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.
Just across the main east-west thoroughfare from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, sits the oldest black neighborhood in the state. Known as Frenchtown, the area was beginning to decline when I rode my bicycle on Macomb and Dean Streets delivering telegrams while in high school. Those older than me remembered the days when Frenchtown’s Red Bird Cafe was an important stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, and they spoke fondly of the days when Cannonball Adderley and Ray Charles lived in the area and were famous along the streets for their music.
The yellow Western Union tag on my shirt identified me as a harbinger of death as surely as a black car in a military neighborhood. Perhaps it was that tag or perhaps it was luck, but I never ran into any trouble in Frenchtown even though most of my friends thought I was crazy to go there even though the job required it. I usually took bad news because that’s what telegrams were all about in Frenchtown. The recipients often made me open the yellow envelopes and read the messages at their front doors, and helplessly seeing their reactions and sometimes helping them compose a reply was–I think–my introduction to what it was like to feel the blues.
I wish I’d been more daring then, for I went to a Peter, Paul and Mary concert at FSU, but never went to the Red Bird other than to pedal past it on my bike. Surprisingly, I delivered–much to my embarrassment–more than one singing (usually “Happy Birthday”) telegram in Frenchtown where whole families and their neighbors gathered in the small yards to hear that poor, sweaty white boy sing. Who knows what would have happened if I’d ever had to sing such words at the front door of the Red Bird. Maybe somebody with an “axe” (guitar) would have emerged from the crowd and joined in. Never happened. But as I worked on my Conjure Woman’s Cat novella with its strong leaning toward the blues, I couldn’t help but think of Frenchtown and all the music there I never heard in the world where it lived.
If I owned a time machine, I’d get out the yellow Western Union tag that I “borrowed” from the company when I left, and I’d go back to the Red Bird and listen. In real life, all that music was at once so close and so far away.
Due to a questionable, though potentially humorous ripple in the space-time continuum yesterday, author Smoky Zeidel awarded me the Versatile Blogger Award. According to the usual half-informed sources, this award forces me to divulge seven facts about myself that most of you don’t know without the benefits of a get out of jail free card or an invitation to join the FBI witness protection program.
I danced with a local mobster’s girl friend one night in Denver when he (the mobster) was out of town. The girl friend was also a stripper, though not while we were dancing to the celestial “Double Crossing Time” from the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album via the juke box.
I once delivered singing telegrams for Western Union even though I can’t sing. (I delivered regular telegrams, too.) Fortunately, strip telegrams were banned in Florida due to the size of the palmetto bugs.
My first byline came from Quill & Scroll Magazine when I was in high school. This occurred before I been introduced to the exciting world of mobsters’ girl friends and Eric Clapton.
My college roommate and I introduced a Vietnamese exchange student to President Lyndon B. Johnson as he shook hands with the mob (not the Mob) watching his plane come into Denver in 1966, the same year I danced with the stripper. We did not bring the stripper with us, but our friend from Saigon still got a nice smile from the leader of the free world.
After I got out of the Navy, my parents inadvertently asked during a Sunday afternoon dinner (moments after all of us got back from church) if “those stories” about Navy men going to bars in foreign ports frequented by strippers were true. When I said “yes,” they seemed pleasantly scandalized and said “that” was part of the price one paid for serving one’s country. I didn’t mention that I made a downpayment on that price several years earlier in Denver.
I had a school-boy crush on actresses Millie Perkins, Natalie Wood, and Nancy Kwan. I “fell in love” with Wood when I saw her in person on an old Chicago radio program called Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club. She was there promoting a new movie called “The Burning Hills.” She didn’t notice me because she was there with Tab Hunter. Wood wouldn’t sing “Let me do a few tricks, Some old and then some new tricks, I’m very versatile” for a few years yet.
En route to a Dutch shipbuilder where I did volunteer work one summer as part of an international youth group, we all swam in Amsterdam harbor after the captain of the barge we were using for transportation said the water was so dirty, nobody ever dared get in it. No strippers were present.
New Award Winners
According the the rules of the Versatile Blogger Award, I am supposed to pass along this award to 15 bloggers who currently have no idea I’m thinking of doing such a thing. Yet, they are writing blogs I enjoy reading:
Well, I’m not as young as I was when I was dancing with strippers, swimming in Amsterdam harbor, talkin with President Johnson or singing “Happy Birthday” to the shocked residents of Tallahassee, Florida while wearing my Western Union badge. That means I’m out of steam and will stop at ten blogs on my list. Don’t bug me about this: I have Mob connections.