2021-11-11-OHARACOLPIC

Johnny Reilly, my neighbor and classmate, trained me to be a sub on his paper route. In those days, The Berkshire Eagle — once referred to in Time magazine, along with The New York Times and Le Monde, as one of the three great newspapers in the world — came out Monday through Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

“People are funny about their newspapers,” Johnny instructed me as he demonstrated how to fold one properly. “So don’t be late, because a few customers can’t even eat their supper till they get the paper.”

After I’d completed a successful two-week stint while he was at summer camp, Johnny would call on me to stand in when the occasion demanded. It was an easy duty in the pleasant months, but lugging a heavy sack in the bleak winter was another matter entirely.

One frosty morning in December, when every pupil’s head was ringing with Christmas carols, I noticed that Johnny was absent. That meant Mrs. Reilly would call my mother to ask if I could cover his route that evening. I was happy enough to make a little extra money for the holidays, but on my walk home from school that afternoon, a thick sky enveloped the nearby hills, and snow began to whip across the frozen Housatonic River.

I quickly changed out of my school uniform and walked up to Johnny’s to collect his canvas bag and payment book — it was Friday, collection day — and listened to his instructions as he shouted them through a stuffy nose and down the stairs from his bedroom.

“Mr. Olson owes for four weeks, and Mrs. Miller for two,” he croaked. “And watch out for Mrs. Howell’s mad dog, and if old Mrs. Madden invites you in for hot cocoa, just say no, or you’ll be stuck there for an hour. And Mr. Curtis will swear at you when he counts out his nine nickels, saying there’s nothing in The Eagle but news of the world, and he saw too much of the world during the war.”

The snow was swirling in great gusts when I arrived at the foot of Mohawk and Wahconah streets, the drop-off point for our newspaper bundles. Foolishly, I had forgotten Johnny’s wire clippers and had to ask an older paperboy if he would snip the wire bands off my bundle. He did so, but carelessly, allowing a quick flurry of newspapers to escape and scatter up the road in a mad dance.

I threw myself across the remaining pile as the older boy laughed, saying I’d need to call The Eagle after I had completed my route. They’d deliver the missing papers to the customers later that evening, but I’d have to pay them back.

If this bully hadn’t been twice my size, I would have taken him on right there. If I had done so, I would have been pummeled to pudding, so I wisely let him go — this time. Then I counted the surviving papers, which I placed carefully in my bag. Oh, great — 35 newspapers for 42 households!

Seven papers short at seven cents apiece was 49 cents; Johnny always paid me a half-dollar, so I was now making this two-hour trek in the teeth of a nor’easter for a penny. Worse still, it was just one Friday away from his Christmas collection, and Johnny had high hopes of receiving good tips — tips that he saved up for next summer’s stay at Camp Russell. And even if my family and Johnny’s went without a newspaper, I’d still have angered five of his customers.

With sagging spirits, I slung the heavy sack over my shoulder and lumbered through the snowy blackness, hoping that five families would be out doing their holiday shopping and not miss their timely delivery. But every single family was at home, greeting me at the door and inviting me in from the cold. There, they searched pocket or purse for a shining Franklin half-dollar, or a cascade of smaller coins. Their kids were scattered everywhere, squinting up at Christmas lights, thumbing through Jack & Harry’s Christmas toy catalogs, or flitting like moths before a flickering black-and-white TV.

After making my Wilson Project deliveries, I ventured down Mohegan Street, which was more exposed to the elements, and where frozen branches rattled in a war dance in the bitter winds. I continued to knock on doors and deliver papers, slogging in and out of homes. As I did so, my collection bag filled with the weight of coins. I plodded up Calumet and down Watson streets, and, approaching Greylock Terrace, I cut across the courtyard of St. John the Baptist Church.

That small Ukrainian chapel overlooked the storied footbridge at Bel Air Falls, where I stopped to bless myself backward, the way we’d seen the old orthodox parishioners do.

It was a mysterious church, filled with frightful icons of Our Lord. Once, Jimmy went to confession there and insisted it counted, though I don’t believe the ancient priest understood a word of English.

The winds had settled, but thick snow continued to fall, landing on the chapel steps like goose down. I mumbled a few prayers to the oddly shaped cross that crowned its square steeple, asking the Holy Family to intercede in my hour of need.

I trudged down Greylock Terrace, going over the route in my head, then stopped to double-check my payment book. Everyone had received a newspaper except the Tibloms, Tarts, Dalys, Bramleys, Rupinskis, Johnny’s family, and us. Seven – and yet there were still papers in my bag! I foraged through and counted the remaining papers. Seven. No, it couldn’t be! I fell on my knees, awestruck by this sudden blessing.

I hurriedly distributed five of the papers and raced up to Johnny’s to deliver his family’s, and to tell him what had happened. But his sister, Karen, answered the door and told me that Johnny was still ill and fast asleep. Before leaving, I remembered to ask for his wire clippers for the next morning’s delivery, and passed on the message that Mr. Olson had finally paid his bill.

When I arrived home, I handed the last Eagle to Dad before pulling off my boots in the kitchen. When Mom called me to the table for a late supper of beans and toast, the emotions of the past couple of hours suddenly got the better of me, and I began to bawl my eyes out.

“What’s happened to you?” she asked, as Dad and the gang gathered round to listen.

Sobbing over soggy toast, I told them of my predicament and of my miraculous rescue.

“It’s like Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes,” Mom said, covering my hand reassuringly. “The Holy Family heard your prayers tonight and simply answered them. No surprise, that. Now eat your beans before they get cold.”

Famished, I took a calming deep breath and picked up my fork. Yes, we must take our miracles as we find them, I reminded myself. Heed Mom’s unquestioning faith and move on. I buttered my toast and dived into my beans, swaddled in the mysterious warmth of the Holy Season.

Kevin O’Hara is a frequent Eagle contributor. Email him at kevinbohara@gmail.com.