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COMMUNITY VOICE

'Twas the week before Christmas in '43 as I delivered papers in the snow

Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 12:01 am

I grew up in Fort Wayne. In 1943 Fort Wayne was a city of about 150,000. I was 15 years old.

We were in our second year of World War II. It was the week before Christmas. It was cold. Many men were already in the service. Many women worked in industry.

I was working, too. I had a paper route. It was the morning paper, so that meant that I got up at 4each morning, walked to the bundle dropoff point and loaded the latest news into two canvas carry bags, one for each shoulder.

The route included older streets: Madison, Francis, Hanna, Hugh, Eliza and Hayden. Since my route had many apartments and homes with porches in the rear, I didn’t use my Schwinn balloon-tired Excelsior bike. Too much trouble to get on and off.

I walked. In fact I walked 21/2 miles each day. On this particular day, it was about 15 degrees, cold enough for me to put my hands down into the bags and between the newspapers to keep my hands warm enough to fold the papers so that I could lob each one onto the porches of my customers.

It was cold enough that my nose kept pinching together, and my breath was starting to ice up my face. My feet were encased in a set of four-buckle arctics. These boots were designed to keep my feet dry and warm. They accomplished the first but were sadly lacking on the second.

Walking the route that day was squeaky snow noisy and causing chills to my young bones but was otherwise uneventful. I made it back home, and since it was Saturday, there was no school, so I slept in, which my body truly appreciated.

However, these were the days where the carrier was responsible for collecting the money for the paper. As I had more than 185 customers this could be a daunting task. The good news was that I was expecting a Christmas bonus from some of my customers. The bad news was that this route was noted for its share of Scrooges, but I had “Great Expectations.”

Having had a nice supper on this Saturday, I set out at 6 p.m. to collect for the paper. Many were working on Saturday (there was a war on), so this was the time to “catch” people coming home from work.

The first house that I stopped at had a customer who was notorious for not paying me on time. However, this time he was home and paid me promptly. He had a long porch, and the front door was at least 25 feet from the porch steps. This morning the paper was really thick with lots of sections. I folded the individual parts of the paper separately and made a “train” from the front porch steps to his door. I wish that I could’ve seen him in his underwear bending over to pick up each piece in that 15-degree weather. No matter, it worked.

I had to make many stops in the evening; two stood out. The first was a bar on Hanna Street at that time in the middle of a segregated black district. The bar was called The Chocolate Bar, and it was owned by a nice black gentleman who always treated me with respect. I never had any problems with walking inside to get paid as I had a suspicion that this owner could deal with any happenings that occurred in his bar. At that time, under Indiana law, minors could still go into a bar.

The second interesting stop was a lady who operated a barber shop near Hanna and Lewis streets. She was a very nice lady who probably set the precedent of being the only female barber in Fort Wayne. No fancy title for her. She was a barber. I always managed to talk to her about many things, and she was a willing listener. As I remember her name was Icea: a very gracious lady indeed.

As I came toward the end of my route, it began to snow. The snowflakes were so big that soon the ground was white. The slight breeze stopped, the snow by now was even thicker and I noticed that I could hear the snowflakes when they hit those that were already on the ground, sort of like a soft plop. All other sounds were muffled. The only other sound I could hear was the sound of my arctics squeaking in the snow.

Now this part of my route was close to downtown. Madison at the intersection of Hanna Street was only seven blocks from Calhoun Street. At that time the tallest building in downtown was the 26-story Lincoln Tower. The top of the tower had huge loudspeakers. In the midst of this winter wonderland, the silence was broken by the sound of an organ. The sound was coming from the loudspeakers.

A sense of peace came over me that I remember to this day. The song was old. It had first been played on a guitar hundreds of years ago in a church because the pipe organ of the church was broken. The song was “Silent Night.” The melodic strains gave me pause. Even at my youthful age, I knew that the moment was special.

I walked home in a state of beatific peace, and my cold feet were no longer cold.

My mom, dad, four sisters and I had a wonderful Christmas that year.

Wayne A. Doenges is a resident of New Haven.