The Best lists have started.
Best books of 2020. Best movies of 2020. Best TV shows. A tradition as much a part of New Year’s as the ball dropping in Times Square.
My Best list this year is of memories.
High on the list is a Best from a recent Christmas season.
Several years ago I decided that I could not do a Christmas tree that year, much as putting up and trimming a Christmas tree meant to me. I had managed to do it myself long after my father — who always did it — had passed. My mother helped place the ornaments by sitting nearby and observing bunches or holes in the placement. I would take my metal stand to the Christmas tree lot and ask the man if he would put the tree I bought in the stand and deliver it to me. He would, and set it up in the designated spot. But that year I’d suffered some financial setbacks and decided I could not afford it. Or, perhaps, simply wasn’t in the full Christmas mode. So no tree.
One Saturday afternoon just before Christmas I went off to meet a friend with whom I often went to dinner and then a movie, who I shall call Agatha. Another friend was joining us this time, who I shall call Susan. And as Susan and I waited for Agatha in front of her house, it became clear that Agatha had been delayed at the Christmas party she’d squeezed in (as she was wont to do), to the point that Susan decided we should skip our plans. Susan left and went home. I left, too, but went to one of my favorite restaurants and dined alone, rather than with friends, and headed home.
As I approached my townhouse, to my surprise I saw Christmas tree lights through the long glass-panel window to the left of the front door. I was surprised to the point of amazement. I’d left just a table lamp on. And now what should I see? — and when I’d only had one glass of wine. Christmas tree lights, clearly on a Christmas tree, in my living room.
Inside, I found my next door neighbor and her boyfriend just finishing putting the lights on.
It seems that while her radio was playing that morning, the station announcer cut in with a quiz. If you called in with the right answer to the question, you would be awarded a Christmas tree. She was working on a Ph.D. in military history at Duke, so had the answer; I think it was even about the Civil War. Some battle. If so, she not only had the correct date, but also probably could have named the commanding generals on each side and why one should — or should not — have attacked the other guy’s left flank. She won the prize Christmas tree, and with the help of her boyfriend had picked it up that afternoon. After I had left for dinner, they found my stand in the storeroom, along with the box of lights and ornaments.
Voila! Christmas tree with lights when I came home. In time to help hang the ornaments and place, perfectly if possible, the strips of tinsel. A merrier Christmas than I’d expected and a memory to cherish.
Another of my Best Memories that is high on my list — notwithstanding the disaster it was for me — was my first obituary.
In 1945, I had been a copygirl at the Chicago Daily News for about four months, assigned to the city desk most of that time; and recently I’d been allowed to start learning to be a reporter by writing short, two-paragraph filler stories. Then, one day, when an obituary came in, the city editor said, “Val can take it.” It was a wonder. Wonder of wonders. As I’ve often said, many a journalist’s story starts with them working their way up from obituaries. It took me four months to work up to obituaries.
I had to take a seat at the rewrite desk. I reached for a set of headphones, and one of the rewritemen gently took it away and handed me the right set — that went with the old-fashioned black candlestick telephone on a metal extension I pulled toward me. I flicked a key with a light on the key box in front of me. Another rewriteman corrected my mistake there, flicked the key on the right one, so I picked up the caller. A neighbor of the woman who had died.
She’d seen the funeral home hearse pull in and wanted to be sure her neighbor was remembered. The neighbor had been a saleslady at Marshall Field & Co. for years. Widowed young, she’d managed to put a daughter through college. And she made great chicken soup. Which, as my caller noted, she had done for another neighbor, a widower, when he fell ill the month before.
I wrote up what I had … and learned the hard way I’d not gathered the information needed, duly pointed out to me by a series of questions the editor who handled it put to me. Where did she live? When did she die? How old was she? Who was she survived by? When would the services be held? Where would the services be held? When would burial be? Where would burial be?
I remember blurting out: “But she made great chicken soup!”
The only relevant piece of information in my notes beside the deceased’s name was the name of the funeral home, which my caller had seen on the hearse and mentioned. I looked it up in the Yellow Pages. The man who answered said, “I was just about to call you.” And he gave me, as he knew it by heart, the information needed. But as I’ve thought back on it through the years, had he been the one who called, I would never have known what a fine woman the deceased was. That a neighbor cared enough about her to call the Chicago Daily News to be sure she had an obituary. Her passing did not go unnoticed.
Best Memories can be of such small things. But my very Best Memory is of a very big thing. The end of World War II.
It was a Monday. August 15, 1945.
I’d been promoted to an assistant on the picture desk, and my desk was mere feet from the entrance to the Tube Room — the long, narrow room (think shoebox) with a row of Associated Press Teletype machines against the far wall. The one opposite the door was the Number One Teletype — the one reserved for the big stories. The one Telegraph Editor George Dodge kept checking that afternoon as the world awaited word that the Japanese had surrendered. Each time he opened the door, I heard the clickety clik clik of the row of Teletype machines clattering away. Perhaps 15, maybe 20 machines. I once said they sounded like a group of woodpeckers on Ritalin.
A little after 5 o’clock, my work finished, I followed him when he opened the door. Standing to one side I could see the keys on the Number One machine moving up and down, up and down, printing nothing.
He went back to his desk. Then, just before 6, he stood up at his desk and said, “Bulletin coming.”
Again, I followed him. The Number One Teletype machine keys moved up and down. Now printing letters. One. Two. A word appeared.
WASHINGTON — (AP) President Truman announced-….-
“That’s it!” cried Dodge. “That’s it!
And it was. The war was over. The Japanese had surrendered.
I lingered and helped with whatever I could help with. Then realized I couldn’t go home as my route took me through the Loop, jammed with celebrants. So I went over to the Northwestern Railroad Station, linked to the Chicago Daily News Building by an overpass, and had dinner in the dining room off the cavernous waiting room. The usual Army and Navy officers, soldiers and sailors, were still passing through and probably still destined for a base … but not a battle.
When I returned to the city room, I learned some folks had gathered out on an architectural “terrace” off the photo department. I joined them.
It was a perfect summer evening. A soft breeze. The Chicago River six stories below showing its currents. The sounds of the celebration across town in The Loop drifting over to us. Honking horns. Trolley bells clinging. People cheering … when they weren’t singing. Topped off by ticker tape. Someone had remembered that the business department had rolls of ticker tape, confiscated one, and was tearing off streamers and handing them out. I took one, then another, and tossed them into the air. I watched them curl, dance as the breeze caught them
I soaked in the soft summer evening.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now