Recently my thoughts traveled back in time to the good old days in newspapering. To a time when I was just a rookie. They had a term to describe a printing apprentice – printer’s devil. It was a perfect description.
Being a printer’s devil was a demanding job. Not only did you have to perform your assigned task, you also had to be constantly wary of your instructors. Most of the time they taught you the proper way to perform a certain task, but some of the things they taught might come back to haunt you. I learned this lesson only too well at the Ames Daily Tribune in the late 1950s.
I was fresh out of the back shop of my folks’ weekly newspaper and thought I knew just about everything — including printing. My folks had taught me a lot, but one thing they had left out of my education was the fact that some printers never seemed to grow up.
Reporting for work the first day, I came complete with my apron, measuring stick (pica pole) and make-up rule (a small steel strip used for everything from scraping to prying to cutting). Looking back, I should have also been wearing a bulls-eye on my back. I wasn’t on the job long that first day when I got my first real education in printing.
A printer by the name of “Hermie” ran screaming by me. He was shouting something about a bunch of type lice he had just discovered. That was something my folks had never told me about, so I rushed over to see the type lice. He said they were hiding between some lines of type but they were hard to see. He suggested I “bend over and look real hard.” About the time I had my nose nearly on the type, Hermie jammed them together and SWOOSH! I had a face full of dirty water. (Printers used automobile gas to clean type. When water was poured on the cleaned type it would bubble up, looking something like little bugs.)
By this time, every employee had gathered around and the place echoed with laughter. I walked away with my first real on-the-job education. At best, it was a confusing place to work. From the time I got there each morning until the presses started running, it was like a zoo. Everything was rush, rush, rush, but no one seemed to know exactly what they were doing. I couldn’t believe we actually got a newspaper out every day.
As soon as the last page was done, the atmosphere changed! People began to act normal – no more rushing or shouting, so I relaxed, too. That was a big mistake.
After the presses were rolling, my job was to “clean out the forms.” That meant throwing all of the lines of type and ads that only ran once in a special cart, which was then dumped in a melting pot for re-use. The foreman brought out a marked copy of the page I was working on. I asked a co-worker what the markings meant. “Oh, red means to throw away and black means to save.”
To impress my foreman, I did the page in record time. The only problem was I should have saved the red and tossed the black. The foreman evidently realized I had been tricked, so he informed me that the next day I would be “on the machine.” This meant I would be operating a Linotype. “Great!” I thought to myself. What possible tricks could they play on me there?
Well, old Charlie, the pressman, had a surprise in mind for me. Before I started work, he had took a toothpick, dipped it in printer’s ink, and put a little dot of ink on each key of the keyboard. About five minutes after I started setting type, I realized that the sticky feeling on the tips of my fingers wasn’t perspiration. It was ink. Charlie had alerted everyone in the shop and again the place filled with laughter. I decided it was time to let someone else be the entertainment for awhile.
Among Charlie’s many duties was preparing coffee for the morning break. Not being a coffee drinker, I decided this would be an ideal time to get a little revenge. So, before going home that night, I substituted salt for sugar in a big glass dispenser sitting next to the coffee pot. Coffee break had barely started the next morning when the shop filled with coughing and sputtering. Charlie had a blank look on his face, but no one believed his claim of innocence.
As far as I know, Charlie never did figure out who committed the foul deed, but I’m sure I was on the bottom of the list of suspects. After all, printer’s devils were to be the target of the joke, not the instigator.
Ed Rood is former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.