Near the end of World War II, a high school kid fresh off a tobacco farm took a much-needed job in Greensboro: a bicycle messenger for Western Union, where he pedaled across the city with a crisp green uniform and a satchel full of telegrams.
At age 16, Dewey Alley was a self-described dumb country boy, new to the city, where his family had recently traded tenant farming for life in a textile mill village. His union job put food on the table.
But in 1945, he soon discovered, a bike messenger working the night shift carried one kind of news. Son killed in Germany. Husband died in Japan. All of the messages Alley carried that year began with “We regret to inform you ...”
He never had to explain himself at the doorstep. Often, mothers started screaming when they saw him coming up the driveway in his telltale leggings and brimmed cap. The first telegram Alley delivered, “when she opened the door and saw me, she went into almost hysterics.”
At 88, these memories of war still haunt Alley, long retired in Raleigh from a successful career in building supplies. His boots never touched foreign soil in wartime, but he celebrates Veterans Day with scars that run nearly as deep. As a child too young to serve, he saw every casualty that struck home. Heartbreak rippled out from the envelopes in his pouch, often four times a night.
“I had nightmares about that for years,” he said. “Years.”
Western Union men carried all the military’s death notifications in the 1940s. Nicknamed “the boy on his bicycle,” a courier in wartime played the role of grim reaper. The scene plays out famously in the wartime baseball movie “A League of Their Own,” in which a messenger boy arrives in the locker room and fumbles for his envelope of bad news while a dozen women tremble.
Alley took advice from his night manager, Joe Eberenz, who counseled him to be as quiet and polite as possible. As much as he could, Eberenz left Alley alone in the office to finish his homework, letting less-important telegrams wait until morning. But when death notices arrived, he dropped them on the young student’s desk. “You’ve got to take this one,” he would say.
Alley covered all of Greensboro on his bike, wherever the news took him. Once, he grabbed onto the tailgate of a truck and coasted to his destination, catching hell from the truck driver as he pedaled away. Six times, someone stole Alley’s bike while he tried to console a dead serviceman’s mother. After the first few thefts, he began building his own bikes from spare parts.
As grim as the work could get, Alley needed the money. “The rich kids in school borrowed quarters from me,” he recalled decades later. “Never paid them back.”
But once, the strain of witnessing raw grief nearly made him quit.
“A lady passed out on the sidewalk in front of the house,” he remembered. “She seemed like an old woman, but she couldn’t have been very old to have a son. That’s the one I dream about. I guess I panicked. I went to try to help. Some man came from the house and took her back inside. I guess it was her husband.
“I went all the way back to Western Union talking myself into staying on. Mr. Eberenz said, ‘This is part of the job. That’s just the way it is.’ I slept on it and told him I wanted to stay.”
Alley stayed on at Western Union until he graduated from high school in 1948, well past the war’s end. He got drafted in the Army shortly afterward and saw friends die on their first day in Korea. But Alley avoided combat, several times, because he could type. Instead of Korea, Alley shipped to Labrador as a clerk.
He counts himself lucky. He married another farm girl, whom he called perfect, and their union lasted 67 years. He built his own house at Raleigh’s North Ridge Country Club and lovingly points out where he drove every nail. His walls are covered in portraits of his sons and grandchildren. His oldest child, born while Alley was still a soldier, is named Joe – a tribute to his old boss.
This week, Alley thumbed through old photographs and floated back in time.
“I just wonder if Joe Eberenz is still alive,” he said. “I’d sure like to see him.”