IT was a good year - 1942. The tide of war had turned. The Japanese had been checked in the Coral Sea and again at Midway. The Battle of the Solomon Islands had begun in August. This has nothing to do with my theme this morning. But in August of 1942 without relevance I had mailed an envelope fat with "pieces" to The Christian Science Monitor with the hope I might join the erudite and cultured folks who produced that distinguished journal. I enclosed postage for reply. No great investment, since in 1942 postage was still in its innocent infancy. I had heard nothing, and in 1942 no news was not necessarily good news.
In 1931 I had been graduated from college and turned loose destitute into a world of penury and despair. To celebrate my superfluity, all the banks had closed. Most of my classmates went on to graduate study, because there was nothing else to do, but I avoided further academics and starvation by accepting a position with the weekly Brunswick Record, in Maine, to perform at a pittance all the duties of a full staff if there had been one. On press day I folded the papers and took them to the post office, r eturning to begin again to assuage the eternal appetite of the Linotype, so we could have another paper next week. Thus I was an employed journalist for a decade, after which I was earning exactly what I earned in the first place.
With a dim view of the hack's life, I resigned. I had not the slightest notion what I might do to sustain things, but I thought about writing a book, and I also thought about setting a hen and going into the fresh egg business. The only thing I did have after 10 years was "experience." This was not negotiable at the grocery store, but I had an optimistic inkling about the Monitor. At least my envelope of offerings had not yet been returned with the little note that always begins, "We regret... ." Then I got a letter, beginning a long and happy partnership with the postal service.
It was from Erwin Dain Canham, who was then this newspaper's editor, and he said my articles were acceptable, but the staff would like to settle on the best way to present them to the readers. I would hear further shortly.
In 1942, the Monitor was a standard-size newspaper, published afternoons in several editions, with the typography centered in Boston. There was, too, a substantial weekly magazine, printed elsewhere under contract, and folded inside the weekend paper. The editions for the Midwest and far coast were edited for those areas, but the Monitor was also doing a Boston city edition that had its own desk and staff and was somewhat in competition with the venerable Transcript.
In 1942, things were different. The "final" always had the closing stock market quotations, a decided specialty of that era's Monitor which was brought off by a staff of hand compositors who used "logotypes," a method slightly faster than the Linotype. As soon as the closing stocks were ready, the Hoe presses began to turn. It was thus when my letter came from Editor Canham. This series began on Oct. 21, 1942.
Shortly, the weekly Dispatch From the Farm was illustrated by Francis Wenderoth Saunders, and after maybe 20 years these drawings were continued by Gene Langley. The lively cartoons continued until the Dispatch was moved from the editorial page to the Home Forum, a move to make ready for the Monitor's change to a tabloid size, leaving space for pontification that had hitherto been squandered on persiflage.
The whimsical drawings were not considered suitable to the Home Forum's dignity. Also, the "Dispatch From the Farm" heading was dropped, and so was the slug about "Lisbon Falls, Maine." This was all right, because about that time we sold the old family farm and moved to Friendship, also in Maine, where we are now.
I was advised, too, that the subject range was now broader, and I need no longer limit myself to gathering eggs, the dew on morning buttercups, mince pies, and the platitudes of bucolic joy. I was invited to become more "literary," and my efforts were at once successful - that very year my college awarded me, honoris causa, the degree of Doctor of Letters.
But an interesting thing came to pass. For 28 years I had done a yearly report on my vernal foray for fiddlehead fern greens, and this fiddlehead string was broken because "you did that last year." Then I got 34 letters in two weeks from readers who asked whatever became of the fiddleheads?
The postal service has been a reliable colleague in these 50 years of Monitor essays. A weekly postage stamp spares me any necessity for approaching the publishing offices in Boston. I have not had to shave and ride to work and come home to shave again. This has kept me from knowing many of the folks, but it leaves me serene in the idle pleasures of my verdant solitude, and a postage stamp 50 years later is still cheaper than the subway. I have a necktie, but it languishes in the drawer and I am glad.
The last time I was in Boston I took my two grandsons to see the Hall of Flags and the Mapparium at the Christian Science Publishing Society, and we went to a baseball game at Fenway Park. Since then, Bill, the older, has finished college and law school, is married, and practices in the District of Columbia. He says the Red Sox won that game, so it certainly was a long time ago.
As to letters from readers, I have always believed I'm fortunate to get them, and if I have a reader I should cleave thereto. Most letters get some kind of an answer - at least a postcard. But every January when I clean off my desk I send a box of Monitor correspondence to the libraries of Boston University - you can look that up.
In 50 years I think I have not had above two dozen unkind letters, such as come from other less-refined readerships. Monitor readers are possessive, in rapport, and if one has something unkind to say he either doesn't say it or he uses a pleasant style - getting bawled out by a Monitor reader is somewhat like the pleasure of being arrested by a bowing, apologetic Paris policeman.
I once wrote about the flag, and four readers sent me four flags - one of them a Jolly Roger. I mentioned peddling ice, and a lady sang "The Ice Man's Song" onto a cassette for me. When I dwelt on the old three-tine kitchen fork, over 400 readers mailed me three-tine forks - the most active topic in the half century. We spent the winter on thank-you notes, and then several months mailing forks to readers who said they didn't have one, but would like one if we got too many.
There was one week I wondered why calendar printers no longer gave us the phases of the moon, and I got a windrow of calendars from all over the world proving that some do - one of them in Greek for the year 1878.
I'M grateful to all but favor in particular a succession of postal people who made this possible, and have contributed liberally to my inspirations. Few working journalists will understand about walking in snow and sleet and sunshine every morning to the roadside R.F.D. box to meet the mailman. I hand him my output and he gives me my intake, and for a moment we share the small news of the day that is the microcosm of all knowledge and the total measure of man and his universe.I had many an inkling for t hemes from Charlie and Ed and all the others in these 50 years - yes, from Eleanor, too, who greeted the feminist movement as a female mailman. Mr. Spooner, our new man on the route, gave me a dandy idea just this morning, and I plan to nourish it into something that will begin the next 50 years propitiously. By the way - yesterday was my birthday; The Christian Science Monitor and I are the same age. That, too, was a good year.
* Next week, John Gould begins `the next 50 years' with his regular Friday offering.