Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993


Fence Busters,,, the Slot Machine King, and the Boys in the Back Room

A Cub Reporter in an Ozarks Town

by Hugh Crumpler



Hugh Allen Crumpler is a retired journalist. He lives in San Diego and writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune, OzarksWatch, and other noteworthy publications.

I never heard of any small-town, Ozarks publisher retiring a wealthy man from the profits of a weekly newspaper. Making a decent living was a struggle, and a decent living among friends was about all most of them wanted or expected. Their reward was the satisfaction of producing a newspaper full of local news, the small and large doings that interested members of the community. After all, you couldn't turn to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat for an announcement of the pie supper coming up at Spring Creek Schoolhouse. But the pie supper was a noteworthy event for the community and a "must" story for the weekly newspaper. A good country weekly was filled with little nuggets of information that would have had no interest outside the community it served.

Back in the 1930s, I worked for two weekly newspapers in my home town of Rolla, Missouri, during summer vacations from high school and college. The publishers--two men with entirely different approaches to publishing--made the work educational, entertaining, and sometimes startling. For an aspiring journalist in his mens, it was a marvelous fountain of newspaper lore--a spring from which I drank deeply.

My first employer at a newspaper was the late Luman H. Long, scion of the pioneer Long family of Rolla, and publisher of the Rolla New Era, a weekly newspaper long ago expired. As a publisher in Phelps County, Luman was working under a heroic handi-cap---he was a Republican in a Democratic county. That condition meant that the New Era was frozen out of "Legal Notices" awarded at the Phelps County Court House. Legal advertising was the most dependable and most profitable of all advertising. The col-umn-inch rate was double the advertising rate charged local merchants.

But none of that juicy business went to the New Era. Not from a courthouse where every elected official was a Democrat put into office by voters known as "yellow-dog Democrats" because they would rather cast their ballots for a yellow dog labeled as a Democrat than for a candidate foolish enough to list his party as Republican. I thought Luman bore up well under the burden of being classified at the courthouse as a Republican and a pa-riah-two words meaning the same thing in those days at the Phelps County Courthouse. Once a week, though, when the rival Rolla Herald, Phelps County' s leading Democratic newspaper, came out, Luman would get out his ruler, measure the legals, hit the keys on his adding machine, and announce the total dollar amount his newspaper had "lost" in the sorrowful voice of a father announcing that his only son had been arrested for bank fraud.

Luman hired me as a cub reporter one summer day in 1933 when I took him a story I had written about a victory by the East Side Fence Busters, my neighborhood baseball team. The Fence Busters played teams made up of kids from other neighborhoods. In every way possible we mimicked the greatest of all major league baseball teams, the St. Louis Cardinals. For example, like the Cardinals, we played regulation games of nine innings. But we had an understand-ing--not an acknowledged rule--that the game was called whenever the ball was lost in the tall grass along the left field foul line. Losing two precious baseballs in one game was a misadventure whose calamitous results we did not even entertain. Baseballs were like gold.

The baseballs themselves deserve a footnote. We got them with coupons hoarded during the winter and mailed to St. Louis in the spring for redemption. Those treasured coupons came in cans of"Old Judge" coffee.

My Fence Buster story, as I remember, included every baseball cliche that I had ever read in the St. Louis newspapers and Baseball Magazine. The baseball was the "pill" or "horsehide." A bat was the "lumber" or "hickory." A lefthander was a "southpaw" or "port-sider." In my baseball-writer circles of that day it was considered a sign of ignorance and a lack of imagination to call anything by its real name. The cliches didn't bother Luman, though. On the contrary, he complimented me on my comprehensive collection of"inside" baseball slang. To Luman Long, nothing related to baseball was a cliche. He could cite the batting and fielding statistics of Jim Bottomley, Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick, Dizzy Dean, and a long array of other sluggers, pitchers, and fielders with the overriding certainty of an IRS agent auditing a tax return.

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Luman was a practitioner of the ancient, country newspaper dictum that said "hometown names make the news." The more local names in the paper, the more readers the paper had. Once when we were discussing this old newspaper commandment, I said to Luman: "I know how to get a hundred more names in the paper every week."

