The haunting tale of Sandpoint’s ‘Zombie Paperboy’

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(Photo courtesy JEREMY SMITH) Coen Smith shows off his “Zombie Paperboy” costume that he created for Halloween.

I started working at the tender age of 12 — the youngest a Bee carrier could be at the time. I woke each morning at 4:30 a.m., brewing a pot of strong coffee to clear my bleary, underslept eyes. While the pot gurgled and hissed, I would step out to the porch and retrieve several bundles of newspaper, and set up my work area.

Like a chef, the work began with simple mis en place; bundles of paper in front of me on the floor, green rubber bands to my left in a pile, and my trusty double-sided Bee bag to my right. Coffee was always within reach, in the biggest ceramic mug available; half coffee and half milk.

I learned to break the plastic bands at the seams, eliminating the need for a knife or scissors. Then fold the paper in place on the stack, wrap it with a single rubber band (two on Wednesdays and Sundays, when the paper was weighty), then stack it in order in the canvas carrier labeled “The Bee” in bright orange reflective tape.

Within 20 minutes the coffee would be gone, papers folded and ready for transport, and I’d slide under the bag, inserting my head and neck through the central hole. Some days, the bag would be so heavy that I could barely stand up, pulling myself vertical with a nearby door handle.

At this point my skinny frame, dwarfed by canvas and smelling of fresh ink, would step out into the dark morning air. I knew my route by heart, but always carried a crib sheet in case my mind was muddled. The route was about three miles all tolled.

Suburbia is quiet at five in the morning. Aside from the occasional worker warming up his car, most houses were silent. There was, of course, the sound of the freeway from one direction, and the train yard to the other. But those noises were not what I listened for.

I listened for footfalls. Every day I stepped out, I a awakened more by a fear-like state; where every bush or shadowed walk sheltered something that might be out of a horror film. I learned to ‘feel’ the living things around me; building a model of what I saw and heard in my head.

Odd things happened, too. One morning, an old man walked up to me and detailed how I was not going to heaven; how he was one of the limited number of souls designated for saving, and I was not. I had never before met this man, nor did I see him again. I still hope he was wrong.

Some days I brought my dog, Bertha. She was my best friend, and brought me through some dark times as I transitioned from boy to man-like. She walked near me off-lead, watching over me, it felt. Sometimes she would disappear for a few minutes. She liked her privacy, I think.

On one of those occasions, two dobermans came running around the corner, loose from whatever yard they were tasked with guarding. They were having fun, but charged me with growls that I took for threats. I readied two Wednesday papers for throwing - but didn’t have much hope.

They were 20 feet away when they passed a big hedge — and that’s when Bertha made her move. She leapt from the hedge with a bark, knocking one Dobie into the other. Growls turned to yelps, and the two fled the way they came, pursued by the smaller, lone Bertha.

She sent them around the corner, barked again, then trotted back to me with a smile on her face. That dog was laughing, proud of herself. I still stood a little slack-jawed; without her, that morning might have gone poorly for me.

It was that same spot where, later, on my thirteenth birthday, I over-threw a paper. I prided myself on landing each paper on the doormat from the sidewalk; but this one had a bit too much on it, landed on an end and SMACKED the sheet-steel base of the customer’s screen door.

This happened a few times a week, on different doors; and while embarrassing, never seemed to be a problem. This morning, I had two friends with me who had stayed the night and were walking the route with me. What an awesome birthday party, huh?

The stricken door was flung open, and a man clad only in silk boxers and a velvet smoking jacket jumped out. He carried a baseball bat in his left hand, and a large, chromed revolver in his right. “All right, you [expletive deleted]! I’m ready for you!” he shouted.

“I’m just delivering your paper, sir.” I replied, lifting one to show. My friends had vaporized. Seriously, I still don’t know how they hid so effectively, so fast. The man lowered his weapons and went back inside, cursing.

He gave me a big tip that Christmas. And my friends still talk about that party.

Most days were not so exciting, spent trudging and sometimes shambling, half-asleep, through the route. In retrospect, I fit the traditional zombie mold, excepting a hunger for brains. At thirteen, I hungered for other things that thankfully don’t fit into this storyline, so I’ll move right past that.

Many, many years later, I have two sons. They were discussing what costumes they wanted to wear to the ‘Monster Mash’ party at their elementary school. The younger was a character from his favorite video game; but the older had an original thought:

Zombie Paperboy.

Those two words brought it all back; memories long idle sparked and fizzled to activity. I had to help him make this happen. So I contacted the Bonner County Daily Bee and asked if I could purchase a Bee Bag for his costume.

They were thrilled. Kids don’t have paper routes around here anymore; but they did have a vintage canvas carrier that they would lend me. They also supplied a number of older copies of the paper, which I used to show Coen how to band.

He really enjoyed shambling around the Monster Mash; and even won a prize for creativity at the Mall’s costume contest. And I treasured seeing my son deliver papers as an anachronism.

I wouldn’t have my kids repeat my experience - the world is a different place now, and I honestly think my lack of sleep may have influenced a time of poor grades. But it was a great time of growth for me, facing my fears and nightmares, losing some of them in the process.

My thanks go out to the Bonner County Daily Bee for their help in making my son’s vision come true. We still take the paper daily, and enjoy it together as a family. Keep up the good work!

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