Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reading backwards, pouring lead, hanging on a Star






My first paying job in the newspaper business was folding the Dolores Star as it came off the press when I was six years old. It didn’t pay much – unless you can count the experience and education.
A penny per paper comes to mind, but if may have been less. Even at that rate, with two or three others (usually bigger, faster, stronger, smarter) working the same 700-paper circulation, you were lucky to come away with a buck from the afternoon. I wasn’t in it for the money.
Longtime southwest Colorado resident Ellis Miller recently related to me similar experience, recalling the tools of the trade at the time.
“My uncle Tom Johnson was the owner/editor of the Dolores Star prior to the Pleasants. It was located in the brick building you mentioned and Shorty Lobato was the "printer's devil." I used to be fascinated by the Linotype machine. Uncle Tom typed with two fingers, very quickly and efficiently, I might add. I had the job of going to the newspaper office after school and folding papers. My tools were glycerin to put on my fingers to make handling the paper easier and a "bone" which was just that, a flat piece of bone, maybe 5" x 2" that was used to crease the papers. It was an exciting environment, indeed.”
But other jobs reared their ugly head from time-to-time in the busy paper environment. My long-time favorite was the scratch pad business. You literally could (with limits) decide how much you wanted to make, in a very short period of time.
Making scratch pads, I determined was an art. In the days before 3M came up with the “Post It,” we would salvage whatever paper came off trim-to-fit jobs and clamp it down in a nice, even-edged stack, trim an even tighter edge, then slather one-side with the bright green or red plastic padding compound. Then let it cure a day or so, and usually trim the stack again in the paper cutter and separate. The paper cutter, which was back near the rope-driven elevator platform, was a much-feared piece of equipment with a long lever, a tightening wheel-driven clamp, fence and a razor-sharp knife-edge. Given the right circumstances, you could of whacked off pretty much any body part if you weren’t careful. Being cautious and not trying to cut something too thin produced the desired product usually, resulting in … Viola! “New & Improved” scratch pads.
But the manufacturing process was only part of the fun for me. I liked the sales process. Remember these were the days before electronic calculators; so just about every business scribbled out calculations for sales tax, or used them to determine how many rolls of roofing to sell to cover seven squares of roof, or to draw pictures of the part they were trying to order.
When you had gathered the right amount of various sized pads, in various colors, thicknesses, paper weights, etc… it was time throw them in a box and hit the street.
I sold stacks of white 5 ¼ “ x 8 ½” pads to the hardware store, bundles of smaller pads at the garage where my Dad worked, heaps of scratch pads to the grocery stores, loads at the Forest Service building, and I was just getting started.
Another job at the shop that I eventually learned, was labeling the papers for the mail. Much more difficult and mechanized than it is today, the label machine usually required an ability to hold your face right to get the labeler to work properly. It had a series of hot type labels set in ‘stick’ of type that rode in a carriage above, and a gummed roll of two-inch-wide paper that would feed through, cut, and place the semi-wet label on the papers. You had to “air the papers out” a bit so the labels wouldn’t get knocked off until they were dry. It was a major pain in the butt.
Near the top of the food chain, at least in the Dolores Star office, was actually running the linotype, something that I never did more than casually. I remember that Dan Pleasant was considered the ace at the board there, perhaps ostensibly for his skill and ability to avoid “Widows and Orphans.”
Linotype keyboards were originally arranged by how frequent a particular letter would come up. There was a key for each letter in the alphabet: for upper case, and lower case, and a bunch of extra keys for numbers and symbols.
The first two vertical columns on the left side of the board read “ETAOIN SHRDLU.” When the person running the beast screwed up, it wasn’t easy to go back to delete it. You had to finish the line before tossing the slug and re-keying a new one. Because the bad line was going to be tossed back in the pot, the industry habit developed to do what was called a "run down", creating this nonsense phrase to signify the error. It was supposed to be easy to see a “run down” by those putting the pages together — but not always.
Thus, the practice sometimes resulted in the phrase accidentally getting in to print, instead of being tossed when the stick of type went to the compositors and eventually to lock-up. The error happened frequently enough in hot type days that “ETAOIN SHRDLU” eventually appeared in most dictionaries.
Several years ago I enjoyed discussions with another "ink-stained wretch" while comparing notes about the "old days" of hot type. The weathered newspaper veteran seemed to enjoy it as well.
"It was refreshing to hear words like "Elrod, Ludlow, type lice and one of my favorites, pouring pigs," noted Rich Leinbach, Director of Publishing Systems for the Goshen News in Goshen, Indiana. For the uninitiated, a "pig" was a lead casting used in Linotype typesetting machines. And, on hearing of our common reference points, he told the following story.
"This brings me to a fond memory of pig pouring, back in the late 70s. I was fresh out of high school and although our newspaper had already converted to offset, we still used a decent amount of hot type in our commercial printing department.
"It was late one day and I had the job of firing up the lead furnace to pour a fresh batch of pigs. I had the pot filled with molten lead, had skimmed off the dross and was just beginning to pour the pigs when the valve broke, in the open position.
"Needless to say, gravity took over and the entire pot of lead became one giant pig on the floor, in a matter of a few minutes.
"To make matters even worse, just after my masterpiece had cooled into a solid mass, the entire staff of "Big Wigs" came parading through, after a late meeting. There I stood, pry bar in hand, trying to get rid of the evidence before anyone could find out. Ah . . . those WERE the good old days."


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