Recollections of a Small Town
TRAMP PRINTERS AND GOLD DIGGERS
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
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
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
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.
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