-Art's Art-
Recollections of a Small Town Boy


The gold digger in reference here is not to be confused with blond chorus girls of yore hoping to snag a rich old goat and permanent meal ticket. Sugar Daddy was another description for the prey. The gold digger I describe is a zany who has seen the yellow stuff and is doomed to go in search of more, however fruitless the effort and whatever the cost.

I knew one of those because he married into the family. He was not a family man by any reasonable definition. A year or two at home was a record for Don, and much of that time was wasted while digging into a hill that had once produced fair quantities of gold. That was seventy five years gone and hints of a new vein never produced more than a milligram.

So Don would do an honest job for a time, hear a rumor of promising digs in Montana and was gone. Months later he bummed his way home, leaner but boastful of the stake he had put his gold money in and was just awaiting the big money to come. He was sincere in his belief without facing the inconvenient truth of mucking mud for nothing and wasting his wages on rye whiskey and bar girls.

I won’t dwell on the end of that story just now.

The tramp printer was somewhat like the guy with gold in his dreams, but mainly because they too were wont to roam. Some were just nomads who did jobs to finance the next big booze bender. On sobering, they discovered they had been fired last week and took to the road again.

Funny thing is they were very good printers. On the road they had absorbed vast knowledge about the craft and about human nature. Interesting people, drunk or sober. Not all were drunks by any measure. The stay-at-home types may have overmatched them in consumption, but in more controlled dosages.

Many of these happy fellows crossed my path over the years, and from them I learned many tricks of the trade. Most of them were typesetters. Pressmen tended more to stay in one town, tend a garden on weekends and raise children. Missing the curiosity gene that drove typesetters, reporters and editors hither and yon perhaps?

Typesetters were more versatile. If they landed at a tiny weekly newspaper which had lost its pressman, many of them could step up and print the paper after turning their editor’s deathless prose into type. They acquired other skills along the way.

Imagine a tiny Kansas town and a weekly four-page newspaper. You are the new man hired to set the type. After a galley or two the Linotype machine balks. You either find the trouble and fix it or there is no news that week. So you do that and unknowingly create a new breed of specialists: the MO, machinist/operator and keyboard virtuoso. And those guys were little lower than the angels to the distraught owner. He would have lost a week of advertising revenues as he waited for a man from the factory to get there at enormous expense.

This great iron beast of a machine was seven feet tall, mysterious in its working, loud in its clicking, clacking, groaning and hissing and intimidated a young apprentice--familiarly known as a “Printers’ Devil.” A proficient MO was not fazed.

Here was a fellow who had seen it all, from Mexico City to San Francisco to swamp towns in Alabama. I learned that if a new part would take days to arrive, a decent blacksmith often could fashion a workable lever and keep freedom of the press healthy.

And so I gained an intimate relationship with Ottmar Mergenthaler’s astonishing feat: A machine which produced an entire line of type almost instantly. The fellow had to invent machine tools to produce unheard of tolerances required for some tiny parts. He had a marvel but didn’t have a name for it or a company to produce it and sell it.

Looking toward America, he offered to demonstrate his device for a large newspaper. Legend has it that an awed observer exclaimed, “It’s a line of type!” when he saw the first metal slug ejected from the machine. Thus the machine became a Linotype and Ottmar’s shop became the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.

It was an unusual company. Engineers, machinists and instructors traveled the world to hold conferences with users of the product on their home ground. The practical hands on stuff made enthusiasts of hordes of small town guys desperate for help. It also helped to sell newer models to publishers.

It is a dinosaur now, but had more than a century in the sun. A few critics have suggested that its speed engendered too much junk printing. But think a moment about what is done by the successors.

Now we’ve got bloggers.

Art Darwin
June 2003

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