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Country editors boy, p.20
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.20

           Hal Borland
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  The Akron game made the season for us, though we still had two return games to play, with Hugo and Limon. We lost to Hugo by a touchdown, but we beat Limon by two touchdowns. Then, despite warnings from Leon Lavington that we would get trounced, we begged Professor Ward to get us a game with Burlington, the county seat and a school three times as big as Flagler’s. Burlington had the first Saturday in November open, so they came to Flagler and trounced us, just as Leon had said they could. I forget the score, but they really put us in our place by playing their scrub team the whole final quarter.

  Meanwhile, of course, the political campaign went on hard-fought. Father went down to Burlington a couple of times to discuss issues and strategy with the county’s Democratic leaders. Candidates from both parties came and went, shaking hands, pointing with pride, viewing with alarm, making promises. One group of Democratic candidates for state offices toured the east end of the state and made a point of stopping in Flagler to see Father. It was a kind of fraternal visit since one of them was Charley Leckenby, owner of the Steamboat Springs Pilot and candidate for state auditor, and another was James R. Noland, a Denver newspaperman and candidate for secretary of state. Also with them was Leslie Hubbard, candidate for attorney general and a lawyer from the Western Slope whom Father had known the summer he spent as an editor in Pagosa, the summer he came home with typhoid fever and nearly died.

  This visit added considerably to Father’s local prestige and helped his standing in the county’s Democratic councils. After that, every Democratic candidate who visited that area stopped at the News office to see Father. Inevitably, he was a little puffed up by all this. He had worked for recognition, and now he was getting it. One evening at the supper table, late in October, he quoted something somebody, maybe Leslie Hubbard, had said about him. He bragged a little about his own standing in the county’s Democratic organization, as a man feels free to do at his own family dinner table. But Mother, who was both a realist and a skeptic, listened with tightening lips and finally said, “You are talking like a politician, Will. I don’t care what you say, you’re still a country editor, and you owe the bank almost a thousand dollars.”

  Father looked at her, surprised, and asked, “Don’t you realize that after we win this election I can practically write my own ticket in Burlington? Maybe even in Denver.”

  “Fiddlesticks! If the Democrats win you’ll probably get some of the county printing, but that’s all. They come around now and slap you on the back and give you campaign cigars and call you Bill, but they’re all looking out for Number One.”

  “It’s good to have important friends,” Father said stiffly.

  Mother smiled. “Important? As Ma used to say, their dirty socks stink just like yours do.”

  Father said no more. He liked people, wanted to believe the best of them. He was a good deal of a romantic and sentimental to the point where tears came easily. Mother, thoroughly practical, had an intuitive sense of motives that made her habitually skeptical. She distrusted most politicians, and most of them didn’t like her, maybe because they sensed that she knew about their dirty socks.

  The campaign was virtually over by the Saturday that our football team was humiliated by the team from Burlington. The following Tuesday was election day. By then there wasn’t much real doubt about how Colorado would vote. The Republicans had won in 1914, but this time the Democrats claimed victory “by at least 50,000.” As it turned out, they won the governorship and most of the other state offices by a margin of about 35,000. President Wilson, however, doubled that margin in the state, though nationally the election was very close, so close that President Wilson went to bed on election night thinking that he had lost to Charles Evans Hughes. Not until late the next day, when all the returns were in from the Far West, was the Wilson victory assured. For the first time, a presidential candidate who lost in the East was elected by the votes from the West. Something was happening to the balance of power in the United States, something that few people understood. The Old Order was passing. Looking back now, it seems to me that the five years from 1915 to 1920 were a belated transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. I don’t recall that any historian ever made a point of this, but I feel sure something of that kind happened. Perhaps it would be most obvious to those of my generation who lived in the swiftly changing West at that time.

