If you’ve ever read a few Dickens novels you know what a Dickensian Character is. He or she are the kind of person you meet who could’ve walked straight out of a Dickens novel. This is not an insult. It is merely to recognize that some people are so unique or live with so much flair that you think that “only Charles Dickens could’ve created that person,” when in point of fact these types often walk among us. So, this is a new category I’m starting On Iron Ink. The Dickens people I’ve known in my 3 score years of being a Dickensian character myself.
After getting out of school in the Junior high years it was straight on my bike to head a few blocks over to the Sturgis Journal — the community newspaper. In 1972 local small-town newspapers still aspired to carry the same kind of news you’d find in big-city papers combined with news of more local interest. The newspaper outlets of these small cities though still had their own ideological flavor depending on who the local Editor was.
My Brother and I for a few years had the largest paper route in the city. We delivered over 220 papers daily in a city of 8K. Every delivery day started in the basement of the Sturgis Journal — a two-story brick building on the corner of E. Chicago and John Street. As paperboys, one would enter the building from the John side of the building, take a sharp left down a flight of stairs and arrive in the basement of the building where the presses were.
I can still hear the debilitating sound of those presses as they daily chunked off each daily edition. The paperboys would congregate there awaiting our respective newspaper bundles to be tossed across the counter at us so we could grab the bound papers, run upstairs and back outside to fold, rubberband, and bag the newspaper so we could be off on our various routes.
However during the time between being downstairs in the press room and being upstairs folding papers we all came face to face with Mr. Leo Doubt. Mr. Doubt was the man who ran the press room. He was likely two generations older than the paperboys but he treated us like little men. Mr. Doubt was probably 5’10” and nearing retirement. His air was thin but his demeanor was large. He seemed to be always yelling, but only later I realized that was because he was seeking to be heard over the sound of the presses. The thing I remember most clearly about Mr. Doubt is that he was always — ALWAYS — drenched with sweat. He always wore a button-up shirt but the shirt was always wet whenever I saw the man — doubtless from working among the presses as he did. When he spoke it always seemed a matter of urgency much like one sees in old films when someone starts yelling, “STOP THE PRESSES, STOP THE PRESSES.”
He knew his boys by name. There was the McAtee boys, Mark Pigeon (who had the extraordinary ability to deliver his daily route on his unicycle), Mark King (who kept his energy up by having a handy container of vodka and orange juice on him at all times), Jim Wiederman (who passed on his route to me), and a cast of scores. As each bundled stack came out, Mr. Doubt would yell our names out and we would step up and grab our bundle.
Mr. Doubt had a small office in the Pressroom but I seldom remember the man using the office. Maybe he did when the paperboys were not present but when the presses were running Mr. Doubt was on the floor barking out orders.
This is the only context I knew Mr. Doubt in as a boy until I ended up in the hospital — a locale I became somewhat familiar with between 13-16. While in the hospital Mr. Doubt showed up one day to pay me a visit. I was as flabbergasted as a 13-year-old could be. Mr. Doubt was visiting me in the hospital? Would he be as loud here? Would he still be dripping with sweat? Would all that intensity show up?
The Mr. Doubt that showed up that day in the hospital was diametrically other. He was a kindly grandfatherly aged man who was concerned about one of his boys and he came to see how that lad was doing bearing gifts. He had brought with him magazines — reading material for me. He had remembered me as someone who was always reading the paper before I would be on my way delivering the paper. He had chastised me for it more than once, insisting that paying customers wanted to read those papers and that I could read the paper after I was finished with my route. His magazine gift was very logical for a man who ran presses to bring to one of his lads. They were magazines that dealt with the strange and unusual in natural life. Funny, almost 50 years later I still remember the magazines that Mr. Doubt brought to me while in the hospital.
We visited a while but he actually spent more time talking to my Father than me. He had communicated his concern and it wasn’t like a man born in 1900 and a boy born in 1959 had a great deal in common. I do remember though the tenderness of this man for one of his “boys.” I had always associated Mr. Doubt with a heavy masculinity and his visit impressed me so much it is still dancing with me almost 50 years later.
I don’t know what happened to Mr. Doubt. By the time I was 16, I no longer delivered the Sturgis Journal and I lost contact with him. I suppose he soon retired, collected his social security, and hopefully died surrounded by his family.
Perhaps I haven’t done justice to the Dickensian nature of Mr. Doubt there in his Pressroom shouting out orders in his perpetually sweated up button-up shirt always bearing an air of intensity about him… until he showed up in a boy’s hospital room, hat in hand (men always wore hats then) on a mission of kindness.