Over Berkshire hills and dales: A night in the life of an Eagle carrier

Berkshire Eagle paper carrier George Houghtlin nears the end of his route, on Wilshire Drive in Cheshire, on Thursday. After five hours and 125 miles, Houghtlin and Fredric D. Rutberg, president, publisher and a co-owner of The Eagle, who was along for the ride, gave over the last paper with one minute to spare: The Eagle promises daily delivery by 7 a.m.

Delivering newspapers is easy — so simple, even a child can do it. Indeed, for decades, kids did it.

The Eagle is a big part of our morning routine, so, if the paper is late, or worse, does not come at all, we get frustrated. Fortunately, this does not often happen. But when it does, we hear about it — as we should.

My experience with late deliveries comes from a national newspaper to which I subscribe and is delivered by another company. I used to react to late deliveries with the same frustration that comes to me from Eagle readers irritated when their paper is late.

After all, delivering newspapers is easy; delivery was promised by a certain hour, and promises should be kept.

Getting into the newspaper business opened my eyes to lots of things I had ignored or never knew, including home delivery. So, I decided to learn firsthand what it takes to deliver The Eagle to your homes.

A month ago, I spent several hours on The Eagle's loading dock in Pittsfield. Here, the carriers pick up bundles of newspapers and set off into the night to deliver them.

The Eagle goes to press around 11 p.m., and the presses roll soon after. Newspapers move from the pressroom via an overhead conveyor into the mailroom. There, the newspapers are stuffed with flyers, bundled and sent down chutes leading to the loading dock.

Bundles begin to appear at the loading dock around 1:15 a.m., and that is when the carriers begin to arrive. It takes about 40 carriers to distribute The Eagle, and it takes about 10 minutes for a carrier to load his or her vehicle with bundles of newspapers.

The loading dock scene is a surreal one: dark, but illuminated; very cold, but heat lamps try to break the cold; lonely, but enlivened by the camaraderie of the carriers as they arrive, load and go. There is no official order to their coming and going; habit seems to rule.

My next lesson came on a recent weekday night last month when I returned to the loading dock for a ride-along with one of The Eagle's carriers.

I arrived at 1:30 a.m., as told, and met George Houghtlin, who had graciously allowed me to ride with him. George is a middle-aged gentleman of few words, but obvious intelligence, and he drives a clean, late-model Jeep.

As George's newspaper bundles began to come down the chute, he backed in and started to load the Jeep. I wanted to help, but it was clear he had a routine and any help I could offer would just be an annoyance.

Now, I had been planning to ride shotgun to get a front-row seat to learn newspaper delivery. But George made it clear he needed the passenger's seat for newspapers; if I wanted to ride with him, it would be in the back seat. (Our carriers, like most in the industry, are independent contractors, which meant that I sat in the back seat. There was never a question.)

Once the Jeep was loaded, we pulled away from the loading dock, made a quick turn and stopped.

George had the front-seat area arranged just so, with a package of orange plastic bags hanging from a chain strung between the sun visors and a plastic tub seated next to him. George then set to work, using that front-seat assembly line to bag a bunch of Eagles and fill the plastic tub with them. This speeds the process along the route: He can easily grab a bagged newspaper from the tub and slide it into a green Eagle tube or toss it where it needs to go.

Shortly before 2 a.m., we set out for Cheshire, about 20 minutes away. Needless to say, there was no traffic.

We were heading down Lanesboro Road, on the west side of Cheshire Reservoir, when George made a quick turn into a space where several driveways converged. He slid a couple of newspapers into delivery tubes, then pulled up a driveway, stopped, got out and hand-delivered one to a customer's doorstep. It was about 2:15 a.m., and he had delivered three newspapers.

Stopping, getting out, walking to the doorstep and back takes time — not much time, especially from a customer's perspective. But if it takes 20 to 30 seconds, and you do it 20 to 30 times a night, it adds minutes, and we had 297 more papers to deliver by 7 a.m. Tolerances were tight.

For the next couple of hours, we weaved in and out of streets, driveways and turnout lanes, up and down dirt roads, in and out of trash barrel-size potholes, and up and over snowbanks to reach impacted delivery tubes. My head bobbed. My butt bounced. And it was cold, because there is no time to close the driver's window between each delivery.

Tedium reigned as I was learning the trade. But the tedium was broken when I noticed a bright white light to the west. George confirmed that it was the beacon atop Mount Greylock. I do not remembering ever seeing it at night before, and the prolonged, recurring view was thankfully invigorating, because it was 4:30 a.m. and we were only half done.

The sky had lightened as we worked our way from Windsor back to Cheshire. We were high up a hill where it was still winter as George slipped a paper into a tube and quietly said we were done. I looked at the clock on his dashboard and it read: 6:59. After five hours and 125 miles, we made it, with one minute to spare: The Eagle promises daily delivery by 7 a.m.

It's been a long, cold winter, but winter is almost always long and cold in the Berkshires. Beginning Monday, we will celebrate a Newspaper Carrier Appreciation Week to call attention to our carriers and the long, lonely and sometimes difficult nights during which they complete their appointed rounds.

I would like to suggest that this would be a good time to clear the area around your delivery tube, drop a "thank you" note to your Eagle carrier and maybe include a tip. If you tip your carrier around the holidays, could you leave him or her some candy or a muffin?

Delivering newspapers may be easy, but it only looks easy when it's done well. Thank you, George, for a lesson well-taught, and to all our Eagle carriers, including Charlene, who delivers mine to me, for delivering our newspapers every morning clean, dry and on time.

Fredric D. Rutberg is president, publisher and a co-owner of The Eagle. He can be reached at frutberg@berkshireeagle.com.