Hot Metal Type

I’m barreling down Interstate 5 with Seattle behind me and Portland ahead, when it dawns on me: I’m a journeyman.

I’ve just finished two weeks at one fill-in editing gig and I’m off to another one. The trunk is full of laundry; a paycheck for a ghostwritten advice column is clipped to the dashboard so I remember to deposit it before the day ends.

Calling myself a temp would imply more security than is accurate. I’m a journeyman.

It’s a term I haven’t thought of in ages. I first heard it in the back shop of the small weekly newspaper that my mother worked for in the mid-1960s. She took me there  most weeknights after dinner so she could write her column or proof stories about 4-H shows, high school sports, house fires.

Journeymen printers were like circuit-riding preachers; they came in, bestowed their blessings and moved on to the next circle of needy souls. Some papers, like my mother’s, hired them a couple times a year to help out the regular crew when holiday ad sales puffed up the page count. The journeymen got paid in cash and payday came after the paper was safely printed, folded, and out the door.

(They were also called “tramps,” a term I was strongly discouraged from using.)

There was always work for them somewhere. Hot-metal shops would disappear by the end of the decade, but until then it took their peculiar skill set to turn lead into letters, then sentences, then columns, pages and newspapers.

It didn’t happen often, but there was never choicer, bluer language than the stream of curses that erupted from a journeyman if a tray of set type got dropped and scattered.

Now and then, though, a journeyman stayed. My mother’s paper had two such men: Henry and Bobby. They’d arrived long ago and never left.

Henry was finishing up with middle age; wide, short, bald and white-bearded with wire-framed bifocals. I learned my first Latin from the Semper Fi tattoo on his left forearm. If he had a wife, I never heard her mentioned. Henry ran the shop, responsible for the giant Goss printing press, long row of type drawers full of metal letters and numbers ranging from tiny box-score agate through blaring 72-point. He was in charge of the clattering Linotype machine run by Ruth, an aging bottle-blonde who also served as the bookkeeper; and Bobby.

Bobby was probably young enough to be Henry’s son, married to a woman called Dot and father of an astonishingly large brood. He was tall and pencil-thin with Brylcreemed black hair that somehow worked its way up free from its veneer within a few hours of his clocking in, gradually springing upward until it resembled a scrub brush by night’s end.

Bobby had an arm tattoo as well: a snake, a dagger and a ship. It was kept out of sight until he needed to roll up his blue work-shirt sleeves to wrestle the recalcitrant Goss press. Bobby explained this tattoo etiquette to me by saying “H-H-Henry’s the boss and he d-d-doesn’t like the Navy m-m-much.”

My mother warned me in advance about Bobby’s stutter. “Just be patient and he’ll spit it out eventually,” she said.

During one early visit I got bored pecking away on a Smith-Corona typewriter and gluing newsprint airplanes together with rubber-cement from the big, brown-glass bottle on her desk, I asked if I could go into the back shop. After detailed warnings about watching out for moving machinery, slippery puddles of machine oil, and Ruth (“she’s a nasty one”), my mother sent me back to the typesetting corner. Henry wiped his hands with an inky rag and gave me a firm handshake.

“Well, you’re just as good looking as your mother,” he said. I was ten years old, and a young ten at that, so this was an uncomplicated, pleasing thing to hear. I pushed my glasses up on my nose and beamed at him.

I shook hands with Bobby next. “You gonna h-h-help us get the p-p-paper out?” he asked.

“Well, I know how to type and I’m a good speller,” I said. “I could help.”

“Sounds good. That’s more that the publisher can do,” said Henry, returning to his type box.

“Yah, that’s-s-s the God’s-honest t-t-truth,” said Bobby.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.