by Rick Beck

Chapter 1

You're Up

Editor: Jerry W

© OLYMPIA50 2021 all rights reserved

For David

For Billie Kidd. I was a jerk. You were beautiful.

For Virginia. Thanks for opening this door.

After three months as a stringer on the City News, George wasn't ready to call it quits. He'd be back in the morning, no matter what story he was sent out on this afternoon. The manager of the Local News desk had just picked up the telephone.

"City desk, Charlie Myers," Mr. Myers yelled into the phone. "Speak slower, Start at the beginning. Where are you? Who are you? What makes you think this is news, Lady. Slow down."

There were a few, "Uh huhs," after another "slow down."

Charlie, Pops to those of us who got to run down the stories he sent us to cover, took notes as he tried to dig details out of the caller.

He growled impatiently, but Mr. Myers was looking straight at George, which meant he was up. He'd catch the story no matter if it was news or not. Such calls leaned toward the or not, but that didn't matter. The City News gathered information, and once you were handed the assignment, you ran down the story.

The longer the conversation went on, the more involved the story became, if Mr. Myers was true to form. It didn't take a genius to know he was up. All the real reporters were out, and at three in the afternoon, George was the only stringer on the floor.

It was August. Naturally, It was too hot, too humid, and there wasn't so much as a breeze stirring. The City News building wasn't air conditioned, and even with his jacket off, there were two telltale rings on his crisp white shirt under both of George's arms. At least outside he'd breathe something besides printers' ink and stale air.

Mr. Myers banged down the receiver into the cradle. It was a wonder he didn't break the damn thing, but when his arm shot out with a piece of paper off his note pad in it, George reached for his jacket.

"Mr. Hitchcock, you're up," Pops said. "Fire and police on 3rd S.E. Woman doesn't have any idea of what's going on. They've blocked the street at both ends. Go see what you can see. If it's important, we go to press in an hour. Call me if it needs to go in this edition.

"Sure, Pops," George said, slipping his jacket on.

It had been yes, Mr. Myers, no, Mr. Myers for the first week. Now it was Pops. The Walrus, Doc, Mr. Warner, was still Mr. Warner. Why the man scared George was anyone's guess. Maybe because he was the editor-in-chief at the City News. Maybe because he growled.

The Walrus hired him. He was a man who looked like he'd enjoy firing people. He gave the orders. He didn't talk, he growled. George didn't like being growled at. It was his first job in the field of big time journalism. He didn't like a lot of things, but he wanted to be a journalist. You had to start somewhere.

The City News went to press at 3:45p.m. daily. If everything ran smoothly, the City News hit the newsstands at five o'clock. Delivery boys in nearby suburbs had theirs between 5:30 and 6:00.

"Mr. Hitchcock, call it in if you have the story before three forty-five, it'll make this edition if you do. Get a ride with a pool car, walk, fly for all I care, but call me before three forty-five if it's anything."

"I've been here for over three months. I know when we put the paper to bed," George said, taking the assignment slip, and heading for the stairs.

Passing his desk on the way out, he reached for his credentials. Wouldn't do to go out on a story without his credentials. He was no one without his I.D.

George glanced at the Walrus sitting regally behind his huge desk, as he made the right turn and headed for the stairs. When the Walrus had nothing to say to him were the best days.

A good day was when Pops actually gave him a real story. It did happen, but not often enough. He was at work by seven each morning, earlier than any other stringer came in. He was still there at seven in the evening, long after the other stringers were gone.

If he wasn't there he couldn't get assignments. He came early and stayed late for that reason. By being there, chances were, sooner or later, he'd get a story that rated a byline. He wouldn't get it if he was at home putting in sack time. He could sleep after he'd been made a full-time reporter at the City News.

Real reporters weren't in the newsroom that often. They called in for their assignments, and they phones in their copy half the time. It was surprising how little news took place inside the newsroom.

Getting the real stories over the phone left anything else for stringers to cover. From time to time, with all the reporters on assignment, Pops was forced to assign stories that might be worth covering to the stringer who was up. George was the most likely stringer to be up at any given time, because he was always there, always ready to cover any story he was sent out on.