  What mattered at that moment, however, was that Colorado and Kit Carson County went Democratic, and Father was on the winning side. I don’t remember what Father said to Mother about it, or if he said anything. But I do remember that for quite a while he walked with a trace of a swagger and wore his soft black hat at a more rakish angle. Physically he was a small man, just under five feet seven and about 150 pounds; but after that election he stood tall in local and regional Democratic councils. The only public office he ever held was as a member of Flagler’s nonpolitical town council, but some years later he got the notion he would like to be county treasurer. He said as much to the county chairman, who shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t try it, Will.”

  “Why not?”

  “You’d get trounced.”

  “This is going to be a Democratic year.”

  “Yes, I think so. But you’d still lose.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Don’t ask why. Just take my word.”

  “I am asking why.”

  The chairman hesitated, then said, “Your wife.”

  “What! I’m going to be the candidate, not Sarah!”

  “All right, Will. You asked for it. Your wife thinks politicians are the scum of the earth, and she makes no secret of it. You’ll get knifed, believe me, and that’s the reason. Now don’t get me wrong—I happen to like her, but she’s made me feel awful cheap a time or two.”

  So Father never became county treasurer. He was consulted about appointments and legislation, and he served a term or two as county chairman. When the Democrats were in power he was welcome in any office in the capital building in Denver. But that was later. Now he was the spokesman for the young Democratic majority in Flagler, and his newspaper had a degree of prestige. Inevitably, the local advertisers came to him, once the election was over. At last the News had the edge over Ed Gibson’s Progress.

  That was the best Christmas season Father had had, and the change for the better carried right over into the new year. Father was making money, enough to begin to lay some aside for the better equipment he had been dreaming about. He had talked to me occasionally, at the office, about what he wanted to get, but it all had the someday-maybe aura about it. By the first of March, however, with inauguration day at hand, he told Mother that he had decided to buy a flat-bed press “and make the News a real newspaper.”

  Mother was surprised, and she was skeptical, as usual. A new flat-bed press would cost a lot of money. She wasn’t sure just how much, but she doubted that it would be wise to put that much into a new press just now.

  She said her say, and Father said, “I’m not going to get a new press. Not when I can practically steal a second-hand one that’s just what I want.”

  Mother stiffened. “What are you talking about?”

  “That little Miehle down at Stratton. I’ve had my eye on it quite a while, wondering when Guy Ray would get to the point where he’d have to sell it to meet his mortgage. Well, he’s there now.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Positive. Bob Wilkinson told me yesterday, in Burlington. Bob said Guy wanted to borrow five hundred dollars, said he had to have it by the middle of next week.”

  “How do you know he’ll sell the press?”

  “He offered it to Bob, but Bob doesn’t need it. His paper has all the equipment he can use. There’s only one hitch.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Getting it moved. If I try to get the Miehle people to come out from Denver, they’ll charge a fortune.”

  “I should think somebody else could move a press.”

  “I think so too,” Father

  That afternoon he went over to Ed Malbaff’s blacksmith shop across the street from the livery stable. Ed Malbaff was a big dark-haired man who could make almost anything out of iron and who had an uncanny sense of how machines operated. Thirty-odd years later his son Bill, who had inherited the blacksmith shop and branched out into automobile repairing, was called out one day to see if anything could be done for an army airplane that had been forced down a few miles from town with engine trouble. Bill had never seen an airplane engine, but within two hours he had that plane in the air again. When someone asked how he did it, Bill said, “Just figured it out, like my old man would. He probably would have had it fixed in less time, though. He always said I was a little backward.”

  That’s the kind of blacksmith Ed Malbaff was, and Father knew it. They talked for ten minutes or so and Ed said, “Let me take it apart, get Ory to haul it up here, and I’ll put it back together.”

  The next day Father went to Stratton, which was twenty-two miles east of Flagler, and made his deal with Guy Ray, who owned the Stratton Press, a typical run-down small-town newspaper. Ray was a good enough printer, but a casual sort of man who lived a casual life. He had almost no job printing and barely enough advertising to pay his paper bills. Pinched by an overdue mortgage, he had to raise money somehow. I don’t know how much Father paid for that press, but it was only a fraction of what it would have cost new.

