Those of us who delivered Western Union telegrams on our bicycles occasionally got stuck with a singing telegram: usually “Happy Birthday.” While Western Union, mostly associated these days with transferring money, brought back the service in in 2011, telegrams as they had been known for many years cased in 2006.
I delivered telegrams in the 1960s when the service was still in demand due to the high prices of long distance calls in those days. There were Candygrammes, of course, and messages that required WU to sing. Frankly, I preferred it when the telegraphers at the local office–who looked like character actors out of “Medicine Woman” or “Gunsmoke” or “High Noon”–gathered around a telephone and sang “Happy Birthday” to the person receiving the message.
I didn’t care for singing telegrams when I had to deliver one, stand there on the doorstep, and sing “Happy Birthday” to the recipient. Oddly enough, I got more applause in African American neighborhoods than White Neighborhoods because: (a) I was the only white boy who ever came there, and (b) because I was signing on somebody’s front porch to a growing audience of neighbors who were amused at such an uncommon sight.
They liked my spunk, I think, for pretending to be able to sing. My singing has always been marginal, and I think the telegram’s recipient (and all those in adjoining houses) always knew that. But I gave it a shot and, over time, was more or less a fixture of the neighborhood on my old three-speed bike and my yellow Western Union badge.
Those who seldom got telegrams assumed they brought bad news. I enjoyed handing over a Candygram because it wasn’t a frightening thing. Singing, I could do without. When the telegram brought bad news, I was often asked to read it and sometimes write down the recipient’s reply. Those intensely personal encounters with strangers were almost too intense to carry home at the end of my shift.
I was a ham radio operator in those days and wished most of those getting telegrams would communicate with their family and friends directly and leave me out of the loop–especially when the news wasn’t good. Plus, Morse code was so much easier than signing for those of us who were tone deaf.