A stringer freelanced. He was working for himself, but if the stringer knew his stuff, and got a couple of bylines, the editor-in-chief, Mr. Warner, alias the Walrus or Doc, begrudging hired you as a full-time reporter.

Half of George's stories ended up in the circular file. Not because he couldn't write, but because what he wrote about was of no interest to anyone. If you were assigned a story, you'd better write something.

His journalism teacher told him, "Anyone can call himself a newspaperman. Until you are in the newsroom long enough to catch the kinds of stories careers were made out of, you're just another guy with big dreams."

George decided to walk to 3rd Street. He didn't want to take a pool car on a story he could yell in. The City News building was about five blocks away. It was hotter than he liked, but getting outside and getting some fresh air, while imagining a hostage situation or maybe armed robbers took refuge in a house on 3rd Street.

Had it been either of those, someone would already be covering the action.

George had a hard time believing this story would amount to anything. None of the last ten stories he covered did. It was summer. Everyone was away. The City was dead and stories played hard to get.

Tossing his jacket over his shoulder, stuffing the assignment sheet into his pocket, he breathed in the warm fresh air. It wasn't the heat that got to people this time of year. It was the humidity that smothered you.

Smart folks were on vacation in August. It was the final chance to get away from the rat race, until the holidays. The kids would be back to school in a couple of weeks, and the family was stuck in town.

Walking meant not having some nearly brain-dead driver to contend with. If George covered something in one of the far away suburbs, and he'd done it more than once, he accepted a ride in a pool car. That's if there was one a real reporter hadn't reserved. if there wasn't a car available, he improvised.

No self-respecting reporter took a bus, but he'd taken a bus more than once on assignment. Pop didn't care how you got to where the story was, but you better not be late. If you couldn't get back in time for the paper to go to press, you better phone it in.

George could buy a car. He had savings from working while he put himself through college. There were more essential things than a car. His journalism teacher had been a reporter for several decades. His advice to George was to establish himself with the sources that could do him the most good.

Cops were the best sources to have. Then, he needed to be friendly with other reporters. Stories don't fall off of trees. Be friendly to everyone. Because everyone has a story they want to tell. If you are likeable and don't pressure people into talking to you, they'll be more likely to tell you what they know.

George needed one or two stories that earned him a byline. It would give him the inside track on the full-time reporters job he was after. A byline was as good as gold in the news business. Readers who liked what you wrote, created demand. That was as good s gold too.

Once he was a full-time reporter, the pressure would be off. George could make all those writing classes he took pay dividends.

Writing was the easy part. George was an excellent writer, according to the journalism teachers and the creative writing teachers at school, but to write great prose, you needed to have something to write about, and so far, George hadn't had much to write about at the City News. He'd give it time. He had plenty of time.

Heading for 3rd Street, S.E., took him five blocks from the City News building. Looking down 3rd, he saw two police cars parked nose to nose, blocking 3rd. There were fire trucks further down 3rd, and he saw two police cars parked nose to nose at the other end of the block.

George was hopeful. Maybe it was a hostage situation. Maybe bang robbers barricaded themselves in someone's house. The excitement in George was rising. This could end up being something.

There was no way to know what to expect, and as he approached the first police car, blocking the street, he took his credentials out, pinning the I.D. to his jacket. He let a little of the excitement he felt propel him forward.

George looked but he couldn't see anything that required so many police and fire department personnel. The activity centered around a big oak tree between a house and the street. A half dozen uniformed men stood looking up into the tree.

Was someone up there, George wondered. Maybe he was fleeing the scene of a crime. They might have the bad guy cornered, but why all the fire trucks? Did he set something on fire?

George was alive with anticipation. He approached the first cop he came to. The young officer was leaning on the fender of his car. His focus was on his buddies under the oak tree.

"What's up?" George asked in his friendliest voice.

