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Where rummaging through trash cans and bicycling for beer cans got me
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

If it wasn’t for buying a bicycle I may never have ended up working for a newspaper.

No, I never had a newspaper route although that is how most daily newspapers were delivered in towns back in 1970.

I had bought a bicycle at the end of eighth grade with money I had earned working weekends at the Squirrel Cage in Lincoln.

You read that right. I worked at the Squirrel Cage. My mom had bought a frostie — one of those 1950-era thin metal box buildings with a giant replica of a soft serve cone on top that you’d come across in little towns to buy everything from hamburgers and fries to milk shakes — after Dad died. She needed a way to support four kids.

The name for the place came up in a brainstorming session with her twin sister one night. It was inspired for people telling her she was nuts to go into business for herself. All of her sons — my sister was too young —worked at the Squirrel Cage.

We were paid but we also had to carry our own weight such as buying school clothes and such. In order to support her kids, she had to often work six to seven days a week for 10-hour days and then do bookkeeping at night.

Buying a bicycle wasn’t a splurge per se. I had struck up a friendship my eighth grade year with a new kid, Randy Summers.

We had come up with a scheme to make money the summer before high school. We needed bicycles to do it. He had one, and I didn’t.

My mom had no objection to my spending part of my money on a bicycle. If I recall correctly it was $95 – a good amount of money in 1970. And rest assured, it came no way near the $7,500 I would plunk down 20 years later at Delta Cyclery in Stockton buying a custom titanium racing bike.

But she was curious why I wanted baskets that went over the rear wheel of the deep green Schwinn road bike. It wasn’t a typical bicycle accessory that a 13-year-old boy would want.

When I told her of the plans Randy and I had for the summer she was a bit doubtful.

We decided we could make “big bucks” before we entered high school by bicycling the countryside at least twice a week which had to include Sundays. The reason was simple. Randy had “scouted” the roadsides and noticed an inordinate amount of beer cans and bottles as well as soda cans.

Randy wanted to do more days but I still had to work at the Squirrel Cage as well as do chores at home.

This was 16 years before the California container redemption program was established. Even so, Randy saw a gold mine given you could recycle tin and aluminum cans and get paid per pound as well as for glass bottles. To be honest, the money for tin and glass was significantly less than aluminum but try to tell that to two kids who thought they had stumbled on a get-rich-quick plan.

The mandatory Sunday collection rides reflected a keen observation on his part. Every Saturday night in the summer without fail there was a dance at the outdoor pavilion at McBean Park with a live band playing Mexican music. There was also a large “beer pavilion.” It was basically a four-sided open structure with a roof and counters all the way around. People would lean against it while drinking beer or soda.

Given it was outside the fenced-in dance area, people would drop by often not to dance but simply to socialize with a few beers and soda.

The city of Lincoln had perhaps a dozen used oil drums they had painted blue. They were placed around the beer pavilion and the parking lot.

We’d hit McBean Park before the crack of dawn on Sundays in case someone else had similar designs on the “money” people were discarding.

While we did retrieve lots of aluminum cans and such from the repurposed oil drums, we soon discovered people when they were a bit too tipsy would literally throw money away.

As we did trash can dives retrieving cans in the beer soaked mess we’d come across dollar bills as well as larger denominations. Every so often we’d score a $20 bill soggy from beer.

While the bottles we collected during our rides — including an occasional soda bottle that we could retrieve a deposit for — were kept intact, the cans were crushed and placed in the wire baskets.

By the time summer was drawing to an end, we had a mountain of smashed aluminum cans in an unused dog run at my house that was about 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide.

Randy’s uncle helped us take our harvest to a recycling center in Sacramento.

Between what we got for the recyclables — $680 — and another $166 in cash from trash can diving, we had $846 to split 50-50.

I spent my share — and I’m not making this up — on a mimeograph machine along with a cabinet, a stencil board, boxes of stencils and two cases of 8½ by 14-inch paper from A.B. Dick Company. I had already commandeered an Army surplus manual typewriter.

My goal was to print my own “newspaper.”

I had gotten the bug in the eighth grade when I was one of the two editors of the Glen Edwards School “newspaper” that was done in mimeograph form. That year a class field trip to the Press-Tribune in Roseville jazzed me up even more.

It also helped that our next door neighbor when we lived in Roseville was a school teacher who taught me to read before I started kindergarten by using copies of the front page of the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union.

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure what I was going to write about and had no solid plan for my first issue.

I wasn’t inspired to do my first issue — that was also my last — until I started my freshman year at Lincoln High. When I saw the first edition of the high school newspaper that year I thought it was lame. There was nothing about student government or other concerns. It read more like a social sheet for upper classmen right down to a front page story on who got their own car to drive to school that year and a feature on senior sweethearts.

So, I came up with my “own” newspaper. It was a two-sheet affair that I distributed one night by dropping copies through slots in lockers. This was when Lincoln High literally had an open campus with nary a fence.

Of course, I didn’t realize that it might not be kosher.

I was hauled into Principal Bob Elkus’ office. Surprisingly he wasn’t mad. In retrospect it was about the farthest thing possible from being an underground newspaper of the day. But he did lay down the rules.

And one of them was he was going to take me out of the typing class and put me into the journalism class that up until that moment had only been accessible for juniors and seniors and certainly not a freshman one month into the school year.

I ended up being the editor for the next three years, started working for the town newspaper — the Lincoln News Messenger — my sophomore year as  sports editor on a per photo and per inch basis, added city council coverage as a junior, was also working part-time covering Rocklin City government for the Press-Tribune my senior year, and took over the Lincoln News Messenger’s twice a month Wheatland News tabloid publication doing everything from editorial and advertising sales to circulation and production while still in high school.

And it is all because if a bicycle and other turning other people’s trash into cash.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.