The following is a true story told to the Editor of East Coast Stories by Raymond J. Farrell. When I knew him he already seemed impossibly old, and was just known as “Papa”. This is the story of what it was like many years earlier when he was still a poor young boy in northern rural Massachusetts. The season was mid-winter and it was so long ago that there were not yet even any cars in that rural town.
It was still pitch black when Raymond woke up. He ran into town with his ice skates hanging around his neck tied together by their laces. He had to get to the newspaper factory while the presses were still going or it would be too late.
Raymond’s boots crunched on the packed snow, and the air was so cold that it hurt his lungs as he ran. Ray got to the factory just as his friends Joey and Billy arrived. They went in together and felt the sudden rush of warmth from the newspaper presses.
Big men ran the presses and did all the heavy work. Ray. Billy and Joey were just the scrawny kids that folded newspapers at the end of the line. The presses usually ran fast each morning and the boys had to work as hard as they could to keep up. Between the exertion and the heat from the machines, the boys were soon sweating profusely.
When the presses finally stopped and the folding was done the boys got their pay. There was no money. They were each given a few newspapers to sell or trade and they thought it was a great job.
Now it was time for breakfast. One newspapers was traded to Mr. Mitchell the baker for a loaf of bread. He was a heavyset nasty man who always looked at the boys like they were about to steal something. Still, they traded a newspaper for bread with him every morning. He was a mean man, but he was a terrific baker.
Then another paper they traded to get hot chocolates from Mrs. O’Shea who ran the tea shop. She was always happy and chatty and wore flowery dresses even in the the darkest days of winter. She gave them 3 big mugs of hot chocolate and trusted the boys to return the mugs when they were done. They always did. The boys saved the rest of the papers to sell after they were done skating.
They sat by the side of the road at the far end of town eating their bread and drinking their hot chocolate. They had to wait a while before the first sleigh would come through town. Only the rich people could afford horses and sleighs and rich people got up a lot later than everyone else. The working classes like Ray and his friends had no horses. If you needed to go somewhere you walked.
While they waited for the first sleigh they took off their boots and put on their ice skates. Then they went out to test the ice in the road.
In those days streets were not plowed. There were no automobiles and the sleights depended on the snow. In the beginning of winter the snow was soft, but as the winter continued and hundreds of sleighs passed through town the snow got packed down more and more until the snow on the main road through town was nothing more than a sheet of solid ice.
The boys skated up and down the street and looked for any ruts that might cause problems later. Then they heard the bells and knew a rich person’s sleigh was approaching.
It was an open sleigh pulled by one magnificently strong white horse. The man and woman riding in it were bundled in furs and scarfs. Before the sleigh even reached town, Ray, Billy and Joey started skating as fast as they could. They had to really build up speed to be able to catch on to the back of the sleigh.
It was a real athletic feat to catch a sleigh. If you skated too fast you could end up in front of the sleigh and be trampled. If you were too slow you missed the sleigh entirely.
Billy was the strongest as well as the fastest skater and he had no trouble grabbing on to the back of the sleigh. Joey’s right skate hit a rut in the ice, and he fell face forward onto the ice. Ray skated past Joey and at the last second reached and grabbed hold to the sleigh right next to Billy. His arms felt like they would be pulled out of their sockets as he held on.
The speed was incredible. Ray and Billy held on as the powerful horse trotted through town. The rich folks had undoubtedly noticed them but paid no attention. To them the poor kids in town were a minor annoyance that was just part of day-to-day life.
This sleigh was not stopping at the end of town so Ray and Billy let go after having ridden about 3 miles. Their arms were exhausted, and their legs were tired, but it had been such a great ride they laughed as they watched the sleigh continue off and disappear in the distance.
They skated back to where they had started and found Joey sitting next to their pile of newspapers. Joey’s face was bruised and a little bloody. He had made a snowball and was holding it against his face with a gloved hand, so his face would not swell. Joey did not complain. Sometimes you could catch the ride and sometimes you missed.
The town was starting to fill up, so the boys took off their ice skates and put on their boots. They returned the mugs to Mrs. O’Shea. Then they divided up the newspapers and split up. They boys each went to different parts of town to sell the papers for whatever they could get.
Papa was 8o years old when he told this story. One of the listeners mentioned how terrible it must have been to have to work that hard as a little boy for just a few newspapers. Papa smiled and shook his head. “It was wonderful” he explained. “To be young and strong and fearless and flying over the ice as fact as a big horse can run. We were not poor. We were the richest boys in New England. ”