  It was called a Pony Miehle and printed two pages of standard newspaper size at a time. Being a Miehle, it was one of the best presses made, and since the Stratton Press had only a small circulation it was hardly worn at all, though it had been there at least ten years. But it was caked with dirt and grease, as I saw the next weekend when I went with Father and Ed Malbaff to take it down and load it onto Ora Groves’ truck. It was so dirty that we washed it down with gasoline and scraped it with putty knives before we loosened a bolt. Then Ed spent almost an hour going over it, asking Father or me to turn the drive pulley half a turn or a whole turn, watching how every part moved or was moved upon. Then he chalked numbers and arrows and other strange signs on the major pieces.

  Finally Guy Ray, who had been watching all this and fidgeting nervously, came over to Father. “Will, I’ve got to tell you something about that press. It doesn’t run right.”

  “This is a fine time to tell me! What’s wrong with it?”

  “I don’t know. I never could find out. I went to the Miehle people up in Denver once and asked them, but they couldn’t tell me. And I—well, I’m not a crook. I had to tell you.”

  “You’ve been printing your paper on it, haven’t you?”

  “That’s right. But it’ll only run about half speed. Try to go any faster and it acts like it’s going to tear itself apart.”

  “That doesn’t make sense,” Father said. “Ed!”

  Mr. Malbaff, who was about to start loosening bolts with his big wrenches, came over to them.

  “Guy says there’s something wrong with the press,” Father said.

  Ed shifted a big quid of tobacco in his cheek. “Um-hummm,” he said. “I saw that half an hour ago.” And Ed went back to work.

  Guy Ray watched him a moment, then said to Father, “If you want to back out of the deal—I don’t know what I’ll do, but—”

  Father went over to Ed and asked, “Anything bad, Ed?”

  “Couple of loose bearings,” Ed said under his breath. “I’ll take them up when we put it back together.”

  Father went back to Ray and said, “The deal’s still on. But I do think you ought to set us up to a good meal over at the hotel at noon.”

  It was a Saturday, and Ora Groves made three trips before he had moved the whole press to Flagler. And it all had to be taken down to that basement room, with the only way in down the outside stairway. The stairway, open at the top, was about four feet wide and offered no obstacle, but it was impossible to get any but the smaller parts through the door. So they took out the big window, which was more than five feet square. Then they rigged a block and tackle and backed the truck up to the curb, hoisted the press sections out, lowered them down the open stairway onto heavy skids and through the big window opening. Some of the sections, Mr. Groves said, weighed close to a thousand pounds.

  The last load wasn’t in the office until eight o’clock that night, and we were all dog-tired. Ed Malbaff came along with the final load, and when the last piece had been lowered onto the skids and through the window he said, “Put the window back in and be here at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. We’ve got a day’s work ahead of us.”

  Mr. Groves laughed, but it was a weary laugh. “What do you call what we’ve been doing today, Ed?”

  “Today,” Ed said, “was the easy part, taking this thing to pieces. Tomorrow we’ve got to put it back together.”

  The next day was Sunday, but we were all there before eight o’clock. By ten o’clock we had the frame in place, plumb and solid. By noon the press was two-thirds assembled. By three o’clock Ed said, “Let’s see what happens when you turn that drive pulley.” We turned it, and the bed of the press moved the way it was supposed to, the cylinder turned, the grippers closed. “Hold it,” Ed ordered. He made an adjustment.

  At five o’clock Ed Malbaff said, “That’s it, Will. We’ll change your line shafting tomorrow and you’ll be all ready to print papers.”

  “How about the trouble Guy Ray had with it?” Father asked.

  “Oh, that. I fixed that two hours ago. The take-up on the main bearings had been shimmed, for some reason, and the shims hadn’t been taken out after they settled in. I took out the shims and drew them down where they should be, and that was that.”

