Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Recollections of the Linotype Pressroom


From the fall of 1968 until my graduation in May 1971, I was actively involved on the staff of the Cadet, the Virginia Military Institute’s student newspaper. I don’t recall ever having a title or being listed on the editorial staff, but the Editor did refer to me often as "Photo Editor" during my senior year.

I first signed on as staff photographer at the behest of a classmate who had started with the newspaper our freshman year. At a military college, there are certain perks and permits that excuse cadets from routine duties. Being a newspaper photographer was one of these plums as you could avoid military parade in order to take pictures of the parade. There were other opportunities to avoid marching and a good photographer took full advantage of them. I point this out so you won’t think that I harbored some unfulfilled journalistic quest while enrolled in a college that had no Journalism Department. My motives in the beginning were clear and simple-a Cadet photographer had a few privileges that others didn’t.

But there was a price to be paid for this perk. For every hour I spent avoiding marching in a parade, I would spend 3-4 in the darkroom developing film or making prints. And my timeslot to work the darkroom was after ten or eleven in the evening since I was least senior on the staff. Often, I wouldn’t finish until 1 am or 2 am and that did cut into the minimal hours that were rationed for sleep. Reveille, the morning bugle call, sounded at 6 am, regardless of one’s rank in the Corps of Cadets.

The Cadet was published weekly at the Lexington News-Gazette, the weekly newspaper for Lexington, VA and Rockbridge County. And until sometime in 1971 after I had graduated, the News-Gazette used one of the few remaining Linotype presses in America. All of the machinery sported "Patent Pending" metal tags with dates belonging to the 1890’s. All of the machines were industrial in nature. The pressroom was dark and noisy with fumes from the ink and hot lead filling the air. "Gritty" is how I would describe it lest you think in terms of modern plants that meet OSHA standards. At the News-Gazette, Charles Dickens could have walked out of the shadows and you would not have been surprised to see him there.

Before you think adversely of the printing plant, let me say that you would love to have worked there. The news is not generated in a sterile, correct atmosphere and I always thought that some degree of grime needed to work its way through the process of announcing it. In many ways, I could touch, taste, and smell the news, both literally and figuratively. Today, OSHA requires a barrier wherever the human senses might come in contact with the news of the day. I was fortunate in that I felt the same delights that Gutenberg probably did when ink first glistened on moveable type.

Two old men with green eyeshades operated the two Linotypes at the News-Gazette. One had the feeling that they had arrived as young boys with the machines when new and never escaped their tethers. It was obvious in 1970 that aspiring newspapermen like myself weren’t apprenticing for Linotype jobs and we felt lucky indeed to have these septuagenarians still plying their trade. They were pro’s and could compose copy in a pinch if we ran short on time for a re-write. They each smoked cigarettes. That was not so much back then because everyone smoked. But these guys could hold their ash and watching them smoke was an event to behold.

They clipped the typewritten copy at eye level and began their work. On the keyboard, lower-case letters were on the left panel, upper-case letters on the right, and in the center were numbers, punctuation marks, etc. The more-sophisticated Linotypes used several sets of type, varying styles and point size. As I recall, the News-Gazette Linotype had but one tray of letter molds making all copy in the newspaper one size and one font style. Every letter, mark, space, etc. required a keystroke and as the operator typed, you could hear the bronze letter molds tinkling down a chute and then line up in a tray to the right of the operator. Character spacing was an art form as the Linotype used spacing blanks called "em’s" and "en’s" depending on whether a full or half space was needed.

Once the tray filled with the small bronze letter molds, the operator pushed a lever that let molten lead flow to the molds and, presto, the line of type was made. (Each letter, space, mark, etc. was still an individual "slug".) The hot lead cooled very quickly and then each line was dropped into a column-width tray. When the article was finished, the tray of type was sent to the Pressman. If the article was 20 column-inches, then the tray was 20" long, and so on.

