The Paper Route




I can’t help but watch snowflakes fall under street lights.

It’s not weird. Maybe not even unique or uncommon

I’ve done it for as long as I can remember. Maybe you do it too.

Nighttime snow, I find my way to a window and watch flakes fall in and out of the winter glow emitting from yellow-white orbs hanging gracefully over the cold pavement below.

Sometimes I’ll even search “snow falling under street lights,” just to watch it happen on videos posted to the internet.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

Occasionally, I’ll wander outside – especially late at night or early, early in the morning – and stand under the light, staring up into the beam, as the sky’s bounty drifts downward.

It’s usually not until I feel an icy needling on my tastebuds that I realize I’ve been standing there with my tongue wagging around like a fool, trying to catch the flakes in my mouth.

And that probably is weird. Or uncommon.

There was a moment last year, in the midst of a heavy snowfall, where I parked under a lamp post in the abandoned middle of a grocery store parking lot and stayed.

“Dad?” An inquiring voice came from the back seat. “What are we doing?”

“Watching it snow.”

“Oh …” Several moments passed. “Why?”

Several more moments.

Maybe minutes.

“I don’t really know …”

I can still smell the coffee brewing from the kitchen of our tiny house on the corner of Muir and Dresslerville.

The aroma would waft down the hallway and settle in my room as I fought the urge to remain under the covers.

I’d wake to the abrasive chirp of the alarm clock, but wouldn’t force myself to rub the night from my eyes until I heard the pulsating hum of the grinder – paused once to shake and redistribute the grounds before resuming.

In 1990, every Thursday and every Sunday would begin by stumbling out into the living room, opening the front door, and heaving thick bundles of newspapers left on our front doorstep inside.

I’d dump them on the floor just where the living room carpet met the kitchen linoleum that my mom once had us clean by strapping sponges to our feet, dunking us in sudsy buckets and letting us attempt to ice skate.

I’d plop down there with a thud, not altogether unlike the end result of the mop skating, and get to work.

Thursdays of the local paper were thin. You could quickly bend the papers into a crisp, neat tri-fold bill before loping the rubber band around them and tossing them into the bag.

It was remarkably quick work compared with its weekend counterpart.

Sundays were thick, bookish masterpieces.

You had to roll them tightly – the paper audibly squawking against itself with the sticky rub of fresh ink – and stuff them in the canvas carrying bags until the sacks were threatened to the point of structural failure.

I loved Sundays.

The work tedious, but it was a better read.

Even as a fifth-grader. I pored over the stories within – written largely by a pair of incredible journalists that, either ironically or poetically, would become two of my closest friends and my most trusted mentors some 14 or 15 years later.

But that’s a different story.

There were other reasons to love Sundays.

While the job was year-round, I can only see the burnished days of Autumn shifting into the grey-blue days of Winter when I think back on it.

On Saturday afternoons, my dad and I would work away at whatever project he had going for that weekend in the garage, listening to our beloved Nevada Wolf Pack on the radio.

That particular year, the football team was … well, it was magical.

They won by a lot.

And they won by a little.

They won even when defeat seemed inevitable, almost as though destined to win always.

Their games in Reno were always played in the afternoons.

One such magical Saturday, a friend from church took my dad and me up to watch the Wolf Pack play the Montana Grizzlies.

And they won, in trademark thrilling fashion.

Most Saturdays, though, we’d do our work in the garage.

Whenever the Wolf Pack would score, I’d scramble out and quickly re-enact the play on the front lawn, just as I’d heard it.

Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of my dad watching me, chuckling.

He’d explain why the team was good. What the rules of the game were.

At times, after a particularly stunning play, he’d gasp.

It’s seared into my memory — the staccato play-by-play, waiting impatiently for the announcer to tell us how much time was left on the scoreboard. The anxiety of a commercial break when the game was too close for comfort.

It’s those memories that cause me now – perhaps out of habit, perhaps out of sentiment – to head for the garage with my son on Saturday afternoons.

For that gap between January and September, we allow Joe Castiglione to fill the air with the Red Sox play-by-play as we go about our work.

But in the fall, we revert to the Wolf Pack.

Back in those paper route days, whenever the team ventured out on the road, they often … or at least sometimes … played at night and we’d listen on the nightstand radio in my parent’s bedroom.

Once bedtime rolled around, with an early morning of delivering newspapers waiting just around the sunrise, I’d have to resign to hearing the game’s outcome the following morning.

And that part was anything but simple.

After the papers were rolled, my dad would don his heavy down parka, grab his coffee cup and we’d head out the door.

He’d retrieve the Reno paper from the end of the driveway and quickly tuck it away out of my reach.

“But what happened in the game??”

“We’ll talk about that,” he’d say with a smile.

He’d drive our burnt orange Buick Skylark to the end of what amounted to a mile-long loop shaped something like a paper clip with the outer spoke bent away from the rest of its body in the heart of the Gardnerville Ranchos.

“So what was happening when you went to bed?”

And that would begin an intricately practiced, hour-long dance: him carrying the papers, and me running them to the neighborhood doorsteps. When the bag would get light enough, I’d take over the carrying and he’d join in the delivering.

“Did you hear the part where Fred Gatlin threw the touchdown pass to Bryan Reeves?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what about …”

“Yes, Dad, yes!”

