The Telegraphic Wit That Preceded the '30'

Article excerpt

His name was Al Kirkwood and he was night operator at our railroad station. I haven't seen him since 1928, and I did well to remember his name. Our town was on the main line, so the dispatcher's telegraph system was at the ready the clock around, but after the night express to Halifax roared through just short of midnight there wasn't much for Al to do until the morning man relieved him.

I was then becoming legman to the muses, and almost every night I'd drop in to see Al as he was the Western Union man as well as the railroad telegrapher and he sent my "press" when I had any, which I contrived to have even when there wasn't any. It went about so- fashion:

While gathering my grist for the weekly paper, I'd usually have something or other that would be a useful item to another paper in a far place. So if a salesman from Alpena, Mich. had a mishap in our Maine village, I would "query" the paper there, which Al Kirkwood handled as a straight telegram. Then the reply would usually say, "100 words." If, as sometimes happened, the editor out there read my 100 words and wanted more, that was easy. In this way I was able to eke my college days and become a noted journalist. The night the VanTouzelmeyer summer estate burned on Gifford Point I became rich by way of the Philadelphia Bulletin, the paper in the hometown of that wealthy family, which I believe is in Pennsylvania.

So the country was infested with happenings, and as hundreds of "stringers" like me were sending details, there was an active "net" of telegraphers sending stories everywhere every night. All the big papers had telegraphers in their editorial offices who "one- fingered" a typewriter as the news came over the wire, one letter at a time. And these night operators enjoyed a fraternal coziness now impossible in a world of fax machines.

Years later I attended the evening arrival of the eastbound, and Prof. Orrin Chalmers Hormell alighted after his trip to St. Louis to lecture. He was chairman of government and politics, and popular at seminars. I knew where he had been because our paper had printed an item that he was going, and now we could print another item that he had returned.

Assuring me that he'd had a good trip, he said, "Maybe you can tell me something." Three days ago, on this very railroad platform, he was about to entrain when Emery Booker happened by and told him a funny story that he had never heard before.

"Now," said Professor Hormell to me. "When I stepped off the train in St. Louis, I was met by Prof. Ed Curtis and he told me that same story and said he had just heard it. How did that story get to St. Louis before I did? …