Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Flashback: It’s St. Cloud, Minnesota in 1953 and Here Comes Eleanor Roosevelt!

[Another memoir for my kids and grandchildren for which I ask forgiveness.]

It was the fall of 1953 and I was just ensconced at a job I loved—a reporter for the St. Cloud Daily Times (population 25,000) but which, unfortunately paid so little ($40 weekly) that even for a single 25-year-old living cheaply at $5 a week rent for a single room, it could barely suffice. At first I supplemented the income by playing piano for $15 nightly in a bar patronized by farmers who drank into insensibility after harvesting (closing hour 1 a.m)—but I deduced there had to be something else: I was sleepy every day and dreaded the evenings, feeling like I was under life sentence to work in a foundry. Then I discovered that it was possible to “sell” feature stories from the area to a wire service that was hungry for fillers—at $15 a crack, obviating the need to play in the bar. That allowed me to get by. I carried my entire net worth in the wallet that rode in the rear pocket of my trousers: it was always interesting to see if I could make it to the next payday on the meager newspaper salary and free lance articles without having to resort to returning to the barroom piano. Often I could make it. Many times, I could not. The owner of the bar didn’t care if I played or not. I did and would collect my wages at 1 a.m. closing but it has always been my contention that, with the din of the place so horrific, I could have just shown up at 1 a.m., submitted my voucher and been paid even if I had not performed, the inebriated owner and patrons unaware that any musical presentation had been made . But, as Richard Nixon said later on tape in response to another proposed malfeasance involving money, “that would be wrong!”

On one thing I insisted: every meaningful story I would write for the newspaper would have to carry my byline. This was unheard of at the time since reporters were to be anonymous, but the editor decided that since I was vastly underpaid, what the hell, who cares? The stories began to gain some currency and I got rather well known in the town. Becoming fairly well known as a small town journalist carried dividends. I began to write brief speeches for the sheriff on the side which was a flagrant breach of ethics, of course, but being hungry concentrates the mind wonderfully.

In addition I learned how to free load and eat well. On weekdays I could scrounge free lunch prepared for the prisoners at the county jail under the benevolence of the sheriff’s wife (remembering to write fondly of her statesman husband) and evenings often ingratiated myself for free dinners with the parents of certain girls I dated (the disadvantage being that I didn’t have much money to pay for the obligatory movie and sodas afterwards and more than once I was bailed out by the girl’s nice parents). Then I learned that every Sunday in the rural area around St. Cloud there were church dinners—Lutheran dinners, Baptist and Catholic ones. With some adroitness one could slip into a church basement, stride by the table where some parishioners were collecting the modest tariffs, say, truthfully, that I am Roeser from the daily newspaper and be treated heartily to enormous outlays of food, the parishioners imagining that you were going to write something about the church dinners.

I had to switch from one denominational church dinner to another denominational church dinner since I didn’t want to return and answer questions about why there was no publicity. And I wasn’t about to start a newspaper series on church dinners no matter what they expected. Soon I developed a knack for searching out Norwegian Lutheran church dinners in rural areas where people were so jollied up they would wave a hungry journalist through the lines and never checked whether later stories appeared or not. The disadvantage was that you had to eat their featured lutfisk (a fish concoction) and lefsa a doughy substance that occasionally whenever I am hit by indigestion I can taste yet. There were also on occasion after dinner what they called “old time dances”—a throwback to the simple years of yore where you attempted square dancing. However I remember having dined excessively on lutfisk and lefsa a a 6-foot 230-lb. buxom girl locked arms with me and swung me around violently, then letting go and sending me reeling off the dance floor and through the nearby swinging doors of the Men’s Room. Dizzy, violently ill, I can only say I was glad to be in that room but the other occupants did not appreciate my presence. Once I recovered, I spun back out the door without being much observed. Later I walked outside to get some air and returned to meet several men standing disconsolately outside the Men’s. I asked what happened.

“Oh, some ---- ran in there while we were sitting in the stalls and then he got sick!” a young husky, tanned farmer said. “If we could find him we’d punch him out good. Isn’t that awful?” I said not only was it awful but it showed the depravity of youth and moved quickly back to the dance floor.

Eating and dancing gratis at church dinners grew tiresome. But then pay raises came, offers to write small political speeches came, wire service contributions came and by winter 1953 I was carrying around a modest surplus in my back wallet which could be applied to the next week and to take care of my 1947 dark green Chevrolet. It was after I drove that green Chevrolet on my daily rounds to the small municipal airport one day that winter that I ran into my first meaningful assignment.

I usually caged free coffee with the airport manager who had very little to do but this day he told me that he had just heard on his fancy airport radio that a small plane was coming in carrying—and his eyes were as big as saucers—Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late president! She had just stepped down as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Why on earth the reputed First Lady of the World was coming to this small city no one could fathom except that not long later a car pulled up and disgorged the Honorable Eugenie Andersen of Red Wing, Minnesota, a handsome young woman who had been Harry Truman’s ambassador to Denmark. Eugenie Andersen was the daughter of a Professor Harry Andersen of the University of Minnesota who had made a spectacular fortune 50 years earlier. You know how he made it?

This will not only stun you but cause you to believe that there is a kind of weird roundelay of rotating events in the lives of men. Prof. Andersen was an expert in agriculture. He invented the idea of shooting wheat and corn from a concoction very nearly like a gun, producing an explosion but also puffed wheat and puffed corn. He sold that formula to The Quaker Oats Company which set him up in a reputedly sound-proofed factory on Dearborn street in Chicago to fire off tons of breakfast product! The fact that many years later I would be employed by that very company strikes me as an incredible coincidence. Does it not you? No?

Well, all right, then, but all the same Ambassador Eugenie Andersen, a rising star in the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor party was on hand to greet Mrs. Roosevelt and, it developed, to confab with her about Democratic politics. Mrs. Andersen wanted to run as the first woman candidate for governor and needed Mrs .Roosevelt’s imprimatur. But that was immaterial to the airport manager and me. He said that I could, if I were pushy enough, probably get an interview with Mrs. FDR. I was enthused and highly excited. But it was not until her small plane touched down in St. Cloud that I realized I had nothing to ask her. I knew nothing about Minnesota politics and furthermore I imagined Mrs. Roosevelt wouldn’t care to discuss these things with me. If I only knew something about foreign policy or the UN I could get a good interview—but stuck in central Minnesota, I had not kept up with whatever had happened during her tenure at the UN.

Nevertheless I was determined to go ahead with the interview. The plane door opened and the manager and his assistant helped Mrs. Roosevelt and her aide down the steps. Then he introduced me as a newspaper reporter from the St. Cloud Minnesota Daily Times and she extended her hand as I manfully decided to interrogate her.

[The interview and what she told me will be reported in this place tomorrow.]

1 comment:

  1. I'm not asking you to present it here or elsewhere, but your grandkids might get a kick out of seeing your schedule C for those years.

    Did you report your bar room income?

    I won't hold it against you if you did not. I'm sure your expenses were greater than your earnings.