I always thought that the most amazing feature of the Linotype was how it returned the bronze letter molds back to the type storage bins at the top of the machine. Once the line was pressed in lead, the tray of letter molds was dumped and conveyed to the top of the machine where they were sorted. Somehow the Linotype could read each individual mold and return it to where it belonged. As the operator was only creating a few inches of type at a time, there weren’t that many individual letter molds in the bins. So if the Linotype couldn’t sort and re-use the molds, you can see how the process would have stalled out.

I call him the "Pressman" but he actually did several jobs that would be done by others in a larger plant. At the News-Gazette, the Pressman was a one-man orchestra.

The first step was to proof the copy and he inked the column-wide tray with a hand roller. Then he laid a narrow strip of paper, usually red newspaper stock, over the tray and rolled it making a printed copy of the article. One of our staffers would begin proofing the printed copy and the Pressman would proof the tray. Although he was reading a mirror image, where b’s and d’s and p’s and q’s are hard to keep track of, the Pressman could proof the galley tray faster than any English major could proof the print copy.

Our Pressman was a gem of a man in his 40’s and I always believed he knew the secrets of the Universe but was content to work in a Linotype shop, waiting for Charles Dickens to appear from the shadows. And of course, should that happen, both would hoist a brandy and laugh heartily at English majors trying to proofread news copy!

The Pressman kept his tweezers handy and plucked any typo. From a tray of spares, he’d replace the errant letter. I also remember the Pressman inserting hyphens. Before the days of "justified" printing, the newspaper was allowed wide latitude in hyphenating words. How wide? Well, the rule of thumb was to fill the column width and whatever spilled over to the next line was "justified", to overuse a poorly chosen word.

The Pressman also hand set all of the headlines and sub-headlines with individual bronze letters. We were limited to Franklin Bold and Bodini Bold but did have the full range up to 120 pts. At any rate, the Linotype only set the copy type and, in that process, all special letters had to be hand set, just as in Gutenberg’s system.

At the start of the week, our editorial meeting outlined the entire issue. The Editor and Sports Editor assigned stories and photo wants. The Business Manager outlined his needs for paid ad space. The Managing Editor began marking up a full-sized newspaper template with pencil lines; his rendering was the blueprint for the entire issue, which usually ran 8 pages. Headlines, column headers, photos, display ad graphics, and the like were sized and boxed with an "X" marked through them. Columns were drawn in at their full 2" width. Other than the masthead, the pages had to be totally penciled in. After the copy was proofed, the proof sheet was trimmed with scissors and pasted into the columns on the template pages. And this is where the layout got tricky.

If the Managing Editor allowed 2-five inch columns for an article, the proof copy rarely matched the opening exactly. It was better to overrun the article by an inch and "snip" the last paragraph than run short. As I mentioned, we could do some last minute stretching or rewording at the plant but you did not want to rely on that happening for dozens of articles. This problem of matching copy to space is the reason why news articles are written with the most important fact first and then descending to the most extraneous fact. The editor could snip the last inch and not be worried about losing important information. Besides, if that last paragraph was that important, then next week’s follow-up could pick it up.

There were tricks of the trade in adjusting copy space. The eye rarely notices adding or subtracting a line or two from the header opening, especially if the resulting white space flows to the reader’s eye. Another technique was to increase the height of an ad by a line or two. This worked well for composed ads but not with prepared displays. And the Pressman could finagle some space blanks, here and there, to stretch copy, though that technique was tedious. I don’t recall much use of the now-popular clipart insertions to fill a column-inch.

By Wednesday morning, the Pressman had his 8-page blueprint with all of the proof copy pasted into the columns. He could then start moving the Linotype from the column trays into the galley trays. Each galley tray was a full newspaper page. Several advertisers such as Coca-Cola, department stores, the company that sold class rings, and the like, sent in display ads prepared by their ad agencies. The display ad negatives appeared to be made from styrene or other form of cheap plastic and were never used for more than one press run. The Pressman would cement these displays to a wood block (eg: 4x6, 6x6, 8x8, etc) and lay them in the galley tray. All that was left to do was the photos.