"Okay, how?" Luman asked. "Print the batting averages of all the players in the men's softball league."

"Good idea," the Boss said, "Go ahead and do it." So once a week, I borrowed the official scorebooks from the scorekeepers in the men's softball league and compiled the batting averages.

The first time the batting averages were printed, every man in the league with a low batting average dropped by the office to tell Luman the whole thing was a bad idea. Especially since the scoring and the compilation were obviously done by twin morons who knew nothing about baseball or arithmetic.

It fell to me to humor these softball soreheads after they had stormed through the front door and asked to see the editor. But there was no way to assuage the rage that honest men felt upon reading the startling information that their names were associated with batting averages like .033 and. 166. The chief complaint of those slew-footed fielders and pretzel-swinging batters was that their "clean hits" were scored as errors. Even when the "hit"--according to the official scorer--was part of a double play, a long fly ball, or a strikeout. I suppose those low-ball batting averages in the New Era led to some pointed and unkind remarks from their friends---even from their wives and children.

After a whole day of trying to reason with pub-licly-humiliated softball stars, I asked Luman if he still believed that "names make the news."

"Of course," he said. "But don't print the names of anyone with a batting average below .300."

One day, like many others, after Luman had struggled to meet the payroll and the monthly bills, he decided that he had been cut out to be a writer-journalist, not a publisher-businessmen. Luman Long sold the New Era and left Rolla for the greener fields of big cities, where good newspapermen were always in demand.

Luman Long went on to a distinguished career in journalism. In 1943 when I was a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune, Luman and I got together at Bleeck's Artists and Writers Bar in the Herald-Tribune building. We had both made a long journey from Rolla, Missouri. Luman had moved from a newspaper in Binghampton, New York, to the New York World- Telegram's World Almanac and Book of Facts. That annual publication was by far the world' s biggest-selling, single-volume yearbook, and it still is. The World Almanac always printed lists of prominent people: "Noted Entertainers," "Noted Scientists,'' "Noted Authors," etc.

Many years after our meeting in New York, I was skimming through the last edition of the WorldAlma-nac and Book of Facts that Luman Long had edited. I noticed a new category, "Famous Missourians." In the middle of the alphabetic listing was the familiar "Luman H. Long." I was surprised to see it, but I reckoned his name belonged on that list. I recently picked up the 1993 edition of the World Almanac. The "Famous Missourians" list was still a part of the entry for the State of Missouri. The name "Luman H. Long," however, was gone. It had been replaced by such notable contributors to the Missouri mystique as Josephine Baker, Betty Grable and Ginger Rogers.

Six years after my stint at the Rolla New Era, I spent a summer as the second man on the editorial staff of the Rolla Herald. The first man on the editorial side was the owner, publisher and editor. He was Col. Charles L. Woods, a courtly transplanted Virginian who had acquired his military title from a Missouri governor who was grateful for the editor's support in a close race for governor.

Let me describe the editor of the Rolla Herald by noting that I had always imagined that if Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had been alive in the 1930s he would have looked and dressed like Col. Charles L. Woods.

Every morning, "the Colonel" strolled into the office with the mail he had picked up from the Herald's post office box. He would open the mail, take any country correspondence to the linotype operator to be set in type, make out a bank deposit slip for subscription and advertising checks that had arrived. He would then take up his ebony walking stick, don his hat--white Panama in summer, dark fedora in winter--and walk out of the office for his twice-daily reconnaissance of Pine Street. Pine was Rolla's main street in those days. It was seven, solid blocks of locally-owned businesses in red brick buildings. Some of the red brick, local reports said, dated back to the Civil War.

Just seeing the Colonel on his rounds was enough to make a person proud to be a citizen of Rolla. Here, indeed, was a man of distinction. The Colonel was ramrod straight in carriage. His mustache, like Robert E. Lee' s, was white. His demeanor was severe but at the same time benign. Like Caesar pardoning a barbarian after first ordering up a hundred lashes.

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The Colonel stopped to talk to most people on the street. Especially the women and girls. I believe they were flattered by the attention of a man who was as courtly as a Hohenzolleren prince and as carefully haberdashed as any leading citizen of Springfield or Tulsa.

