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Work of Art: An 88-year-old’s recollections

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By Art Trujillo

In past columns I’ve devoted much lineage to the way things used to be, to my childhood and the dogged determination of hundreds of boys who worked six days a week to earn a few bucks selling Optics.

I’ve made fleeting references to the Optic sellers and carriers who’d spend hours in an alcove at the rear of the building, waiting for an unreliable press to churn out 80 copies a minute, to be distributed first to the carriers with established routes, then to the more tenured street sellers, determined by money, age, size and bully-ness quotient.

It was harrowing for us improperly dressed boys who’d remain on the streets from 2 p.m. (or whatever time the press run began) to 7 p.m. Five hours on some mid-winter days with temperatures like those we experienced three weeks ago, for a dozen sales and a quarter profit, including tips — unless, however, Cristobal or Carlos jumped you and stole your papers and your day’s earnings.

In those days, it seemed as if every kid in town had a paper route or sold on the street. But eventually, cars replaced bikes, and, as is the case today, our newspaper goes through the mail.

I received an e-mail from a Linda Anderle, who wrote, “As part of my work connected to the Plaza Hotel, I have been in contact with a James W. Fitch. In a recent e-mail, he stated: ‘During my boyhood I was a delivery boy for the Daily Optic. The editor at that time, Walt Vivian, appointed me sports reporter for the paper and gave me a byline column for reporting (Las Vegas High School, now Robertson).’”

A paper boy and sportswriter older than I? My curiosity aroused, I phoned the almost-88-year-old gentleman at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., to ask about his experiences in Las Vegas. Fitch, a widower who raised five children, attended what is now Highlands University in the fall quarter of 1940, but wishing to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Jack, he soon joined the U.S. Navy. With the U.S.’s entry into the war inevitable, James managed to get in to the military although quite young.

Newspapers in the early ‘40s contained little besides war coverage. Fitch has documented some of his experiences in a book, “Desert Sailor: Growing Up in the Pacific Fleet,” available online.

Our lengthy phone conversation covered some interesting recollections, among them:

• He was born at the Las Vegas Hospital, “in a cluster of buildings on north 11th Street.” Fitch referred to a series of structures known as El Morro.

• His father served on the Las Vegas City Council for two terms, when Tom Truder was mayor. The elder Fitch  was also a Mason and a Shriner, twice serving as the worshipful master of the Chapman Lodge.

• The training school Fitch attended as a child was located at the corner of University and Eighth Street. Fitch’s mother had hoped to register her son at Douglas School, but he got refused, as he was not yet 6 years old.

• Fitch recalls the names McFarland and Davidson as school administrators, and Castle Junior High. Clyde Turner, a retired schools administrator, said he remembers a Fitch as a councilman and Mason.

• Fitch was editor of the Las Vegas High School monthly newspaper in 1940 and wrote VHS sports free for the Daily Optic. He used an extra typewriter at the newspaper. He got to travel with the football and basketball teams. “We mostly car-pooled in those days, to Springer, Tucumcari, Raton and Santa Rosa, as there was no bus,” he said.

• The publisher of the Daily Optic was Hub Kane, and Walter T. Vivian the editor. Fitch was able to rattle off the names of Optic employees at the time, including Delma Vivian, society editor; Milkey Maese, circulation manager; Karl Dutchmann, Pete Garcia, Carlos Crespin, Dan Gonzales, Wray Wingo, Albert Frankie, Bob Phillips, Bill Parmer, Ralph Martinez and Ed Romero.

The young Fitch suffered injuries while stationed at Guadalcanal. Walter Vivian’s daily column, “Along the Banks of the Gallinas,” contained a comment about James Fitch, on Dec. 12, 1942:

“We’re sad and mad today.

“This morning Frank Fitch showed us a telegram from the Navy ... the Navy regrets ...” etc.

“Jimmy is wounded. Jimmy, the youngster of whom his brother Jack, just a kid himself, had written, had seen too much for a kid. Jimmy, the happy youngster who used a typewriter in the office just downstairs. The fellow who delivered Optics and had few complaints.

“Jimmy joined the Navy to be with Jack. They were brothers and pals in everything, you know. They were separated after training, but together in spirit. no longer boys but fighting men in a fighting navy.

“A press dispatch from Washington tells of the price the navy is paying to blast the axis. Thousands dead, wounded, missing. Those are numbers that bring anguish into American homes everywhere, but to Las Vegans, generally they are remote figures. Now a Las Vegas boy is on the casualty list. And war is brought much closer to the community.”

About the injuries, Fitch said, “When my ship was sunk my parents didn’t know where I was. I was extensively burned and spent three months in the hospital. I couldn’t use my hands. I gave a fellow sailor my girlfriend’s address, and she was the one who notified my parents.”

So interesting did I find Fitch’s recollections that I urged him to pay another visit to the Meadow City this year. He’s considering it.

Besides, I too wrote sports while still in high school, and I had a newspaper route just east of his.

Conscientious carriers always pick up and deliver, and that’s the offer I made to my phone buddy, when and if he arrives at the Albuquerque Sunport this year.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.