Before I mention the work involved in photos, let me say that, at one time or another, I did every job on the newspaper staff. From selling ads to writing copy and a column to working at the printing plant and doing the whole photo operation, I saw it all. I even published a special four-page issue for parents in August 1970 with only the help of our academic advisor, Colonel Dillard. Photos, I can say with certainty, were the most difficult and time-consuming task of all.

Sports photos were easy to shoot because you were almost always guaranteed plenty of light and lots of action. Brightly colored athletic uniforms also guaranteed contrasts. Indoor photos of people, however, were killers. Many a time, I was sent to shoot a conference speaker wearing a pale gray suit, standing behind a dark lectern, with the room lights dimmed to appease the audience. In the late Sixties, audiences loved the pseudo-intellectual atmosphere of dimly lit ballrooms. And how many times was I cautioned that, "Our esteemed guest speaker does not like to be annoyed by flash bulbs."? With the face shadows, the gray suit, and the dim lights, it was a challenge to get any degree of contrast in a black and white photo.

VMI had a peculiar problem as well. The wall behind the stage in Jackson Memorial Hall (named for Stonewall himself) is painted with a mural of the Civil War Battle of New Market. This setting makes for a challenging shot. Trying to isolate the speaker at the lectern without including the background Confederate soldier thrusting a bayonet into his Yankee foe was next to impossible! If all of the distinguished gentlemen who spoke from that stage ever realized how the backdrop of a fierce, bloody battle overshadowed their mere living presence, then I am sure that the Institute would have authorized a request for change in venue.

With these challenges, one learns the secrets of the darkroom. Yes, we could manufacture photos long before Adobe Photoshop was invented. We really had to doctor our work because of the photo-transfer process. At the News-Gazette, the actual b/w photo (made exactly to the layout size box dimensions) was placed on a rotating cylinder. The photo transfer machine was one of Thomas Edison’s creations for sending photos over the telegraph wires from coast to coast. Only in this case, the receiving cylinder sat on the same table.

The rotating photo was scanned with light and an electrical impulse was sent to the receiver. A plastic membrane rotated on the receiving cylinder and an electric pen etched the plastic according to the impulse sent from the sending machine. The concept is no different than pixel resolution in the digital process. But the Edison Electric system did have a major drawback--the less contrast, the poorer the resolution. And that is why indoor photos were such an anathema. When finished, and it took about an hour to etch a 4x6 photo, the plastic membrane was peeled away and cemented to a wood block and then placed in the galley tray. Because of the length of time needed to transfer photos, we were limited to six photos or so per issue. The front page got a 4x6 and Sports got a 4x6 and the rest were usually one-column wide shots.

It was now 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and our wondrous eight pages were set. All that remained was for the staff to examine full-page proof copies and sign off for a Thursday morning press run. That last look at our "baby" was merely to double-check that we hadn’t left out something major. Our Pressman was ready to call it a day and Wednesday afternoon was not the time to suggest cosmetic changes.

The flat bed press was a marvel of industrial technology. I recall the press as being 40’ long, 8’ high, and about 16’ wide. The press frame with its decks was so massive that the two paper rolls hanging at the feed end looked more like paper towels than rolls of newsprint. The press could muster two twelve-page sections which meant there were 24 galley trays laid out on four levels. Just threading the newsprint through the myriad of rollers was no mere feat.

Large bull gears, Pittman’s, connecting rods, and rollers drove the press. To stand aside and watch its action reminded one of the drive wheels of a steam locomotive. And this press rumbled with all of the intensity of a locomotive. The only thing missing were the snorts of steam. But you could feel its raw power vibrate through the concrete floor in the pressroom.

The paper fed through, advancing a page length at a time. Our 8 pages were printed on two decks; four panels (2&7, 4&5) printed on the bottom level and their four backs (1&8, 3&6) were printed at the deck above. The ink roller made a quick trip across the galleys. Then the paper was rolled from the backside. The paper lifted up and away from the galley, advanced, and the ink rollers readied the galleys for the next print. At full speed, the behemoth could print, fold, cut, stack, and bundle 40 copies per minute. But our press run usually ran fewer than 1000 copies so the Pressman was never inclined to move the speed gear selector past the second notch. He babied his marvelous, massive iron giant. The Pressman toiled about with his oilcan, squirting a drop or two wherever needed.