From my first day at the Herald, the men in the "back office" picked out a role for me. I was, they decided, to be the burr under the saddle--the instrument that would shake loose the Colonel from his daily routine. The "back office" was that part of the building where the Herald was produced. The stories were set in metal type, the metal type was placed in steel forms, and the filled steel forms were the printing surface. The Herald was printed from the inked type onto sheets of paper, fed by hand, on a flatbed press. There were three workmen who produced the printed Herald--a trio of Errant Knights of Ink and Newsprint. They were a linotype operator, a printer, and a pressman.

It became apparent to me very quickly that my actions would often cause distress to Colonel Woods even though it was never my intention to do so. The Colonel operated in an environment of editing eccentricities. It was as if his capricious methods were designed to create havoc on the paper. He never read the copy that came from rural correspondents and from the publicity people of local clubs and organizations. He handed it to the linotype operator. That worthy would add a headline and edit the copy for grammar, punctuation, and capitalization at the same time he was composing it in hot lead on the clanking Linotype machine.

Although the Colonel was up to snuff on every happening in the county--from a school board fight on Dry Fork to the clandestine womanizing of a County Judge--he would never write anything that did not fit his standard that it had to be fit for a family newspaper. Like most old-time editors, the Colonel wrote his copy in longhand. Every new linotype operator spent a few days "getting the hand of reading the Colonel's writing." More often than not, the purpose of his written comment was the excoriation of the Republican Party and the fools who had fallen under its seditious influence. The Colonel, however, tiptoed around local Republican leaders, most of whom were his friends. Republicans he mentioned by name operated out of either Jefferson City or Washington, places where some citizens were degenerate enough to tolerate Republicans in public life.

For many years, until his death, the Colonel's newspaper was the "paper of record" for Phelps County. But the newspaper appeared to be fairly dull to the young people of Rolla. If the subject was too controversial, the Colonel didn' t print stories about it. Today, yesterday' s issues of the Herald are an important source of information for those interested in the history of Phelps County.

I covered the Phelps County Courthouse--as a newspaper reporter, not as a politician. The difference is so great as to be almost indefinable. One of my first stories came from legal documents---open to the public--at the courthouse. The story they told was about prominent local businessmen who had contracted to construct a building which the U.S. Geological Service had contracted to lease. There was absolutely nothing illegal or unethical about the project. It was also, I thought, big news in a small town.

I wrote the story, put a headline on it, and took it back to the linotype operator. Even before I had returned to my desk, the boys in the back were in a huddle over the story. They were transparently de-lighted--so much so that they made separate trips to the men's room, where they kept a bottle secreted behind the wallboard.

The Herald with that story on page one was printed the following day. The Colonel picked up his fresh, clean copy of the paper, rolled in to fit in one hand, and departed for his ceremonial promenade on Pine Street. He was back almost at once, red of face and flustered in manner. I later learned that he had met two angry businessmen, partners in the building deal, who demanded to know why the Herald was printing information about the private and confidential business affairs that were none of the public's business. Both men were members of the Colonel's favorite associates--they were Herald advertisers.

I learned that day about the Colonel's reaction to a crisis. (Every man defines "crisis" for himself; the definition for the Colonel was anything that upset an advertiser.)

The boys in the back office knew that my story was going to cause trouble for me, and they had looked forward with unconcealed glee to the Colonel' s return from Pine Street.

When he walked back into the office, I thought I was in deep trouble, that I had broken some unwritten law (which, unknowingly, I had done) and would be handed my walking papers. Nothing like that happened. The Colonel simply walked back and forth in the small front office that I shared with him. His stately perambulations were accompanied by a three-word chant. He kept saying it, like a Hindu at his mantra:

"Oh Hugh Allan!"

That was all. But it was, of course, what the boys in the back had been waiting for. They didn't dare gather to celebrate the collapse of the Colonel's world, but--out of the comer of my eye--I watched them in various positions of doubled-up silent mirth. Without ever speaking directly to me, the Colonel finished his exorcism. With one final "Oh Hugh Allan" he walked back to the men's room, where he kept a pint of Wild Turkey secreted behind the wallboard opposite where the boys in the back kept their pint of Ten High.