The cop stood up to his full five foot eight or five foot nine. He looked George over. George stopped in between the two cop cars that were blocking that end of 3rd Street.

"Who are you?" Officer Harmon asked, while George read his name tag.

George, leaving his credentials attached to his lapel, held it up.

"Cat's up in the tree," Officer Harmon said.

"Is he a cool cat. What did he do to require so much attention?"

"Who are you?" Officer Harmon asked, looking him over again, like he'd never seen him before.

George removed his I.D., holding it up for the officer to read. Maybe he needed glasses.

Getting no response, George added, "George Hitchcock, City News."

"Not a dude type cat. A meow type cat," Officer Harmon clarified.

"One, two, three, fire trucks. Two cop cars here and two more at the other end of the block. Isn't that a lot of fire power for a cat?"

Officer Harmon shrugged.

" We saw the fire trucks. We came down to see what was going on. I suppose the other two cop cars did the same thing we did. I can't tell you why it took three fire trucks to look at a cat in a tree."

"Do you mind me walking down there to see what they intend to do?" George asked.

"No, I'm just watching. You can do what you like," Officer Harmon said.

George nodded and walked to where three firemen and a cop stood under the tree. Off to the right a few feet was a woman wringing her hands on an apron with bright red roses on it. I was sure I'd found that cat in the tree's owner.

"Excuse me, is that your cat in the tree?"

"It is. I didn't know what to do. I dialed 9-1-1. I didn't expect all this," she said.

"What's the cat's name?" George asked, looking up the tree.

"Prissy," she said.

"What's your name?" George asked, taking out pad and pencil.

"Who are you?" she asked. "I'm Annette Dickerson."

"George Hitchcock, City News," George said.

"Oh my goodness," Mrs. Dickerson said. "You don't intend to write about this in the newspaper?"

"I will write about it, but it'll never make it as news. Unless it is a really slow news day, Mrs. Dickerson. Maybe if your cat flew down, that would be news."

"I don't know why all these people came," she said. "Why do you think they came? Am I going to be in trouble?" she asked.

Let me go see what I can find out for you," George said. "Once they saw what the problem was, it was their decision to keep all this equipment here. The cop said he saw the fire trucks and came to see what was going on. No, you aren't in trouble but Prissy could be."

George strolled over to the huddle of firemen and one cop.

"George Hitchcock, City News," he said. "What's up?"

All four of them looked up into the tree.

"Who are you?" Assistant-Chief Williams asked.

George held up his credentials and he read.

"Cat's in the tree," Assistant-Chief Williams said.

Since George now had three sources, he could write that it was a cat in the tree, but why would he? A cat in a tree wasn't a story. Three fire trucks and four cop cars were. George decided to use tact.

"That's Prissy the cat in the tree," George offered.

"You think if we call the cat by name, it'll come down?" the assistant-chief asked.

"Chief Williams," I said, giving him a field promotion. "That cat will come out of that tree when it has to pee or when it gets hungry. Why did you say all these city assets are holding court on 3rd Street?"

"Like most things that just happen, it just happened. We're required to run the engines each day, and with this being vacation season, we haven't had a call since Monday. We'd turned these three trucks on to run for a half hour or so, and we got the 9-1-1 call on the cat in the tree. We naturally saw a chance to do something while we ran the engines, and here we are."

George was speechless. If this wasn't a story before he heard what the assistant-chief said, it certainly wasn't one now. Running fire trucks, as per city regs, didn't usually make big news.

"Three fire trucks and four police cars seem like a lot to answer one cat call," George calculated.

"That's because we've nothing to do. The police aren't any busier than we are. I can't figure you guys are all that busy," Assistant-Chief Williams said.

"Since you got here, what have you done, Chief? They sent me to cover the story about fire trucks and police cars on 3rd Street. If I want to keep my job, I've got to write something."

Assistant-Chief Williams laughed.

