November 22, 1963: At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 11/20/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10670

HistoryLink historian John Caldbick started working as a copyboy at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 21, 1963. This People's History is his account of the next day.

Nepotism

In late 1963 I was hired as a copyboy at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and for the next several years would work in and around the city room with the editors, reporters, photographers, staff artists, and others who plied that side of the newspaper trade. The job was a god-send. It was my senior year of high school. I was 17 years old and very naive, slightly aimless and entirely jobless, too old for a paper route, and fresh from a short and disastrous stint dropping boxes in a fancy-candy factory.

In the 1940s my mother had been private secretary to the paper's publisher, Charlie Lindemann, and he was still there in 1963. She called him, and he set up an interview for me with Beth McKimmons, the managing editor's secretary and the copyboys' beloved supervisor, mother superior, and fierce protector. Beth hired me on the spot, no doubt on orders from above. My first day on the job was Thursday, November 21, 1963, starting at 4:00 in the afternoon (the P-I being the only morning paper at that time). My training that first day was mostly geographical, a guided tour of the building given by another copyboy -- this is the city room, that's the copy desk, here is the library, the composing room is back there, that's so-and-so's desk, he's a jerk, here's the sports department where most of the crazy guys are, etc. (That last was a lie; the P-I was full of the highly eccentric in the 1960s, more sinners than saints, and in every editorial department and beyond. Since no one ever seemed to retire and it was practically impossible to get fired -- a fact I would prove repeatedly -- their numbers only increased during my years there.)

The Day

It's accepted as a given that almost every human being who was alive on November 22, 1963, and old enough to understand, remembers exactly where and how they first heard the news. I was at Queen Anne High School, out of class on a hall pass, descending a stairway between the second and third floors. Another student, one of the school's greasers, one I didn't know well and whose name I don't recall, ran by and yelled "Some guy just shot at Kennedy." He sounded more excited than upset. I stood still for a few seconds, not sure whether to believe him or not. Then I heard the telephones -- the big, clunky, Bakelite ones that hung on the wall in each classroom -- begin to ring. Doors opened in moments and the entire student body streamed in a growing gaggle toward the library on the top floor -- the only large room with a television -- most still laughing and kidding around, glad for the unscheduled break, not yet aware of what really was going on.

Things got very quiet very quickly as the early news reports, fragmentary, based largely on rumor, heavily qualified with mays and mights, trickled in -- shots fired, President Kennedy maybe hit, triple overpass, Elm Street, Parkland Hospital, Texas Governor John Connally wounded, Kennedy maybe killed, and then, horribly, Walter Cronkite announcing that John F. Kennedy had died, removing his glasses, looking up at a clock, barely maintaining his composure. It was shortly after 11:00 a.m. in Seattle, 1:00 p.m. in Dallas. At the first opportunity I snuck off and headed for the P-I on foot. I knew exactly nothing about my job, I wasn't due to show up until 4:00 p.m., and I had no thoughts of being useful. I just knew I wanted to be there.

By the time I arrived at the Art Deco building at 6th and Wall the whole world knew that Kennedy had been assassinated. The lobby, with its wonderful, brawny, industrial-themed murals, and the first floor, which mostly housed advertising and bookkeeping departments, were eerily quiet. I climbed the stairs to the second floor; there, people spilled out of the city room and milled around in the corridor. The P-I had no security then whatsoever; people, sane and otherwise, frequently wandered in, most just to see what a newspaper office looked like, a few to report with complete sincerity that the government was spying on them through their light bulbs. I soon learned that one of the copyboys' tasks when a person came in complaining about vast and nefarious conspiracies was to sit with them at an empty desk for awhile, give them a cup of coffee, feign interest (some tales actually were quite interesting in their bizarre complexity), be sympathetic, and gently ease them out as soon as possible. We never had to call the police; once they'd been listened to for 10 or 15 minutes, you'd draw it down, tell them you'd keep an eye on it. They would usually then wander off, often with a satisfied smile. It seemed a very humane policy then and still does today, although now you practically need a security clearance to get into any newspaper's city room.

There was little talk of conspiracy yet that afternoon; that would come later, when it was disclosed that Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin, had lived in Russia. There was just grimness and sorrow. Editors, reporters, and people from departments all over the building thronged around the small alcove that housed the teletype machines -- Associated Press and United Press International (with their A- and B-wires), the Hearst Wire, and one or two others that I've long since forgotten. People lined up three or four deep, craning their necks to be among the first to learn the latest, trying to read the words the instant they were hammered into the paper, all in capital letters. After a couple of minutes, new people would move forward, and this circulation kept on with surprising politeness most of the day. Editors, of course, had pride of place, especially the managing editor, Ed Stone, a dour man, always in rolled-up shirtsleeves, respected by all and feared by most. When he growled "boy" from his back office in his gravelly voice, he'd get one in a hurry. I never once saw him laugh; even his rare smiles looked more like indigestion.

