away, but I knew I had to keep jumping.

About seven o'clock, when Big Ed said it was time for me to eat, I headed straight back to the pressroom, and crept into a dark corner behind long rows of big rolls of paper. It smelled good -- the paper and the ink. In the light around the presses I could see men working. They had on overalls and paper hats shaped like boxes.

Nobody bothered me. I was all alone. And I had a front-row seat at the show I wanted more than anything else in the world to see. The paper would be coming out pretty soon. I had learned already that the bulldog edition went to press at 7:45 o'clock. It was almost that now, as I sat in the dark corner watching the men "dressing" the presses under the lights -- absent-mindedly eating the banana Mother had put in my box lunch.

A loud bell rang. Switches were thrown. The big presses started. They began to thunder. The paper started to roll through them. The roar increased, and the basement began to shake. My heart began to pound, as I sat forward, straining my eyes to watch.

Now I knew, at last, I was in the newspaper business: down here where the presses were rolling with voices of thunder; and upstairs, on the third floor, where I was an office boy now, and would be something more -- I wasn't sure what -- as the future spread ahead.

I went back upstairs to work. It was an exciting evening. The paper put out an extra on a big fire, and I

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watched, absorbed, the process of getting a newspaper together under pressure -- bringing in a big story, writing it, setting it up, putting it on the presses and rolling away with it.

I got home the next morning at five o'clock. The sun was just peeking up over the horizon when I walked wearily up the front steps of our house. The day before I had got up at daybreak as usual, and the time had seemed endless until noon when I reported for work. I had wondered what I would do from daybreak to noon every day. I knew now. I would be fast asleep, and I doubted whether I would wake up in time to report to work at noon.

But I did. I was on my first job and I loved it. I knew already that I would never go back to school. I was out in another world -- the world of roaring presses, which I had longed for from the time I was a very small boy, and which I would love for the rest of my life with ever increasing strength and devotion. I was in the greatest, the most exciting, the most satisfying business on the face of the earth.

Many things were to happen -- many of them unexpected, hard, and discouraging, elevating to the summits one moment and plunging to the deep valleys of despair the next. It is a severe, sometimes brutal business, a dedicated, selfless business, a business woven inextricably with life -- a business which is life itself.

Six months after I went to work at The Leader, I wrote my first story -- the one that helped me, at almost fourteen, win my first promotion.

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I was on my way from the old City Hall with some copy that Billy Corrigan had written. To get back to The Leader I had to pass through the Public Square.

Just as I reached the Square an old, open-sided streetcar hit a Burns & Bowie Pie Wagon, drawn by a couple of dapple-gray horses. The streetcar in turning had hit the pie wagon with such force that it split it almost apart. Burns & Bowie's best pies of all varieties and colors spattered the Public Square. It was a mess, but a colorful mess. People were picking up the pies, laughing, and having a lot of fun. Some boys were happily cramming down pie as if they were in a pie-eating contest at a picnic.

I knew it was a story. I also knew that I had Billy Corrigan's City Hall copy to get to The Leader on time. What was I to do? I spotted a Postal Telegraph messenger standing at the curb, watching the catastrophe, and rushed over to him, saying, "I'll give you twenty-five cents if you will take this envelope three blocks to The Leader."

The Postal Telegraph boy was older than I. He looked at me as if to say, "Why don't you do it yourself?" But he looked even more closely at the quarter. He took it, and also the envelope, while I gave him the directions to the City Editor's desk in the Paco Building.

I then went over to the policeman who was in charge. When I told him that I was from The Leader, he looked at me, and smiled in unbelief.

"What's your name, Son?" he asked.

"My name is Seltzer, and I am a reporter," I told him,

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more boldly than I had ever said anything to anyone before.

Perhaps even then he didn't believe me; but he did answer a few questions I asked, and I got the names of the people involved and other facts.

"Where is the man who was driving the pie wagon?" I asked the policeman.

"Right over there," he pointed.

I went over to the driver, and from him got an inventory of what his wagon was carrying when it was hit by the streetcar.

"Where is the motorman of the streetcar?" was my next question. After answering me, the policeman added, "Son, you ask a lot of questions."

I went over to the motorman, and from him got a firsthand description of how it felt to spray the Public Square with a large batch of Burns & Bowie pies.

Then I went back to The Leader office. The instant I walked in I knew I was in trouble. Mr. Anson glowered at me.

"Where have you been -- and what do you mean sending a Postal Telegraph messenger here with copy you are supposed to deliver yourself?"

I waited until his wrath had run down somewhat, and then I explained. He listened, and he was interested.

"Should I give this to somebody, Mr. Anson?" I asked.

"No, no," he said, shortly. "Sit down and write it yourself."

It was fortunate for me that I had practiced on Father's battered old Woodstock. I sat down at a vacant

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desk and spent a long time writing the story. Big Ed Huneker didn't help any. He kept coming around making nasty remarks, naturally furious because I had been given the chance to write the story. He had been on the paper for two and a half years -- as compared with my six months -- and he hadn't written anything as yet.

I finished the story, and took it over to Mr. Anson. As he read it, he used his big black pencil on it, taking a word out here, and putting one in there. He looked up.

"Bromo," he said, "that's a nice little story. We'll use it just the way you wrote it."

Two things happened the next day. I proudly showed Father and Mother the front page of The Leader with my pie story -- and my name on it -- the first by-line of my newspaper career. I also went home at dinner-time, instead of eating my lunch in the dark, exciting recesses of the pressroom, to tell them I had been promoted.