  So Father called it a day and sent everybody home. The next morning Ed came and hung a new line shaft and put on the right size pulleys. They cut and laced belts. Before noon they had the Fairbanks-Morse running the new press. Full speed, too. Ed made a few more adjustments and said that would do for now.

  When I went to the office after school, Father started the engine, threw in the clutch on the press, and stood with me, just watching it run, without a form or a line of type on its bed, just running free and to no purpose at all. It ran as smooth as Mother’s New Home sewing machine, and it wasn’t any louder than the big Gordon job press. It was, as father said, a jewel of a press, beautifully made and a fine piece of machinery.

  We stood and watched it, and for maybe five minutes Father couldn’t bring himself to throw out the clutch and stop the engine. Then he came back and looked at the press again, put his hand on the feedboard and said, half to himself, “Now I’ve got me a real printshop. A newspaper and a press to print it on, the best press made.”

  He turned to me. “You didn’t know I was practically broke last summer. Nobody knew, not even your mother, but I didn’t know whether I could hold on till after election. Early in September I was so near broke I went to W. H. Lavington and laid the cards on the table, told him exactly where I stood. He made me a personal loan, enough to live on till after the campaign, with nothing but a personal note. He said he didn’t want to see the News fold up. Said the town needed it.”

  Then he added, “It’s all paid back. I paid it back before Christmas.”

  And I was sorry, in a way, that he had told me. It was his secret. Now I know he had to tell someone and, at the time, he didn’t want to tell Mother. I know, too, why he was so outspoken, almost defiantly truculent, during that political campaign. He was fighting for his life, at least for the life of his newspaper.


  THAT HAD BEEN A busy fall and winter for me. In addition to everything else, I was the operator who ran the projector in Flagler’s first motion picture theater.

  Motion pictures had been shown in Flagler before 1916, but only now and then, when an itinerant came along with a few rolls of well-worn film, a projector, and an electric generator, all in an old truck that wheezed and bumped from one small town to the next. Motion pictures were dependent on electricity for the
carbon arc lamps in their projectors, and relatively few small towns in the West had electric power plants, so the itinerants had to have their own portable generators. Motion pictures really were no longer a novelty, though they certainly weren’t common in rural areas. I saw my first movie in 1908 in the little Nebraska town where I was born. It was that early classic, The Great Train Robbery. It was shown by traveling exhibitors who hired an empty store building and made temporary benches by laying planks on nail kegs. The place was jammed and the picture was dim and jerky, but it was a marvel of the day. It probably was an old copy of the film, which was made originally in 1903. I was surprised, years later when I read a book on the history of the motion pictures, to see that one of the actors in that historic film was G. M. Anderson, who a few years later was widely known as “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the star of early Western movies.

  I wouldn’t be surprised if Flagler had a visit from that same film, certainly from others of that period. But the town had no movie theater or regular program till Manzal Gromer started one. Mr. Gromer owned one of Flagler’s lumber yards and had his hand in several businesses, including hardware. That may have been how he got involved with motion pictures—a Denver hardware wholesaler may have sold him the equipment. All I know is that he bought a second-hand projector, a five-horsepower Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engine, and a generator. He signed up with a booking agency for films. Then he rented Seal’s Hall for Saturday afternoons and nights, built a cubbyhole projection booth at the back, put up a screen on the miniature stage, built a shed out back for the engine and generator, and put in the necessary electric wiring.

  Thus Flagler got not only motion pictures but an electric street light, the lone bare bulb Mr. Gromer installed at the stairway entrance to Seal’s Hall on Main Street. There was another bulb at the head of the stairs, where he put the ticket booth, and there were three bulbs in the hall itself, not counting the one in the projection booth. The hall already had folding wooden chairs and an old upright piano. Mr. Gromer found a local woman who could play an incredible number of pieces from memory. So he had everything he needed except an audience, and as soon as he announced his first show the audience came from all over town and the nearby area.

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