Robert B. Simpson: Non-digital Grit

March 30, 2013 

Among the countless changes the digital age has visited upon us, one of the most visible is the dramatic shift in the ways we create, retrieve, and devour the printed word. Civilization moved with deliberate speed from primitive methods of printing language to mass producing printed material.

And then, in the blink of an eye, we moved into digital production and retrieval of print. Suddenly the old ways are slipping away, and the tactile and olfactory rewards of the newspaper, the library, or the personal copy of a good novel are being replaced by the cool surface of a computer screen or a portable electronic reader.

I'm by no means totally averse to this movement. Market forces are pushing publishers of every type into the digital world at warp speed, so it's not logical to expect them to resist for old time's sake, going broke in the process. And there's no disputing the convenience of modern technology. I make a decision, push a button to create the transaction, and am in minutes reading a new novel on my Kindle. My wife, meanwhile, is enjoying a different one on her Nook.

Still, I'm emotionally attached to printed words on paper. Like many of us, my life from earliest memory was shaped by print.

A weekly newspaper called "Grit," published in Williamsport, Pa., was aimed at rural and small-town Americans, and my family doted on it when I was a child. It carried agricultural and home-making advice, sports, funnies and, best of all, a fiction supplement. A serial that ran in this supplement was read aloud in our family, and I hung on every word. The main characters were an unsophisticated but shrewd fellow named Hank Crabb and his wife, Min. Hank repaired and traded junk, somehow always coming out on top at the end of a series of seemingly disastrous trades. I doubt any self-respecting editor would buy those stories today, but I thought they were wonderful. My dad saved reams of them, tying them together with thin wire into a thick book. Years later, after I'd plowed through the Dick and Jane books and could read, I went back and read the Hank Crabb stories again. I still thought they were pretty good.

At the age of 11, I decided to go into business for myself and become a Grit distributor. The publishers recruited youngsters all over the country to deliver their papers to local customers. I would receive my batch of papers in the mail and then spend most of my Saturday delivering them to the scattered rural customers I'd signed up in my community. Walking several miles was no problem, but lugging the papers along made it a different matter, so I drafted our little sorrel mule, Betty, better known as Bet. Bet was normally used for hauling stuff around the place and to cultivate our garden crops, but she was available for extra duty.

Riding Bet for several hours without a saddle was not a comfortable way to spend Saturdays. Also, she had a thing about side roads, trails, driveways, or anything that seemed to be a diversion from my route. She turned into each of them. No amount of kicking, sawing on the reins, or shouting made any difference. The only way to get her back on the main road was to dismount and lead her back, find a bank from which I could climb back aboard, and continue. Until she came to the next side trail.

Eventually it dawned on me that enduring this self-inflicted torture every Saturday for, literally, a few pennies for each of the few papers sold didn't make a lot of sense. So I went out of business. But I kept a soft spot in my heart for Grit. And, for that matter, for Bet.

I learned some time ago that Grit, under new ownership, has been reincarnated as a slick, multi-colored magazine aimed at a more modern market. I tried it briefly, but it's totally not like the old Grit. They keep asking me to resubscribe, but I'll do it only if they meet my requirements. It has to include a Hank Crabb story in every issue. And it has to be delivered by a scrawny kid riding a sorrel mule.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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