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February 19, 2024

A Small Bit of 1947

By Dan Mulhollen

The Ledger was still surviving, but barely. At its peak, the newspaper had had over 30,000 daily subscribers. Now that was less than 1000, most of those supposedly only interested in the obituaries. The joke was that young people read them to see if any of their friends had died, old people read them to see if they themselves had died.

This was a long way from the Ledger of 1947 which swept all the top prizes at a regional journalism award. The stories of the Ledger's journalistic daring-do were almost legendary. There was ace reporter Steve Armstrong. Acid-tongued gossip reporter Betty Fontana. Crusading, hard-drinking editor Harry Mulligan. True, these may be have been clichés, but these people had lived their lives according to those clichés. From the bottle of bourbon on the editor's desk to the gossip reporter's locked file cabinet filled with with enough "dirt" to destroy hundreds of careers.

Yet it was one of the youngest who was the first to die. Copy boy Jimmy Carmichel was disappointed that World War Two ended before he could actually see combat. So as soon as the North Koreans crossed the 49th parallel he volunteered. Here he saw action and was awarded a Bronze Star, although posthumously, along with his Purple Heart.

When Editor Harry Mulligan died in 1964 it was considered the end of The Ledger's golden age. True, over the next few decades, typewriters were simply replaced by computer terminals and "cut and paste" became a software function instead of an actual physical operation. But something had been lost.

The current Ledger staff more resembled inhabitants of the waiting room at the area free clinic or a police lock-up than the "gods" whose black and white photographs still hung on the City Room wall (now the only office actually used for creating articles.)

Editor Trey Gartner ruled his newspaper with a very soft hand. His people knew what was expected of them and delivered just that. At age 30, lead reporter Elias Hamm had cracked a City corruption case and had been resting on his laurels ever since. He might have held the old staff in high regard, but was lacked their work ethic. Now he was waiting either for the paper to fold or be offered a good retirement package. New Orleans-born Hannah Williamson was called the "utility infielder" and handled everything from creating recipes for the food page to writing the daily horoscopes.

After years of shrinking comic strips, the paper finally stopped running them altogether in 2002. For those who noticed, this was an unpopular decision, one which still caused disagreement among the office staff.

"Economics, pure and simple," Editor Gartner stated.

"When I started," Elias Hamm said, showing off his seniority, "there were still a few old-timers here. They took pride in having the town's favorite comic strip pages. What do we take pride in?"

"Pride went out the window the day the first internet news site went up," Gartner said. "You should be glad you're not asked to do more fluff pieces."

"It's still sad," Hamm said. "The Ledger has a history."

"This isn't 1947," the editor said, more annoyed than angry. "I think one mistake my predecessor made was spending too many years pretending it was."

"I still think we could recapture some of that spirit." Hamm's voice seemed to trail off, as if he were contemplating the amount of hard work that would involve.

"I would suggest a party," Hannah Williamson said.

"What sort?" Gartner asked.

"1947," she replied. "While we talk about it every day, we've never truly acknowledged the awards."

"Yeah, yeah," Gartner said, "and we could all dress up as if it were 1947, have food and drinks that were popular back then, and give a few speeches honoring people who died before most of us were even born."

"Why not?" Elias Hamm asked. "It seems easy enough."

"I can arrange it," Hannah Williamson said. "I have a friend who owns a vintage clothes store, they have crates of stuff from that era. And I have a First Edition, 1950 Betty Crocker Cookbook. It should be fun."

"Do what you want," Trey Gartner said, walking from the office. He turned around for a moment. "Just keep the costs down, anything over two hundred-fifty dollars comes out of your pockets. Anyway, I have work to do."

Elias noticed Hanna leafing though an old notebook. "Planning on adding a little of your own magic?" Hamm asked, grinning.

"Why, Mister Hamm," Hannah said, smiling, "what on Earth do you mean?"

"Isn't that the notebook you use to help you write the horoscopes?"

She laughed. "A black woman from New Orleans who knows astrology. Somehow that makes me a voodoo high priestess." She shook her head. "Naw, but let's just say I ran around with a bad crowd as a teenager. And yes, I am planning on combining that knowledge with all of Ms. Crocker's expertise."

The cafeteria kitchen doubled as Hannah's test kitchen. The day of the party, she started a casserole popular in the late 1940s. As it was simmering in the oven, she went to a storage room -- actually the Ledger building now contained more storage rooms than rooms dealing with the making of a newspaper. But this was something of a "Hall of Fame." Here were the desks the old timers used back in the 1940s. She started gathering dust from these desks, brushing it into a long manila envelope.

"Hmm," she whispered to herself, coming to a drafting table, "in addition to being editor, Harry Mulligan also drew the editorial cartoon. Talented man." She came across an old editorial cartoon with stick figures drawn doodled in the margin. "President Dewey?" she asked reading marginalia.

Returning to the kitchen, she stirred in a few special herbs and then the dust.

For his part, Elias Hamm purchased a few CDs of big band music and had them piped through the PA system. He also set up an old typewriter at an unused workstation. Had he had the time, he might have had the whole office done-up as it had been in the 1940s. But that was too big a project for a few day's notice.

