'The happiest years I have ever known' THE EVENING SUN SETS AT 85

September 15, 1995|By William Manchester

EXACTLY 48 YEARS ago today -- on the morning of Monday, Sept. 15, 1947 -- I reached Baltimore from the Midwest and was delighted to find a parking place at Baltimore and Charles streets, right in front of the old Sun building. Leaving my battered prewar Mercury at the curb, I took an elevator to the fourth floor and tried to report for work.

No one had time for me. They were on deadline for the first edition, and the city room was an arena of chaos. Between towering wastebaskets vomiting discarded takes, over a floor littered with soiled copy paper, shirt-sleeved reporters were listening to upright telephones and pummeling the keyboards of high, square Underwoods. Periodically one would cry, "Copy!" and a sinister-looking youth -- most copy boys for evening papers then were high school dropouts -- would fetch his latest add to the city desk.

There, hard by the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, sat Edwin P. Young Jr., the city editor of The Evening Sun, a rufous man in his late 30s wearing a very tight suit and fidgeting with rimless spectacles.

I yelled my name at him. He nodded abruptly; he had known I was coming. Then a crisis broke. Listening, I learned an aircraft had crashed in Curtis Bay, wherever that was, and Fritz Kreller, the reporter assigned to the central police district, was taking a taxi to the scene. That left no one at central.

Young stared at me, then shouted: "You! Mansfield! Cover central!"

I was gone. So, too, I found when I reached the street, was my car. But first things came first; I had to cover central, and before I could cover it I had to find it. Visible a block away, at Fayette and Charles streets, was a Read's drug store, and I was there, consulting an Arrow street guide, when I was struck by one of those flashes of inspiration which are the mark of great newspaper men. A Baltimore policeman was standing outside. I asked him for directions.

Arriving at my post, I spotted my car and learned that it had been impounded. Retrieving it would cost $25. Luckily I had $26.43. Then, up a half flight of steel stairs, I found the station's press room. There wasn't much inside: three scarred desks, a police radio and a graying reporter for the News-Post.

The Hearst man was cordial, but I wasn't; he was the competition. Besides, I thought I knew the drill -- briefly I had covered police for The Daily Oklahoman -- and when a story broke in time for the Seven Star edition, I was ready for it. Actually it wasn't much of a story. Vigilant detectives had caught a minor policy writer for the numbers racket trying to flush betting slips down a toilet. It had happened before, but as a newcomer I didn't know that, and after swinging open Kreller's desk, I cranked a sheet of paper into the typewriter and began to hit the keys.

A cloud of rust arose. The News-Post man, much amused, said, "I don't think there's been a ribbon in that machine for 10 years." Chastened, I asked how I could be expected to write a story. "You don't," he said. "You dictate it."

The art of dictation had been unknown on The Daily Oklahoman, and after listening to him phone in a few paragraphs, I realized it was going to take practice. Instead, I furtively scribbled my piece in longhand, and when the desk transferred my call to a young woman, I pretended to dictate. My delivery was poor -- I should have paused, hesitated, groped for words -- and she saw through the fake. Laughing, she said at the end, "Sounds as if you were reading that." Exposed and humiliated, I vowed never to speak to her again.

Kreller returned from Curtis Bay, I returned to the city room, and at the end of the afternoon I departed using the tiny rear elevator, a cubicle so small, someone observed, that if five passengers tried to board it, four would be risking adultery. But I didn't head for home; I had been invited to join the others for a beer at nearby Council's Bar.

The years that followed were the happiest I have ever known. Nothing beats the life of a reporter; his days, as H. L. Mencken wrote, "chase one another like kittens chasing their tails." And I was in great company. We were of a generation -- I especially remember Jim Bready, Brad Jacobs, Bill Pyne, Dick Tucker, Jake Hay, Jim McManus, Margaret Dempsey, Burke Davis, Odell Smith, Frank Porter, John Goodspeed -- survivors of the war, most of us, all drawn to Baltimore by the reputation of a great daily with a circulation of nearly a quarter-million.

There has never been a newspaper like it, or a staff like ours. We could dig, we could write, and we were fast. We were also young, with boundless energy and, on Saturday night, hollow legs.

Today the memory of those friendships, and one in particular, warms an old man's last years. In Council's Bar that afternoon I met Judy Marshall, the young woman who had taken my so-called dictation and, reversing an absurd decision, asked her for a date. Six months later we were married, with Brad Jacobs as best man. The Evening Sun stops today, but not us.

William Manchester was an Evening Sun reporter and a Sun foreign correspondent between 1947 and 1955. His 18 books, including a biography of H. L. Mencken, have been translated into 20 languages and Braille. He writes from Middletown, Conn.

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