“How about…”

“No, I don’t remember that.”

“OK, let’s start there.”

And he’d tell me the story of the rest of the game. In the order that it happened.

Just like when I was smaller, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a nightmare. He’d come sit on the side of my bed and launch into stories – in all of which I was the hero … or at least the main character – shooting game-winning free throws, scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs.

If I learned voice from the many hours of my mom reading to us from “The Wizard of Oz” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” I learned narrative through my dad’s “nightmare” stories.

But these were real stories, on those early Sunday mornings, walking around a duplex neighborhood while delivering the news.

The funny thing is, all these years later, I can barely recall a single detail from those games.

But I remember the drama. The tension. The anxiety and the excitement.

I remember how he relished drawing out the twists and turns, the subtexts and the backgrounds.

He took extra time to describe the characters involved — where they came from, what they meant to the team and the greater story.

He’d use those characters to set up key plays and crucial moments and then use those plays and moments to set up the next chapter.

As the year would grow older, it would get colder and darker – the route eventually becoming snow-laden.

Thick panes of ice straddling the street rain gutters would crack beneath our feet in dull thuds.

There’s something about footsteps on an empty street just before sunrise, when the clouds cover overhead and a crisp chill envelops you.

There’s a sound to them – muted, hollow. Echoing off of the stillness. Reminding you that for however many people are tucked away in their homes just a matter of feet away, the street – for the moment — is yours.

That sound will forever be the soundtrack to my Dad’s stories. A relaxed, steady cadence to our morning plight – the bitter cold sending our breath skyward in thick, frosty puffs, punctuated occasionally by the falling snow.

Those moments were indelible in their simple perfection.

He weaving incredible tales of triumph. Me raptly hanging on every new word, all the while the elements stinging our faces and numbing our toes.

“So there were about two minutes left, and … I’ll tell you the next part after you deliver this paper.”

“Aw, dad!”

Frustrated, I’d scamper up the sidewalk, stumbling and sliding over slick driveways, skidding to a stop at the door before gently dropping the paper and blazing back to my father’s side to hear the next chapter.

He had a way of drawing out every game, no matter what the final difference in score, until the last steps of our journey.

He was a bit of a magician in that sense.

I loved every minute of it. And every minute I cherish now.

In the three months since my dad died, a great many people who have traveled this same path before me have reached out in their own ways.

Cards, phone calls, e-mails, messages, handshakes and hugs.

While they’ve all said it differently, the spirit of what they have said has remained central:

Legacy is a selfless endeavor.

Not at all about how you want to be remembered, but instead grown out of what you have invested in others to be carried on however they might choose to bear it.

I can count on my two hands, maybe twice, the things my dad told me directly and specifically how to do – and half of those were about driving the car.

The true lessons were in the living, and not in the telling.

And what he lived was true.

My dad was a giver of worthwhile things. Things worthy of being carried on, starting and ending with his Savior.

He gave of himself, of his time and effort, investing freely in others without ever expecting return.

Teaching – always and ever without lecturing.

Listening – hearing both what was said, and what wasn’t.

And understanding.

He was brilliant, though content with few ever realizing it.

And he was selfless, to the core of the word.

It was my paper route.

But he drove me to it, walked it with me, and shouldered the massive carrier bags stuffed with the 40-some-odd pounds of newspaper.

And he never took even one cent of one of my paychecks.

Not for gas or for coffee. Not for labor expended.

Never even mentioned it.

It may have been my paper route, but it was our time.

And I realize now that’s all the payment a father could want.

A week after he died, I realized I hadn’t yet gone anywhere by myself.

The thing about a growing up in a small town, maybe any town, is that every building carries a memory.

I couldn’t find a spot — not one – that was truly and singularly meaningful to just him and me.

I searched for an hour. Maybe two. Stopping here and there, but nothing reaching out and grabbing me.

Eventually, I found myself driving that paper route.

The doorsteps, memorized through repeated, albeit hurried, porch-lit encounters were exactly the same.

I stopped the car at the end of the street, right about where he used to park that old Buick, and allowed the flood of memories — tender and quiet like those cold, early morning steps on the December pavement – to mix with tears.

This spot meant something.

It was where he taught me to work. Where he taught me to remain faithful, responsible and steadfast, regardless of external conditions or internal emotions.

That a little hard work can be made oh so much easier when you find something in it, however unrelated it might be, that you love.

It was where he taught me how to tell a story. Where he taught me to love delivering, and receiving, the news.

It was where he taught me the gentle, strong, selfless love of a father – What it feels like, and what it is supposed to look like.

It snowed last Wednesday evening and I returned to that spot – as I have many times in the past three months.

There’s a street light there, right where we used to park the car.

Big, fat flakes fell quietly under the glow.

I listened for the muted footstep cadence and pictured us passing under that light – his arm gesturing with an extended newspaper while I trotted along by his side, squinting up through the light and snow to see that wry smile of his, knowing that the story he was about to tell was going to knock my socks off.

“Dad?” Came an inquiring voice from the back seat. “What are we doing here?”

“Watching it snow.”

“Oh …” Several moments passed. “Why?”

“I want to tell you a story about your Papa …”