"Cable, that's the fireman standing over there," he pointed, while he spoke. "Cable claimed he's a tree climber from way back. He volunteered to climb up to get the cat. As you may notice, where the knobby cut marks are, a tree limb has been hacked off. The city said it was to keep kids out of the big oaks along 2nd and 3rd Streets. I told city parks, 'it works on fireman too,' if they kept notes on that sort of thing.' Cable's arms weren't long enough, or the limbs weren't low enough for him to reach. He couldn't climb this tree."

"Wouldn't a ladder work? Fire trucks still have ladders on the side, don't they? Are the ladders just for show, Chief?" George asked.

"That was Simpson's idea. 'Get a ladder, I'll bring the cat down.' he told me.'"

"Cat's still up there, Chief. Ladder wasn't long enough?" George asked, looking at a ladder on the side of one of the closest truck.

"No, Simpson went right up there. When he reached for the cat, it climbed higher in the tree. Once the ladder was fully extended, the cat moved two feet higher than the top of the ladder. Simpson couldn't quite reach it. We decided it was too dangerous to risk a fireman getting hurt. As I told you, we were just running the truck's engines as is required. We didn't know what we were getting into, until we got here, and then we thought we could help, but now the engines have run plenty long enough, and we need to get the trucks tucked back in at the firehouse, before someone misses them."

"What are you going to do about the cat?" George asked.

"Go back to the firehouse. I'll call in a few hours to see if the cat came down. As slow as things are, we can wait, and while we wait, we'll play a little poker."

"I'm a fair poker player myself," George said, seeing a chance to get acquainted with the fireman in the city.

"We'll probably break out the cards around six. Come on by, after you get off. Always room for one more," Assistant-Chief Williams said.

"I just might do that, Chief. I need to get back to write this story," George said. "I can't wait to see how it turns out, if I'm not sent out on another assignment, I'll drop by the firehouse."

"You won't mention the poker game if you write about the cat in the tree, will you?" Assistant-Chief Williams asked.

"Not on your life. I don't want to see any good poker games closed down because of me," George said. "Save a seat for me."

"You could report it at the poker games. The cops sit in on our games. They enjoy poker too," Assistant-Chief Williams said.

"Thanks, Chief," George said.

The firemen returned to their trucks.

One by one, George watched the fire trucks pull away. The two cop cars at the far end of the block, moved out of the street, following the fire trucks. Officer Harmon and another officer drove their cars down 3rd Street, following the three fire trucks and two other police cars. George didn't write that part down.

George walked back over to the cat's owner.

"What am I going to do?" Mrs. Dickerson asked, overwrought about that darn cat.

"Do you have tuna?" George asked.

"Certainly. You're the newspaper man. You want me to fix you a tuna sandwich?" she asked.

"Mrs. D, go into your kitchen. First, open the back door. Open the can of tuna. Let the tuna drop into Prissy's dish. That's very important, you much make sure to let it fall into the cat's dish," he told her. "When Prissy hears it drop, she'll smell the air and make a beeline for her dish. Once she comes into the kitchen, close the door behind her," George said.

He turned to walk back to the City News building.

After reaching the end of 3rd Street, George stopped to look back at the oak tree. He calculated enough time had passed for Mrs. D to have followed his instructions.

In less than a minute the cat came out of that tree, heading for the back of the house.

George smiled.

"Works every time," George said to himself.

He walked back to the City News building. The paper had gone to press and what he had to report could wait for tomorrow's edition. How long would it take him to write about a cat in a tree? Not long.

Pops wasn't at his desk. He'd been there since noon, getting the stories that would go into today's edition ready to go to press. For the next hour he'd be drinking coffee, stretching his legs, and then he'd come back to begin work on tomorrow's edition.

The story of a cat in the tree wasn't a story at all. It would not make today's edition and it wouldn't make tomorrow's edition. It wasn't a story, but George got an idea. He wouldn't write another mundane story. He'd innovate and entertain City News' readers.

Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat In The Hat. Why couldn't George write the story about the cat in the tree?

It sounded like a good idea at the time but George did go out in the heat of the day and he'd walked to 3rd Street and back. Other than that there was no good reason for him to write the cat in the tree.

He wrote it anyway.

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