Gazette Riders of the Crosscut

“Go west young man, and grow up with the country.” John Soule, from an 1851 editorial in The Terre Haute Express.

The past is a suitcase full of memories, carried throughout our life’s journey wherever it may lead. Growing heavy after a while, it becomes a burden. Carelessly we drag it along the street, bang it against rocks, wearing holes in its shell. It becomes tattered and torn, spilling out bits of the contents to be blown away in the breeze. And all too soon, what we have left is nothing but memories of memories.

Sixteen foot Fleetwood travel trailer loaded with all of our family’s worldly possessions, including the family dog, hitched up to the ’53 Ford convertible Indy Pace Car replica, cream paint, continental kit, fender skirts, gold & white tuck & roll, Grandma, Syri, and me in the back seat, Mom and Dad in front. Pop’s (Grandpa’s) eyes are tearing up and he must retreat back into the house, Frank Sinatra sings Love and Marriage as we leave our Nebraska home for the hot desert town of Phoenix, Arizona, I’m sobbing too, but can’t wait to see a genuine saguaro cactus and some real mountains. It’s April, 1955, and the Hall Family is movin’ west to grow up with the country.

Three days en route, 1400 miles, boiling over and vapor lock countless times driving up and out of The Salt River Canyon, arrival at The Starlight Motel on East Van Buren. Here we stay while Syri starts walking and I learn to swim during final construction of our American Dreamhouse. $12,500, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, quarter acre, carport, 1500 sq. ft., V.A. financing, 30 years @ $95 a month, brand new subdivision on 80 acres of farmland, 30 families on each block with 2.5 kids per house. Our house is the first one built, so the whole construction zone and the Crosscut Canal, bordering the eastern subdivision boundary becomes my personal playground. 2nd grade, new dreams and discoveries.

3rd, 4th, 5th grade, we get a swimming pool. Arithmetic, history, geography, English, science, Little League, Elvis Presley, backyard citrus trees, Wallace and Ladmo, Howdy Doody, and the Mouseketeers. Salt cedar treehouse fort, horned toads, crawdads, red ants, rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, black widows, centipedes and tarantulas. Then the summer of ’59 changed everything. I became a semi-independent adult, threw my youth in the dumpster, and fully embraced capitalism. It was a far gentler capitalism than the beast we know today. It helped mold me into who and what I am now, and I’ve never regretted a minute of it.

The game changer for me was The Phoenix Gazette. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. My childhood was pretty strange by most standards. Mom cried when she came up pregnant with me in 1947, just a month after marrying Dad. Oh, I was given more than my share of love. I’ve got no complaints, and wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood. But it should have been obvious from the beginning that my folks were anxious for me to fly the nest. For starters, they bought me a full-size 26″ heavy-duty Montgomery Ward bicycle for my 5th birthday. It would take four years of testicular torture before my legs finally stretched far enough to ride it. From the get-go I was free to come and go as I pleased. Had the run of the neighborhood and beyond. What I didn’t have was economic freedom. Even in the mid 1950’s thirty cents a week allowance didn’t stretch anywhere near my growing consumer needs and desires.

So that summer of ’59 when I turned eleven, I became an entrepreneur. It was a simpler time. People got their news from newspapers, and kids delivered them without adults supervising or coddling them. The Phoenix Gazette needed paperboys and I needed cash. There were only four requirements: You had to be a male child, at least eleven years old, own a bicycle, and have your parents’ permission to join the workforce.

This was no salaried job. No guaranteed income, no 401K, no insurance, no overtime. As independent contractors, we paid for our papers and delivered them to customers at a standard markup. Bought our canvas handlebar paperbags, rubber bands, and other supplies from the company. Worked two afternoon hours under the brutal Phoenix sun six days a week and about three hours every Sunday morning. The paper station was at a corner of my route on the Crosscut Canal at Virginia Avenue. The Crosscut Station.

It was magic. An overnight 2400% pay raise. I told Dad that my 30 cent allowance was no longer necessary. I was now a Gazette rider for the Crosscut Station. If no customers stiffed me, I stood to clear as much as 8 bucks a week, and the sky was the limit. Thursdays and Fridays were collection nights which added another 4 hours or so to my work week. Then there were door to door subscription drives. We were on our own in this department, but there were incentives to bring more customers into the fold. Soon my 46 papers blossomed into 96 or so. I was bringing in sixteen, eighteen bucks a week.

My closest friends were my co-workers during the years 1959 through 1963. Schlossnagel, Redican, Flint, and Hall were a foursome to be reckoned with. The Gazette Riders of the Crosscut. Somehow in spite of our jobs, school, and family responsibilities, we managed to be embarked on a non-stop adventure. We always used our last names, partly because it was cool, partly because Schlossnagel and Redican were both Bills. Plus, Flint was a Gayland, and nobody really wanted to admit to that first name. Flint was a year older than the rest of us, stronger than most grown men, and always carried “The Warrior Weapon” in his paperbags, a twelve inch adjustable wrench on a leather strap. He was our security guard. Redican was the brains of the operation and became a clinical psychologist in his adult life. Schlossnagel was the smallest, but had the biggest mouth and quickest wit. I was the leader of the pack. For some reason, everyone else looked to me for guidance when the chips were down. Go and figure.

