I grew up in a small town of about 250 people. There were two main gathering places for people of my town. The hardware store and the grocery store. Both were within a block of where I lived.
Since there were no bars or restaurants in our town for communal interaction, to catch up on gossip we headed either to the grocery store or the hardware store. Along with the daily gossip the grocery store supplied nearly all the town’s food needs and the hardware store supplied basic needs for nails and screws along with a few other items.
At the town’s hardware store, the old men would gather around the pot-bellied stove on cold winter nights to smoke cigars and play dominoes. We kids would enter to warm up our hands between sledding forays on the street between the two stores.
If you really wanted to know what was going on in town, however, you had to stop into Oberholtzer’s grocery store. The proprietor and his son would carry on a conversation with everyone who entered. The son was the butcher and stood behind the meat counter at the back of the store ready to engage you in chit chat while slicing your luncheon meats. The father ran the cash register at the front of the store and kept an eagle-eye watch on anyone who entered and exited. In between he would strike up conversations with anyone who lent a willing ear. If he couldn’t elicit town news from normal conversation, he would pry and probe until he got what he wanted. He was the town’s news bearer.
From my eleventh year of life until my senior year in high school, I served as the town’s official news bearer. I was the newspaper boy. I delivered both the morning and evening papers. They were both published by the same company, but supposedly the morning paper had a Democrat bent while the evening paper was more Republican. If newspapers had voted, the Republicans would have won 45-25.
Faithfully every morning I got up at 5:30 am to fold the 25-some newspapers I was to deliver. The house of the grocery store owner was right across from the store. He was one of my first customers and I usually arrived to toss his paper on his porch at 6:45 am. He was always waiting for me.
“Why do you call this news?” he would ask nearly every day. “This all happened yesterday. It’s all old news.” He burst out in laughter every time he said it. He thought he was so clever, and he never tired of saying it. As you can imagine, it sort of got on my nerves. Some days he varied the routine by saying, “I guess you got up before breakfast this morning.” I got tired of both these queries, but the “old news” one especially irked me.
One December morning I unexpectedly received an extra paper in my bundle. For some reason I tucked it away in the back of my top dresser drawer. It wasn’t a special edition like the ones that I saved during Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, or the year the Phillies almost won the pennant. It was just a regular daily newspaper—with “old news” in it.
One day after being especially irked by the town gossip’s “old news” badgering, I developed a plan. I don’t remember how I thought of the old newspaper in the back of my dresser drawer, but I decided I would save it for a whole year and deliver it to him on the correct date but exactly a year late. I anticipated that day with great eagerness. “I’ll show him what ‘old news’ really is,” I thought.
It’s hard to imagine a boy of 12 or 13 having such patience. But I was a boy on a mission. The day finally arrived. I delivered that newspaper with great joy. I wondered what his reaction would be, and how long it would take him to realize that he’d been had.
The grocery store didn’t open until after I had to leave for school, so I had to wait until I delivered my evening papers after school to find out the results of my little prank. I usually stopped by the store for a snack when I was finished delivering; either a candy bar or a soft drink. Since there were about 45 papers on my evening route, it took me a bit longer to deliver them. I probably pedaled my bike faster than ever as I anticipated entering the store at the end of my route.
When I entered the grocery store, Mr. Oberholtzer greeted me warmly. I didn’t know if he understood the meaning behind the year-old newspaper or not. He couldn’t wait to tell me that he had gone through the whole newspaper without realizing it was a year old.
“I thought it was a little funny when I saw someone in the obituaries who I thought had already died,” he said. “But I didn’t think too much about it.” He continued going through the paper until several other items seemed funny to him. “I checked the date,” he said laughing. “It was the right date, but I didn’t think to check the day of the week or the year!” He kept on reading with his curiosity building. “Finally I checked the day of the week and realized it was the wrong day,” he said. “It still took awhile for me to realize that it was a year old.”
“You always told me that what I delivered was ‘old news,’” I explained. “I thought I should show you what old news really is.” He roared even louder when he realized he had been had by his own joke.
He was a wonderful sport about the prank sprung on him. He told every customer who came into the store how he had been tricked. The story took on epic proportions and I was hailed as a town hero for putting the town gossip in his place.
“I’ll never tease you about ‘old news’ again,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You showed me what ‘old news’ really is, and it took me half the day to realize how old it was.”