Al Bruce recalls the blood, guts, and romance of being a young newspaperman

ROCHESTER — Every reporter and editor in the Democrat and Chronicle city room heard boisterous laughter from the big circular desk that evening in June 1962 when the first edition arrived.

The object of their mirth was a heroic headline on the front page of the local section, the so-called split page:

'Bouchee Flees with 50Gs'

The D & C was the flagship of the staid collection of Gannett newspapers. Stories about bank employees who embezzled money from their tills were never supposed to spawn snappy headlines such as those from the New York Post or London broadsheets that sold newspapers with epic headlines.

Even this green cub reporter smiled when he read the headline from the pencil of a relatively new editor fresh from the Syracuse Post-Standard. The managing editor walked from his office and asked who wrote the bold statement. All noise in the room stopped as everyone listened while the author meekly raised his hand, prepared for at least a tongue lashing.

The M.E. calmly explained Gannett newspapers were “family papers,” apparently a euphemism for calm, quiet journalism, the headline writer told several of us an hour later at a local watering hole that newspaper writers favored .

This reporter grinned as the desk man told of his knocking knees and laryngeal paralysis when the managing editor confronted him. There were no recriminations or threats; rather the editor was treated as a professional with probably a decade of work as reporter and rim man, those who worked long hours editing wire stories and writing headlines at “the desk.”

The Post-Standard was a different paper, the recent alumni admitted to more laughter.

This writer’s odyssey to that companionable group had started less than a week before: One day I was taking a final Cornell exam in comparative government among Ithaca’s halls of ivy; the next day the D&C city editor was reviewing the craft of writing for a mid-sized metropolitan daily newspaper. The cub reporter had spent a few days shadowing beat reporters to Rochester City Hall, the U.S. Attorney’s office and the crumbling old brick Public Safety Building, the warren for Rochester City cops and traffic court.

The night city editor assigned me to the faded public safety building where, he explained, I was to become the greenest cub police reporter in Rochester at $92.50 per week. The $2.50 was the “night differential” for working the evening shift from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.

My life became writing about robberies, injury traffic accidents, blazes from combustible contents of waste baskets to multiple alarm conflagrations that took squadrons of trucks and firefighters to douse.

I thought of H. L. Mencken’s Happy Days, his delightful narrative about becoming a working newspaperman in late-19th century Baltimore. I imagined walking in his shoes. I was in heaven and didn’t think about college classmates who were earning annual salaries of more than 10 grand. In the best tradition of Damon Runyan, I imagined that was the way tough people, like police and reporters talked: 10 grand.

Interesting grisly stories began to appear. Staff on a dredge a few hundred yards off the mouth of the Genesee River reported an injured worker. I grabbed a ride with an ambulance conveniently stationed between the Rochester police and the Monroe County sheriff’s office and rode the noisy several miles to the mouth of the Genesee River.

The barge had motored back to the river and, in the post midnight dark, awaited the ambulance driver and a physician from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s office. The doctor looked like a tiny teen-ager but quickly walked over to the metal baskets that held the gory remains of the worker who had tripped and fallen into the gears that operated the big shovel cleaning the river mouth.

The worker, even in the floodlighted dark, was obviously dead and his remains looked vaguely like hamburger with dungaree fragments and pieces of work shirt mixed in.

The teenage-appearing physician walked to one of the baskets and stuck her stethoscope into the bloody mass. “Part of the job,” she remarked to the half dozen law enforcement officers who had answered the call.

I took notes while she obtained the victim’s name and age from the dredge operator. Her aplomb was more remarkable when she cleaned blood from the stethoscope.

I rode back with the ambulance driver to the newspaper and an approaching the final 3 a.m. deadline. He complemented my composure. “I’ve seen guys puke their guts out at something like that,” he said. My grin must have satisfied his need for conversation because no words escaped my mouth.

After banging out the story on an old Underwood and waiting for the night city editor to ask any questions (there were none), he yelled “Copy” for a copy boy who ran the edited double-spaced sheets to the compositor one floor above.

The image of the hamburgery worker remained in my mind for a few days but less as grisly fatal car accidents and burglaries summarized the routine of a police reporter in Rochester: call every law enforcement agency in Monroe County, walk through the public safety building to turn over dozens of incident reports, all the time listening to the police and fire radios, searching and listening for stories.

Some stories still shocked, despite the daily wrestle with crime. July brought another gory story that editors first put on the front page but were asked to move. “14 killed in area traffic accidents,” the headline shouted.

The saddest part of the article was the name of a boyhood friend whom I worked with during summer jobs at the Lake Ontario Parkway. We had last worked together the previous year as I gathered enough money to pay for my senior year of college.

I decided to sleep at my parents’ home, about a mile from my friend's house.

His house was as gloomy as expected with his siblings and parents sobbing and attempting to thank me coherently for sympathy.

That night was tougher than watching a young doctor thrust her stethoscope into the remains of a worker attempting to dredge the mouth of the Genesee River.

Police reporting continued until a summons arrived to visit the draft board to explore fitness for a two-year stint as a U.S. Army draftee. Medicos declared me 1-A which is why in late August of 1963 I traveled on a bus with two dozen other 20-somethings to Fort Dix, N. J.

Slightly fewer than two years later, I returned to the Democrat and Chronicle for the real beginning of my newspaper career, one with only two-week interruptions to meet summer camp obligations to the U.S. Army.

Al Bruce covers education stories for The Evening Tribune.