Everyone was supposed to give a short speech, but the current crop of personnel were not great public speakers and conveniently forgot that task. A janitor gave the most succinct comment about the newspaper The Ledger once was when he asked, "You mean at one time, people could actually make a decent living doing this?"

The meal itself was a success. An odd culinary nostalgia came over the group, bringing back memories of Sunday dinner at relatives' houses.

"Every Sunday," Elias Hamm said, after his second helping of casserole, "my family would visit some Aunt and Uncle or other. There was this program of lame easy listening music: 'Journey into Melody,' it was called. It seemed to make the whole trip that much duller."

"Almost the same here," Trey Gartner said, "Except for us it was a bootleg cassette of yet another Grateful Dead concert."

"What about you?" Hamm asked Hannah.

"Strict Roman Catholic," she replied. "Ten o'clock Mass. Noon lunch. Football all afternoon. Then early to bed -- be ready for Monday."

"Didn't you rebel?"

"Quietly," she admitted. "But that's what Saturday nights were for."

"As much as I hate dress codes," Elias Hamm said, finishing off his third martini, two more than he'd ever had before, "these business suits do add something to being a reporter."

"It's just a renaissance fair sort of thing," Trey Gartner said, unimpressed. "Might be fun when role playing, but you wouldn't want to wear tights to work."

"I sometimes do," Hannah said, smiling. "This town has some cold-ass winters."

"Okay, full gown in your case."

"No," Elias continued, "there's more to it than that. These guys didn't need computers with automatic spell checking. They didn't need the internet for research. They were journalists. They had contacts, leads, all the things we slide by without."

"They had to write letters by hand," Gartner countered. "Cars only had standard shift. On a hot day, stick a fan in the window and hope your lead story doesn't get blown away."

"Mail came twice a day, the milkman came once a week. Do they even have milkmen anymore?"

"Only jobs women could get were teacher, nurse, and maid."

"Every era," Hannah said, "is better than the one you're living in." Then she stood up. "But back then an honorable gentleman would offer to help a lady carry these trays back to the kitchen."

Trey looked at Elias. "How good were people at taking hints back then?"

Unknowingly to all but Hannah, the decades old dust entered all of their stomachs and co-mingled with the herbs she'd dug on the night of a full moon. But more importantly the dust also left their bodies, through the human body's two gas-expelling functions. By the time the three left with the trays, a fair amount of dust was revisiting familiar territory for the first time in over half a century.

They returned to the sound of conversation.

"Shut up and finish that article," one voice said.

"It will be done when it's done," a female voice replied.

Trey, Elias, and Hannah entered the office to find other figures sitting at their desks. A half dozen stick figures with balloon heads to be precise.

"What the hell?" Trey asked.

"There was something I knew I'd forgotten about dust," Hannah said. "It isn't very smart."

"Do they know we're here?" Elias asked.

"No," she replied, "they're simply replaying their little piece of 1947."

"Armstrong!" the loudest figure shouted. "Will you kindly tell Miss Prima Donna that this is a newspaper, not a write-at-your-convenience society?"

"Steve, please tell Mister Get-it-done-yesterday The Post has been calling, offering me a weekly column, to hell with this 5000 words a day nonsense."

The stick figure editor pointed a finger at her, "You just try moving over to The Post," the long-dead editor warned, "you're not the only one who keeps dirt on people."

"She won't leave," Steve Armstrong said. "There's too much bad blood between her and a few of their editors."

"How long will this continue?" Trey asked.

"No idea," Hannah said, shaking her head. "We each consumed enough dust to keep this going for some time."

"Well it's starting to freak me out a bit."

"It's fascinating," Elias said. "We're seeing ... is it two-dimensional figures in three ...? We're seeing 3D, 2D ... no ..."

Hannah took a safety pin from her desk and opened it. "But it isn't really what I intended, anyway. People bickered way too much back then and this has gone on long enough."

She walked up to the closest figure and jabbed the pin into the balloon. POP! -- Steve Armstrong ceased to be. Then POP! -- goodbye Harry Mulligan. And once more, POP! -- Betty Fontana (perhaps for the first time in her existence) went silent. Within a minute the entire 1947 staff of The Ledger ceased to be.

"That was cruel of me," Hannah said, sadly, closing the safety pin.

"What was it?" Trey asked.

"Sometimes dust can act as a sort of cosmic tape recording," she explained.

"Were they alive?"

"No, if you listen a CD of Louis Armstrong, that does not truly bring him back to life, even though you hear his voice. Still, those voices were the soul of this newspaper. It was sad having to turn off their recording."

"But it was," Trey said, hesitating to say the next word, "magic."

"Those people would have considered our office magic," she replied. "Putting out a newspaper with computerized typesetting?"

"We have the magic," Elias said, wondering how journalists back then could put away so much liquor, "they had the talent. There is a difference."

The three went back to work, each liking to think the experience would in some way make them better at their job. Elias held out the longest, trying even to learn how to use a manual typewriter. But they all knew that in the near future they'd all walk out of that building one last time as the paper no longer provided enough profit for even their meager salaries.

Then they, and their profession, would be the ghosts.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-12-26
1 Reader Comments
04:08:30 PM
Excellent storytelling, Dan. The touch of magic made for a memorable and useful metaphor.
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