The Gazette Riders were rolling in cash and had the power to extract every last drop of satisfaction and joy from a world which served our every need. We worked our asses off, became strong of mind and body in the process, peddling our one speed, over-sized bicycles over hill and dale. We were extremely rich by the standards of our contemporaries. In fact, I’ve never felt that wealthy again. We learned to bowl and expertly play every pinball machine in existence. When we were hungry we hit Villa Sorrento, ordering four 18″ pizzas and devouring every morsel, or knocked on the back door of the Wagon Wheel Bakery at 5 a.m. for two dozen hot glazed donuts. We rented horses at the local stables and rode them ’til they hurt. We pioneered a route up the south face of Camelback Mountain in the middle of July of 1960 which may have never been climbed before or since. The Crosscut Route. We nailed roller skate wheels to 2by4s and mastered riding them before the word “skateboard” was coined. We never hesitated to hop our bikes and ride to any of the far reaches of Maricopa County. Camping on every mountaintop, sucking the marrow from every bone we encountered. Capitalism put the world at our feet.

But Gazette Riders grow up and move on. I have no idea what has become of Schlossnagel, Redican, and Flint. Searching through my dilapidated suitcase I don’t see many memories from last week or last month, but somehow those four years back in the middle of the last century escaped slipping out and being blown away in the breeze. Coming of age in capitalist America was the hand I was dealt, and it worked for me.

This morning I’m sitting on a nice bench in The Old Cross Cut Canal Park. Right where my paper station once was, so many years ago. I don’t get back to Phoenix very often. The Crosscut Canal isn’t gone, but they buried it and built a two mile long park over it, complete with a bike path, benches, and grass. These days newspaper delivery is handled by adults. Mostly desperate adults who can’t find any other job. You don’t see many kids on bicycles, and if you do they’re accompanied by parents and wearing helmets. I’ve got a grandson getting ready to turn 13, living just a couple miles from here, who isn’t allowed to ride a bike on the streets, and is likely unable and uninterested in doing so anyway.

We’re all slaves to whatever economic system we’re born into. Capitalism seemed like such a good idea back in 1959. What could possibly go wrong with an honest day’s work for an honest wage? I’ve been riding the beast of capitalism my whole life. If I hadn’t figured out how to do so, I’d likely be sleeping on this park bench tonight, foraging through the dumpster behind the nearby Fry’s Supermarket for my next meal. Thanks to a little help from socialist programs like Social Security and Medicare, the ride is now pretty easy as I approach the twilight of my years. The obvious and simple way to slap an ending on this little slice of Americana would be to turn it into an old man’s lament about how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. How electronic gadgets have made Americans soft and robbed children of any sense of adventure or enthusiasm. But there’s much more to it than that.

Capitalism was already well into the process of devouring all life on earth when the Gazette Riders were in their heyday. It seemed like a great idea in 1959, but two human traits were the fly in the ointment. Greed and stupidity. The beast would eventually devour every segment of so-called civilized society and crap each one out in stinking, steaming mounds, unrecognizable in form. Today the voracious, destructive process is nearly complete.

Back in ’59 the public sector was not yet into the advanced stages of being masticated and defecated. Taxes still adequately funded public schools, and those schools were operated for the purpose of educating our children. Privatized charter schools for profit had not yet turned education into a corporate feeding frenzy and the kids were not yet being crushed under the bus. The military still had a small shred of credibility. Wars waged to steal resources and unbridled war profiteering were not yet accepted as the status quo (at least in the eyes of most of the public). The health care-pharmaceutical system was still run, to some degree, to promote our health and welfare.

Small farmers had not yet been put out of business by the agro-chemical industry, and the public was still eating wholesome, organic foods. Cows, pigs, and chickens were not yet being pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and dying of cancer was not yet the norm. The insurance industry had not yet become the giant leech on resources it has become today. There were still a few honest politicians who hadn’t yet become whores for Wall Street. Bought and paid-for politicians had not yet begun to dismantle all social programs for the benefit of their corporate Johns. The trickle-down economy had not yet demolished the middle class, starved and stomped on the lower class, and turned the entire country into a disgusting orgy of crimes of desperation and gun violence…for profit. The militarization of our city streets, public buildings, and airports was still an unimaginable scenario. A gentle capitalism morphing into fascism was still a foreign concept. It could never happen here. And then one day, there it was. Right on America’s front porch. And there it stays. Smiling in satisfaction, after devouring and defecating everything that was good about America…once upon a time along the Crosscut Canal.

John R. Hall, having finally realized that no human being in possession of normal perception has a snowball's chance in hell of changing the course of earth's ongoing trophic avalanche, now studies sorcery with the naguals don Juan Matus and don Carlos Castaneda in the second attention. If you're patient, you might just catch him at his new email address, but if his assemblage point happens to be displaced, it could take a while. That address is: Read other articles by John R..