Robert and Ernestine Kinnecom of Oak Bluffs spent some time this week recalling wonderful memories - memories wrapped around their Vineyard newspaper route, an early morning journey made almost every day for the past 27 years.
The Kinnecoms are the "newspaper people," the unsung heroes of dawn who deliver the morning papers seven days a week before most of their subscribers have even stirred from their beds. But next week they will turn in their clipboard and route list, and wash the last trace of newspaper ink from their hands.
Sadly, their work for Shore Line News is over. On Monday they will deliver their last Boston Globe, their last New York Times, the last of all the other newspapers they have delivered, in some cases, for longer than many of their readers have read them.
As the two sit in their kitchen, they pull out the metal alarm clock that served them well for almost 30 years - perpetually set to awaken them at 3:30 a.m. It stopped working a year ago, a somewhat poignant note that a daily ritual was beginning to wind down. And although it still stands as a symbol of their commitment to service, the couple know it's time to put the clock away for good.
The husband and wife team's daily schedule puts them at the Oak Bluffs bulkhead at 4 a.m., where they meet one of the Patriot boats loaded with the dailies. And like clockwork on Saturday afternoons they have met the boat to pick up what Mr. Kinnecom calls "the funnies," the sections that go into the Sunday papers.
"I call it an eight-day-a-week job," he says, "because we pick up every day, plus we pick up the Sunday papers on Saturday afternoons and on Monday we have to make all the collections."
Attitude has much to do with the Kinnecom's success over the years. "We always wanted it to be fun," Mr. Kinnecom says, "rain or shine. When there are nine people down at the boat before sunrise, you've got to keep laughing," he says. "You've got to laugh."
"This job is not for everyone," Mrs. Kinnecom says.
To new recruits, Mr. Kinnecom says: "You have to deliver the paper even if you are dying." At times, conditions have come close to that description, with the couple delivering papers before and after hurricanes as well as during blizzard conditions.
"The Patriot Too missed only one day," Mrs. Kinnecom says, referrring to an autumn gale that precluded any possibility of a mainland to Island journey. In an age when so many services aren't all that reliable, the Kinnecoms are proud of their record.
Mr. Kinnecom recalls an early experience delivering The Standard-Times to West Chop subscribers. He was 14, picking up the paper from the Vineyard Haven boat wharf; that was his introduction to the stringent obligation.
"I remember the poem they taught us," he says:
‘Rain or storm
snow or sleet
you'll find our papers
on the street.'"
Mr. Kinnecom, 69, has fond memories of growing up on the Vineyard. His father, Harold, was in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard on the Island. Mrs. Kinnecom was born and raised in Oak Bluffs. Her maiden name is Rose.
"I am a wash ashore. She is a native," he says. "I came to the Island when I was five years old."
Mrs. Kinnecom believes she is the only woman who has a paper route, working for The Boston Globe. She says: "I wish I had written everything down, because I could fill a book."
Like the last day of August in 1997 when Princess Diana was killed. "We got a call at 2 a.m. from Boston and were told to hold the papers coming over on the boat and send them back. We were told not to deliver them. They were printing another edition. We shipped all those papers back and delivered the new edition by 8 a.m.," she says. "I wish we had saved at least one of those first edition papers."
"I think the only thing different about that special issue was the front page," Mr. Kinnecom says, comparing the second paper to the first.
Early in his career as route driver, Mr. Kinnecom saw a drunk asleep on the road. He was driving his truck on State Road in West Tisbury, passing Nip 'n Tuck Farm. "There was a person, passed out, drunk on the road. His feet were way out on the road. I almost ran over him. I stopped the truck, tucked his feet back off the road, got in my truck and kept going," Mr. Kinnecom says.
He met the man later. "I saw him weeks later. I said, ‘How is the hangover?'"
One time at West Chop a deer jumped in front of the van, kicking in the delivery truck with one of its hooves. "I hit the brakes, stopped," Mr. Kinnecom says. "I backed up and the deer jumped up and ran into the woods."
The couple has also had its share of memorable telephone calls from subscribers. "One lady accused us of stealing all the coupons from her paper," Mrs. Kinnecom says.
"People call you all day long," Mr. Kinnecom says. "Where is my A section? Where is my B section? I didn't get Parade magazine in my paper." And the phone would ring if the paper was late; yes, there were plenty of those.
"But it was fun," Mr. Kinnecom says. "Most of the time it was fun. We met some really nice people."
"All these customers mean a lot to us," she says.
In the winter, on Saturday afternoons they pick up 1,500 newspapers. In summer, circulation for the Vineyard jumps to 8,000.
"To meet the summer demand, the Patriot makes a special trip on Friday to deliver the Sunday New York Times arts and leisure sections," Mr. Kinnecom says.
In 27 years of service, Mrs. Kinnecom says she collected all the big event editions of the paper as keepsakes.
"When we are dead, the kids will have a ball," Mr. Kinnecom says.
The two once tried to deliver the morning paper to vacationing President Clinton at the summer White House. Their van was waved past the Secret Service and made it almost all the way to the house before they were stopped. From that point on, however, the two continued to deliver a free paper to the President whenever he was here.
Bridget Tobin, the terminal manager of the Steamship Authority, has a memory of the Kinnecoms. Years ago, she said during a telephone interview, her old Toyota Tercel broke down in front of Humphrey's in West Tisbury at 4:15 a.m. She was on her way to work. Mrs. Tobin says: "It was pitch black and it was the dead of winter; it was the Kinnecoms, they rescued me. They took me to work."
The Kinnecoms saw plenty in their Ford van. They saw a few near-automobile accidents and they saw more than their share of beautiful sunrises. "I used to take my camera. When I took my camera we didn't see great sunrises. When I didn't take the camera, they were great."
As part of the routine of going to work that early, they end their day early. "I go to bed at 7:30 p.m.," Mrs. Kinnecom says. Her husband doesn't usually go to bed until 8 p.m.
They planned their vacations around their schedule, rarely missing a weekend delivery. With five children they never had a shortage of help in times of crisis, like the year Mr. Kinnecom had a heart attack. Mrs. Kinnecom says she has also gotten help from grandchildren: Alison Reynolds, Kimberly and Patrick Murphy.
As they close up shop with the newspapers, Mr. Kinnecom will continue running his Island Design embroidery business.
This week was also memorable for another reason. The two met 49 years ago on Valentine's Day. They were married five months later on June 9.
They met at old Joe Leonardo's bowling alley, which was across the street from Jim's Package Store.
"I was stationed at the Gay Head Coast Guard station. I came into town for a cup of coffee," Mr. Kinnecom says.
"I was with the girls, bowling," Mrs. Kinnecom says. "In those days it was the only place on the Island where you could go at night if you weren't 21." One great event led to another. They now have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
While the Kinnecoms never made the headlines for putting forward their best efforts, this weekend and for weeks to come they will cherish having made a life out of delivering them.