EARLY in what I waggishly call my career I found that working for a newspaper wasn't like being in the movies. For one thing, the hero (which is I) didn't always come out of his daily encounters a complete winner. I don't want to imply that I am the only person whose barbecue always gets rained on, but my newspaper job seemed to prove that in my life, going from A to Z was never a straight line. In fact, neither was going from A to B.
I began working for the Highland Park Press about the same time ``Front Page'' was a Broadway hit, and so assumed that any newspaper worthy of the name would be just as rugged, alert, and keen as those in the Ben Hecht play. Likewise, all reporters had to be hard-bitten characters like the play's Hildy Johnson. I acted the part. I wore a wrinkled trench coat and a hat on the back of my head, and chewed gum.
What I didn't realize was, there was an almost insurmountable problem built into my job. There is so little chance of a ``scoop'' on a weekly newspaper that there is no need of an ace reporter. News items were basically just announcements phoned in by the secretary of the women's club, the Lions Club, or whatever, to appear the following week.
To make the situation even worse, my actual title was not ``reporter'' but assistant advertising manager. This simply meant that Mr. Briggs, who did the advertising, sold an ad over the phone and I ran and picked up the copy when it was ready. It was in doing this, however, that I was able to play a double role, prowling the streets, hat on back of my head, Juicy Fruit in my mouth, ever alert for the big but unlikely news story just around the next corner.
Scandal was on a back burner in those days. Students never took a gun to school, or shot a teacher. Teen-age pregnancy was almost unknown. No one used drugs, and in general no one even locked his car or front door. In spite of all this pristine atmosphere of suburban law and order, I remained a watchful and trench-coated version of Hildy Johnson.
Since the newspaper came out only once a week, it was printed on a Thursday afternoon, so in order for a news item to be timely it had to break about midday on the day of publication. It seemed, however, that all news happened on a Friday, so it didn't get into print for five days. Not what one would call exciting journalism.
But it was on a Thursday morning that Briggs sold an ad to the bank in Highwood and sent me to pick up the ad copy. Highwood was the next town north, so I took my Chevy, my trench coat, and two sticks of gum. The 10-minute drive was uneventful. I parked my car and in my best ace reporter style marched into the bank.
The overfed vice-president, who was to give me the copy, sat at a desk to the left, just inside a railed-off area that one entered by pushing a little button under the gate. The doe-eyed secretary announced my arrival disrespectfully by saying, ``That kid's here for the ad.'' I probably needed one more stick of gum.
Sitting across the desk from him discussing copy, I suddenly noticed that his eyes glazed over like cold Jell-O. His smile became fixed and he started to talk through his teeth without moving his lips like a ventriloquist. ``Ont urrond um ahrr bunk hoeup,'' he said. After two blurby efforts, I realized he was telling me, ``Don't turn around. The bank is being held up.''
I couldn't believe the good news!
This ace reporter was actually on the scene of a bank holdup just before deadline on a Thursday! Immediately there began an exhilarating and confusing mix of shouts and commotion, while I, hardly conscious of the hubbub, reached dramatically for the telephone. A voice snapped at me to get off the line - someone was trying to contact the police.
Well, no matter. I didn't need the phone. I could be back at the paper in 10 minutes and still have the biggest front-page scoop of the entire year. When I started for the door I had to step over the body of that doe-eyed secretary, and she was still disrespectful. ``You're supposed to be lying on the floor,'' she hissed up at me. I said I was sorry, tripped over a man in red suspenders, and headed for my car outside.
I squealed off toward the office, but before I reached the corner I heard the police siren. A squad car pulled me over. ``No,'' I screamed. ``No, this is a mistake. I'm not one of the crooks, I'm a reporter.''
``You look like a crook to me,'' said the voice from the blue suit. ``Outside, and put your hands on the car. You were seen coming out of the bank.''
``Listen, officer....'' It was no use. I was in that disgusting position with feet apart being horribly patted for concealed weapons.
Another policeman joined in. ``Hey, I found two bags in the back seat.''
For one chilling moment I saw my future dissolve into a 20-year jail sentence. Could those stupid bandits, in their hurry, have thrown the bank money into the wrong car?
``You'd better come downtown with us,'' said voice of Authority.
A policeman got in my car beside me and we followed the squad car to headquarters where I, true to form, insisted on my one phone call. I got Briggs on the line.
``Briggs,'' I yelled, ``I've got the story of the year. I was in the Highwood bank when it was robbed. I'll dictate the story.''
``Forget it,'' said Briggs. ``I'm doing a full-page ad for the hardware store which has 12 minutes to make the press. It's the ads that pay your salary, buster.''
Well, to make a long story short, the bags turned out to be empty ones - samples Briggs had from a department store. The police, after checking everybody from the Chicago police to the FBI, decided I worked for the town newspaper after all. I got back to the office two hours later and was bawled out for losing the ad copy.
The big bank holdup story? It came out routinely, as was the nature of the newspaper, the following week on the second page under an announcement from the Lions Club.