Dang, another singing telegram to deliver

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.



Looking back at civil rights protests with regrets

In the 1960s, African Americans (organized in large part by CORE) picketed the two major down town Tallahassee, Florida, theaters, the bus station and numerous lunch counters because these facilities were segregated. I was out of town when this protest occurred in May 1963 at the Florida Theater. Most of the time, I was in town but stayed away from the protesters even though I supported their cause. I still regret this.

Why wasn’t I there?

  • Fear of the white hecklers who openly hobnobbed with police.
  • Fear of the KKK.
  • Fear of losing friends and becoming an outcast.
  • Worry that my father would lose his government job.
  • Worry that my mother would lose her church volunteer work positions.

At the time, these concerns were very real. Unfortunately, they are in somewhat different ways, still real today.

The late Patrician Stephens Due, a Tallahassee CORE volunteer and a student at Tallahassee’s Black college (FAMU) was at the center of many of the Tallahassee protests. She would write later in the book she co-authored with her daughter that when it came down to it, a very small minority of African Americans actively took part in sit-ins or picketing. Fewer Whites took part even though many of us always rode in the backs of city buses when there was space. That wasn’t enough.

Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t do more.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two novels about racism in Florida, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”