One Saturday in 1945, as World War II was being fought to its conclusion, I mounted my vintage bicycle and pedalled four miles to the Western Union office ion downtown Milwaukee in response to a newspaper advertisement for messengers with bikes. The bike, which I had bought from a neighbour who was drafted, lacked fenders, a chain guard and kickstand, items impossible too replace during wartime. Nevertheless, six months of dismantling and cleaning the brakes, adjusting the axles and bearings and carefully applying graphite to the chain made my bike one of the most reliable in the neighbourhood.
At the Western Union office, the man doing the hiring gave directions. Applicants had to get a social security card from the Federal Building and a work permit from the Industrial Commission and bring these back to the office with our birth certificates. The following day, documents in order, I reported back to Western Union. I was instructed to report to work the next morning at 8.
The first day on the job was devoted to training. After being issued uniform caps with Western Union badges, we received lectures on safety and courtesy, and instructions on procedures necessary to get a telegram delivered. After reporting for work, we boys waited in a messenger waiting room for our assignments. Often, a boy would return and be given a new batch of telegrams immediately. This usually meant time for a short break, then back to pedalling again.
Regular working hours for part-time high school boys were from 8am to 5pm Saturdays and Sundays. We were also subject to call after school, from 4pm to 6pm on many occasions. The pay was 40 cents per hour. Working all day Saturday and Sunday, plus a few days after school, brought a pay envelope containing up to $10 a week. Not bad for a kid just a few years removed from a weekly allowance of a quarter. In addition, there were occasional tips – rarely more than a dime.
In those days, a major hazard was streetcar tracks. Every now and then the front wheel of my bike would get caught in the rut next to the track or would slide on a wet steel track. More often than not, the bike went one way and I went another. Any injuries were usually minor, but there was always the danger of being hot from behind when taking a spill.
Some days, I would start out with a stack of telegrams, working my way from Downtown to the city limits, delivering 10 or 15 telegrams along the way. A delivery boy usually was unaware of the messages he carried, but sometimes the emotions expressed while a telegram was read in his presence gave him a clue. An exception to this occurred one day when the dispatcher showed me a telegram with a star on it. He explained that this was a war casualty telegram. When we had telegrams with a star, we were to ask for the man of the house. If a woman was home alone, we were to ask for a neighbour to come over. My bike never pumped harder than it did the day before I delivered my first casualty telegram. The woman receiving the telegram was home with her sister. The telegram announced that her husband had been killed in action.
Not all War Department telegrams were bad news. As the war came to an end, many men previously listed as missing were found alive in prison camps. When we were aware of these telegrams in our cap, it seemed as if our bikes flew.
One day I turned in my cap and badge and pedalled away from the Western Union office for the last time. Direct-distance dialling and other modern communications methods had made the Western Union bicycle delivery boy obsolete.
– Don Ollie, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 5th June, 1986
It took me many years to find a genuine Western Union bicycle. Eventually, in 2016, I managed to locate this original ‘Messenger Special’, just in time to add a photo of it in my book (below). I pictured it delivering a telegram, to signify the end of the war (as well as the end of the book).
1930s Western Union ‘Messenger Special’ Bicycle
28″ Retro coaster brake wheelset