Smaller groups gathered around the UPI Wirephoto and AP Telephoto machines, primitive faxes that took about five minutes to squeeze out a bad picture on wet, tissue-like paper that always made my fingers feel weird. It was like watching a movie in extreme slow motion, the image burned into the chemicals of the paper one thin scanned line at a time, slowly building up to an entire picture and caption. Then there'd be a brief pause, and another one would start its slow vertical climb out of the machine. One of the staff artists' main and most hated jobs was retouching these things to make them passably usable. The first photo I remember seeing that day was of the Kennedys smiling and waving from the limousine, taken just a few minutes before the shots were fired.

The AP's Seattle bureau was a glass-walled enclave carved out of the corridor side of the city room. It had banks of teletypes, many more than we did, and quite a few people were hovering around in there as well. The bureau chief, Betty Hopper, a large and formidable-looking woman who would turn out to be very kind, had been crying but still had a cigarette dangling from her lower lip, as she almost always did. The AP's copyboy, Charlie Deutsch, a happy, chubby little guy who had moderate intellectual deficits, was moaning with grief, but going about his work with his usual diligence.

In the city room proper, a few people still wept; fewer still were trying with little success to maintain a tough, seen-it-all demeanor, all the while knowing they had never seen anything remotely like this. The city editor, Dick Lyall, was peeling reporters away from the teletypes and sending them off with staff photographers to "get the local angle" (yes, they really said things like that). Copyboys were sent scurrying to the library (also called the morgue, a rather grisly name given the events of this day) to retrieve photos of all the known actors -- John and Jackie, Lyndon and Ladybird, Nellie and John, Dallas itself. It seemed chaotic and disorganized -- phones ringing constantly, people running to and fro, the teletypes never letting up -- but there was no panic and little hesitancy about what needed to be done. It was newspapering at its most immediate, in crisis mode, driven by the three imperatives -- get the news out fast, get it as right as conditions allow, and do it better than the despised Seattle Times.

Despite the horror of it all, it was incredibly exciting. The latest facts and rumors about America's crime of the century just kept spewing out of the teletypes on rolls of cheap colored newsprint (different colors for different providers). The machines' type bars clacked ceaselessly and their bells rang a tuneless dirge -- three dings for urgent, five for Bulletin, 10 (UPI) or 12 (AP) for FLASH! I didn't know it at the time, but you could go months without hearing a teletype's FLASH alert; on that day, they came in again and again and again.

When the teletypes were really going full-bore, the vibration of their abrupt carriage returns would slowly "walk" them out away from the wall, and I believe the first thing I learned as a copyboy that day was that it was our responsibility to walk them back now and then. Having nothing better to do, I worked my way to the front to do just that. It helped that I was short; people could read over my shoulders, and for what seemed like hours no one asked me to move. It also helped that although I must have been starting to look a little familiar to some of the editors and reporters, hardly anybody knew my name yet. My uselessness was further enhanced by the fact that I didn't know how to do the any of the myriad other things copyboys did, and nobody that day was about to take the time to teach me. So I tried to stay close to the wire machines. I recall, and later histories confirm, that most of the best reporting that day came tumbling in over the UPI wire, much of it written by Merriman Smith. Riding in the motorcade, he had fought off other reporters for exclusive use of the press car's mobile phone, then continued to scoop most everyone after he reached Parkland Hospital.

It was a shocking and gut-wrenching day for America, but those are not the emotions I remember most. Dallas was more than 2,000 miles away, but felt much, much nearer. There, at the teletypes, I had the sense that I was in a close and exclusive orbit around an event of tremendous historical significance. I was learning things, important things, appalling things, long before they were known to anyone outside that orbit, and that included just about everyone. It was exciting, but it was more than that. It was a feeling of extraordinary privilege, of special access, watching the history of a world-shaking event being written as it happened. That feeling, though dulled by years of slow news days (which most were, even in the 1960s) and now jaded by the no-longer-special access the Internet has given everyone, has never left my memory.

There would be other FLASH stories during my time at the P-I and then, in the early 1970s, at United Press. The first came just two days later, when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. Others I remember clearly were Johnson's decision not to run for reelection, Russia's invasion of Czechoslovakia (the only time in my years there that I actually heard someone yell "Stop the presses!"), the killings close together of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Apollo 11, Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, quite a few others. It was a tumultuous time, we copyboys (there were no copygirls for several more years) had front-row seats, and we were paid, although not much, for the privilege of being there.

I learned more lessons about life and humanity and good and evil at the P-I than I ever learned anywhere else, and friendships I made there endure today. I still see several others who were copyboys with me back then -- now a distressing and unbelievable 50 years back then -- and a handful of reporters and copyreaders, although I think nearly all the editors I knew are gone. Whenever we get together, without exception, the conversation soon turns to the P-I and its people, and we can reminisce for hours, fueled by nostalgic wonderment at just how lucky we were to have been that young, in that place, at that time.


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