- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

There's something very old-fashioned about our neighborhood. It's not Colonial Williamsburg old, or even Victorian old. But the quiet, wide streets and long stretches of sidewalk evoke nostalgic Donna Reed-like memories from the then-new suburbia of my youth.

Maybe that's why my husband and I started reminiscing about his long-ago days delivering newspapers. Unlike Washington, where most subscribers get their morning paper via adult carriers, here, newsboys (and I would imagine some girls) still deliver papers by foot and on bicycle.

We know this because our next-door neighbor was the paperboy for our area. Soon after we moved in, he asked our oldest son to fill in for him when he left town on a rare vacation.

My son salivated at what sounded like easy money. But the first day, he painfully learned an important life lesson easy money is a major oxymoron.

He became so discombobulated as he tried to balance his loaded bicycle, navigate the multiblock route and read the badly drawn map, that halfway through the route he started stuffing the papers into the roadside mailboxes instead of leaving them on the doorstep. When I asked how things went, when he returned disheveled and exhausted, he mumbled, "Fine."

After the fifth call of complaint, I realized things were far from fine. I ended up driving back through the route so he could retrieve the papers from the mailboxes and redeliver them to each house.

After that traumatic experience, I was surprised when my son jumped at the chance to inherit the route. It became available when our neighbor now a driving 16-year-old moved up the employment food chain and took a part-time job repairing computers. In one hour, he now earns (sitting in environmentally controlled comfort) what used to take a week of his pre-dawn effort.

As part of the transfer, the paper's circulation supervisor paid us a home visit. He was about to explain the importance of doorstep delivery when my husband launched into a recollection of how newspapers were delivered in his day. It seems that in his day (at least on his route) speed was much more important than accuracy. My husband explained, to the supervisor's increasing dismay, how he perfected his delivery until he could throw all 50 papers within seven minutes.

"Of course, I considered it a victory if the newspaper landed anywhere within the confines of the property," he admitted. "That included the roof."

His land-speed times did not impress the supervisor. He took it as an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of careful delivery. In fact, most of the customers on the route had requested a request my son was bound to honor that the paper be ever-so-carefully placed between the storm and front doors. My son began the route on the morning after a winter storm dumped 10 inches of snow and ice on every sidewalk, driveway and doorstep. He slipped and slid and crunched through drifts. But he delivered every paper right to the door.

In the three months since he became a paperboy, my son has arisen every morning at 5 a.m. including Saturdays and Sundays. Neither rain, nor snow, nor dark of very early morning have prevented him from careful doorstep delivery of that paper.

He's grown a lot in those three months. He has developed the discipline to listen to responsibility instead of his tired body, which longs to hit the snooze alarm. He's learned the rudiments of bookkeeping, since he must keep track of who has paid and who has not. And he's learned how to run really fast from the house with a sign that offers an understated caution to "Beware of Dog."

But these life lessons have not always come easily, and many mornings my son would bitterly complain of his hard lot. My husband always parried those complaints with memories of his days. It was colder then. The paper was heavier then. The nights were darker then.

My son recently had a chance to see a lot of his friends from Virginia. But the overnight visit meant he would have to find someone else to do his paper route. My husband volunteered. "No problem," he said. "Piece of cake."

When we left, the temperature was nearly 80 degrees. We had no idea my husband would awaken to swirling snow, blustery winds and a three-section Sunday newspaper.

He gave us the report when we returned. "That's a tough route," he told my son. "Tell me if you need some help tomorrow."

Paula Gray Hunker, who works from home, is the mother of four children, the bemused wife of her amazing (but true) husband and a staff writer for the Family Times. She welcomes comments, suggestions and stories from her readers. She can be reached by mail at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; by phone at 202/636-4897; by fax at 610/351-1791; or by e-mail at hunkerc@erols.com.

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