King News by Moses Koenigsberg
Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
A Don Quixote of the West (part 1)
The rubbing out of Ben Thompson and King Fisher impelled an abrupt change in the Koenigsberg menage. The multiple killing had occurred only a block away. The shooting rattled the dishes in the kitchen. It was an exciting neighborhood, but the excitement was scarcely exhilarating. There was little at hand to nurture the tranquil spirit of family life.
Moving plans had been under consideration. They were accelerated by the saturnalia of slaying in the Crystal Palace. Soon we were installed on a six-acre farmstead a hundred yards inside the city limits. From the nearest open street, a mile south, a narrow lane had been chopped through the mesquite and cactus chaparral. On the north the tract was skirted by the crest of an arroyo, through the bed of which trickled Alazan Creek. The ravine twisted around the eastern boundary of the homestead, rearing on the opposite side an escarpment seemingly designed by nature for the nocturnal pursuits of the chaparral carnivora. To the west stretched far beyond a day’s riding a mesquite prairie as yet unruffled by the fingers of men.
Here one might rear a family remote from the vicious and vulgarizing influences of a “wide-open” sporting center. Here one avoided the obscenities of a human ferment of frontier lustiness. That there was a dearth of neighborly communion might prove as much a boon as a bane.
The nearest habitation was a mile away. It wasn’t distant enough to avert unfriendly collisions. My oldest brother, Louis, then sixteen, had hoppled his saddle-horse to graze outside the corral. It disappeared. The next day he found the pony tethered to a stake two miles north. A man with a shotgun claimed ownership. In the ensuing tussle the gun exploded.
When the ashen-faced lad came galloping home, his shirt drenched with blood, the Koenigsberg household was convulsed in panic. The fact that Louis was unscathed did not quell the alarm. He had been at grips with imminent death. Wouldn’t it be safer in the heart of the city where, even though men killed each other, they didn’t attack your own flesh and blood?
Not until my parents learned that the wounded man would recover was their anxiety allayed. Domestic routine was resumed with only occasional flurries of apprehension to quicken the pulses beyond the pitch set by the commonplace whirring of rattlesnakes and the nightly howling of packs of coyotes along the Alazan.
At daybreak, a buckboard wagon carried my father and oldest brother three miles to business in town. Dinner was served on their return in the evening. Half a mile along Alazan Creek and another mile and a half of gumbo road brought me to the Marshall Street School.
Juvenile dreams of journalism derived no point, color or vitality from this setting. Nor were they enlivened by the books I devoured with more avidity than discrimination. My first novel, Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter, had sent me scampering through shelves of classic fiction. There was a wide assortment of literature, but it consisted in the main of the mid-Victorian library of a young lady. Most of the books had been selected for my older sister to assuage the crudities of pioneer isolation. Nowhere in all those pages or in any of the circumstances or conversations around me did I find anything that recalled the emblazoned figure of the young newspaper reporter in Justice Anton Adam’s court. A warmly cherished aspiration was languishing from malnutrition.
Then came my transfer to the San Pedro Avenue High School. It was a large building designed to accommodate four grammar-school classes in addition to the upper grades. Soon I heard of Otto Praeger. Pupils talked about him in whispers. He owned a real printing press. It was small enough to carry in your hands and yet capable of producing a four-page sheet. In fact, he printed a paper regularly. Among other items, it contained news of the high school. He got that news himself. He was a reporter for his own newspaper.
There are many penalties of precocity. I paid them all; but one of the major offsets was an inspiring friendship with Otto Praeger. It impressed a permanent pattern on my life. There was fuzz on his face, but none on his brain. He talked with more clarity than any of my teachers.
His sanctum and place of publication occupied a small space off the living-room in the family residence above his father’s hardware store on East Commerce Street. My first visit imparted a thrill I have never forgotten. The smell of printer’s ink titillated my nostrils with a sense both pleasant and lifting. Even today, a whiff of that pungent odor sets the memory awhirl over the intervening decades.
Otto dramatized for me the unique field of journalistic service. The story of Henry M. Stanley’s search for David Livingstone was his text. Otto set out in minute detail the newspaper background of Stanley’s exploit. He recited how, when the scientific world abandoned hope for the life of Livingstone a year after his disappearance, James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, assigned his star correspondent, Stanley, to determine the fate of the missing explorer. He amplified the enterprise of Bennett and the daring and fortitude of Stanley. Together, they reflected only one of the heroic phases of newspaper endeavor.
Young Praeger had the passion of an evangelist, but the suasion of his enthusiasm was superfluous. He had already clinched the rivet by which my ambitions were fastened. Through journalism, we agreed, ran the path of a modern knighthood. The idea took form in a fittingly florid period fashioned from several quotations —“The printed word is the mightiest force ever clasped by human hands and a line of type may win greater succor than ten thousand lances.” That would be an appropriate inscription of dedication for a temple symbolizing the Fourth Estate. Some day, we’d see that such an edifice was built. Meanwhile a shibboleth must be selected for paladins of the pen. We chose the instruction of Godfrey of Bouillon—“Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the right and the good, against evil and injustice.” Often since then I have puzzled over the quaint irony of life that held the’ disciple to the course the apostle afterward forsook. The newspaper lost one of its staunchest idealists when Otto Praeger’s career was diverted into governmental service.