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He emerged from the men's room, picked up his walking stick, and departed to resume his interrupted stroll on Pine Street. (Let me note here that as a small town boy, I grew up with everyone calling me by my first and middle names, "Hugh Allan." When I visit Rolla nowadays there are a few old timers who still call me "Hugh Allan.")

The incident made me a hero to the boys in the back. It was a cheap way to achieve even a modicum of approval because I had done nothing intentional to deserve it. But I sometimes thought the boys in the back stayed on at the Herald in delicious anticipation of those rare occasions when they witnessed the puncturing of the Colonel' s dignity.

The boys in the back weren't beyond making life hard for me whenever events provided the incentive. One such event centered on a story I had stumbled onto. The boys later referred to it as "that story about the Slot Machine King."

George Carney, the pressman, or one of the other boys in the back would say, "Hey, Hugh Allan. When are you going to do a follow-up on "the Slot Machine King?" Everybody would then enjoy a fit of cathartic laughter followed by solitary trips to the men' s room. The routine seemed to lift a load from weary shoulders.

But back to "the Slot Machine King."

On my way home from a day's fishing on the Gasconade River, I had stopped at a honkytonk located on U.S. Highway 66 at a sharp turn with the sinister name of "Dead Man's Curve." While I was sitting at the bar with a bottle of Orange Nehi, I heard the clank and whir that is made only by slot machines. A little investigation turned up two slot machines and two players in the corridor leading to the rear exit.

Gambling of all kinds was illegal in Phelps County. So I wrote a couple of paragraphs about the slot machines and put the story on page one. That was almost too good to be true for the boys in the back.

"Do you know who runs that road house?" the pressman, George Carney, asked.

"Why no," I said. "Who is it?"

"I'll tell you who he is," George said. "He is the meanest knife-fighter in Newburg."

"That' s right," the linotype operator said. "When he comes in here looking for you, you better be gone."

For the next couple of days before the paper came out, the three boys in the back spent a good part of each day describing in detail how this blood-thirsty villain from Newburg had carved up various friends of theirs. Those friends, they always emphasized, had offended him by minor slights. Nothing as serious as exposing his slot machine racket.

The paper was printed. The Colonel picked up his copy and headed for Pine Street. He came back into the office. He was patently upset. He changed his chant slightly as he paced the office. He kept saying, "Oh that boy."

Maybe, I thought, he doesn't want anyone to know he knows my name. He made a trip to the men' s room and left the office, not to return until the following Monday. The boys in the back spent the rest of the day whooping and slapping each other on the back and speculating on when the Butcher of Newburg would show up.

Next day, Friday, I was working at my desk--which meant my back was to the entrance. I heard the door open and close. A voice behind me said: "Are you Hugh Allan Crumpler?"

The linotype stopped in the back office. The job press fell silent. The office was as still as the air a second before a tornado strikes.

I turned around. It was the honkytonk operator. He looked even bigger and meaner than the boys had painted him. I glanced at the back office. I guess I was only hoping that someone would be there to call the ambulance. The three boys in the back were frozen in place. They looked scared.

I stood up. The visitor took a step nearer.

I said "Yes" or some other equally sagacious answer to his question about my name.

"Well, I want to tell you something, Hugh Allan Crumpler," he said.

Here it comes, I thought.

"You done me a favor, a big favor," he said. "I didn't know those slot machines were there. I took 'em out soon' s I read the Hera/d. I want you to put that in the paper. Put it in how those two guys from Sant Louis sneaked slot machines in my place and how I took 'em out. I don't allow no gambling in my place of business."

After some further conversation, content of which I do not remember, we shook hands. He didn't say so, but it was apparent that Sheriff Fred C. King had also read the Herald and issued his own ultimatum about slot machines. The Slot Machine King left, smiling. The front door closed behind him.

The back room erupted. The celebration lasted the rest of the day. The boys kept slapping me on the back and telling each other how "Old Hugh Allan faced down that mean sonofabitch from Newburg." They told the story in every pool hall and honkytonk from St. James to Waynesville. Their version of the incident had the merit of being more interesting than the truth?

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