The first practical step toward my chosen future was to become Otto’s colleague as an editor and publisher. Type and a press like his were necessary. I approached my father. The result was flabbergasting.
“What!” he exclaimed, in a spasm of mixed astonishment and pain. “A son of mine wants to be a newspaperman! You must not think of such a thing. Newspapermen are drunkards. They’re no good. You’d disgrace your family. You’d wind up in the gutter. I’ll give no money for such a purpose.”
Earnest conferences with Otto Praeger followed. He was a tower of strength. He didn’t question the sincerity of the paternal decision. He attributed it to misleading evidence. It was true that nearly all the newspapermen my father had seen were assiduous topers. One of them, the most conspicuous editor in town, was a peripatetic exhibit of alcoholic effects.
But the tippling of newspapermen was no part of their calling, Otto reasoned. In fact, it militated against their professional success. It was merely a surrender to temptations more frequently offered to journalists than to followers of other callings. Many laymen sought favors from the press. They were prone to urge upon journalists a barroom hospitality that they withheld from others. Yielding to such blandishments betrayed a personal weakness instead of a professional flair.
Otto’s reasoning offered no solution of my financial problem. But one could not be a journalist without resourcefulness as well as perseverance. The Koenigsberg shop on Soledad Street had been succeeded by a larger establishment on West Commerce Street. A woman operating a novelty bazaar next door had on several occasions asked me to run errands. She might be willing to pay regularly for such service after school hours. An arrangement was negotiated at a dollar a week. This, with scrapings of quarters and dimes from other indulgent sources, yielded at the end of three months the price of a font of type in a printer’s rack.
Still there was no prospect of space for an operating plant so long as paternal opposition persisted. But the quest for facilities to match Otto Praeger’s publishing establishment had enlisted a powerful ally. The manager of the Maverick Printing Company on Houston Street evinced a lively interest in the forthcoming publication. He provided a nook in which I could set my own type from my own rack. The need for a press was obviated. He would have the type made up and run off on a little job “kicker” —a machine operated by pedal power.
But all this was contingent on the payment of costs. The manager was willing to help personally; but he could not give away any paper-stock or labor belonging to his company. Five hundred copies of each issue, of four pages, 8 1/2 x 11 inches, printed from the type I set, would cost five dollars. If my father wouldn’t supply the funds, why didn’t I solicit advertising to cover the amount?
The canvass for advertising scarcely measured up to scientific methods. But it produced results beyond the planning. Not only did it assure a cash surplus over costs, but it leavened the rigor of paternal disfavor. My father’s objection to newspapermen was limited to reporters and editors. If his son developed a penchant for business activity, such as advertising, it might prove a saving grace. My father decided to become one of my advertising patrons.
Now only one gap remained in a complete structure of newspaper operation. The editor must have a sanctum. The family abode on Alazan Creek, three miles away, was unfeasible for office purposes.
There was some unused space, approximately three feet wide and three and a half feet deep alongside the double-door entrance to the Koenigsberg store. It became a hidden recess when the doors were open. But there was no disposition to make this space available for an out-and-out editor. Considerable negotiation was required. There would be no advertisements, it was pointed out, without editorial matter to warrant publication of the paper. If the advertising solicitor’s activity depended on the functioning of an editor, opportunity should be accorded to both. The argument prevailed.
An empty packing case was converted into a usable desk, unpainted and unadorned, but with a projecting leaf on which to write, hooks and spindles for proofs and manuscripts, and drawers for bills and letters. Here were assembled the contents of The Amateur, published in the year 1888.
The first edition appeared when I was nine years and eight months old. That the title was a misnomer was directed sharply to my attention by the Southern Amateur Press Association. I had applied for admission. A curt note of rejection apprised me that membership was not extended to publications that accepted paid advertisements.
Exclusion from amateur rating apparently whetted the editor’s pertinacity. This conclusion is warranted by an examination of the issue of December, 1888. It covered the range of a general publication. It presented, in addition to news of San Pedro Avenue High School, an analysis of the national election of die previous month, a serial fiction story from the pen of the editor, brief editorial comments on a variety of topics, some bits of humor and—grave harbinger of the militant years ahead—an expose of fortune-telling.
But the spirit of the crusader was arrested for a while by the editor’s first clash with special privilege. Tenancy of the space allotted to the sanctum inhered in the performance of certain oral covenants. One stipulated a regular task with a broom. A dispute arose with my brother, Louis, as to our respective responsibilities under this compact, and when an impasse was reached in our dispute, Louis cut the Gordian knot by picking up the furniture and office equipment of The Amateur and dumping them, with one swoop, on the rubbish heap in the back yard.
It was a debacle. Even the presumptuousness of the editor of The Amateur could not withstand such humiliation. All the forces and resources of journalism could not avail against this adversity. And so perished my first newspaper. There had been fifteen issues over a period of eighteen months.
Otto Praeger softened the shock with the announcement that at least I had established a record. No other boy at an age within a year of mine had ever edited a newspaper regularly produced on a printing press.
There was no time to lament the loss of operating profits, though they had been of considerable importance. Thirty-six inches of advertising at 25 cents an inch had earned a gross of $9, leaving a gain of $4 on each issue. But the hours became too full for such regrets. Every moment out of school was consumed in completing a novel, The Dune’s Chamberlain, in a comprehensive course of reading laid out with Otto’s collaboration and in a drastic program of physical training in preparation for the hardships and hazards of real journalism.