And then, the newspaper was done.

But there remained one more task-tearing down the galleys. The thousands of Linotype slugs were dumped back into the lead kiln, to be re-melted for the next issue of Linotype. The photo etchings that took so long to make were peeled from the wood blocks and unceremoniously tossed in the trash; the same fate awaited the display ads. All of the ribbons of steel that had been the column dividers were pulled and sorted by length, to be used again. The headline blocks were broken down and each character returned to its bin in the wall rack. And so it was by Thursday afternoon, a set of empty galley trays waiting to be filled with the news of next week.

Tearing down the galleys is one of two recollections that taught me about the continuum of the newspaper. The other was watching the Pressman splice the newsprint from a new roll to the waning end of the old roll. These two happenings proved that a newspaper operation really never stopped-it just reported what it had and then readied for the next batch of stories.

To have had the opportunity to be involved from start to finish in all of the tasks gave me a rare perspective. After all, those Linotype operators, in all their decades of work, never pounded the pavement to sell ads. The Pressman, despite his virtuoso performances in a dimly lit pressroom, never photographed the intelligentsia. And the majority of our Cadet staff never set foot in the Linotype pressroom; never did they feel the ink smudge from a freshly-printed newspaper snatched from the conveyor.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Coal Miners, an essay

August 25, 2002

After his discharge from military service in World War 2, my father qualified for a veteran's assistance loan to purchase equipment declared surplus after the war was over.  In 1946, he was able to buy an Allis Chalmers bulldozer and Northwest 80D power shovel and went into business surface (or strip) mining coal in central West Virginia .  He never much cared for the coal business as it was fraught with many risks.  He was a graduate civil engineer and, before the war, had surveyed and mapped underground coal mines.  His cousin had been a mine surveyor until an accident left him with a permanent limp.  That experience probably made my father's decision about his working in an underground coal mine.  

As for strip mining, it had its risks as well.  One of the first contracts my father received was to strip mine 100 acres of Pittsburgh coal.  After he uncovered several acres of the coal seam, he quickly became aware that a then-abandoned underground mine on the adjacent tract of land had "robbed" the very coal he had contracted to mine.  It was a case where termites ate one house and then went to the neighbor's before retreating.  With the coal reserves depleted by some 40%, he nearly went broke trying to recover what coal was left.  But such "robberies" weren't new or even isolated.  Unscrupulous operators would mine a particular land tract and then drain the company of its assets, caring little that they had robbed a neighboring farmer while he tended his crops and livestock on the surface.  When the discovery was made, the bandit was long gone.  The history of coal mining in West Virginia is chock full of stories like this one.  

Fortunately for my father, he had a few successful mining contracts and that allowed him to buy enough equipment to start building roads and highways, his true mission from the outset.  In 1950, he received his first highway contract--relocating the state highway that went through a small community, simply-named, "Number 9".  The road sign said "No. 9" and the community was the mining village that grew around Fairmont Coal Company's mine number 9 (now CONSOL Coal).

I still remember the place today just as when he took me there in the mid-1950's.  No. 9 was the birthplace of the legendary NFL linebacker, Sam Huff, so what is a dot on the map to you was something of a shrine to West Virginia football fans.  I also remember my father telling me how the mine war played out in No. 9 when the miners had fought to unionize many years earlier.  He told me many of the stories that he had learned from the townspeople during the year he worked rebuilding the roadway.  All I will tell you now is that it was a real war, with real bullets.

The No. 9 that you know today is not the one that I visited as a boy.  In 1968, the No. 9 mine exploded and some 70 miners died.  This incident is referred to as the Farmington disaster.  As deadly as it was, the No. 9 disaster was far from the worst coal mine disaster in our history.  The honor of that title goes to Fairmont Coal's No. 6 and No. 8 mines, located a few miles south of Farmington at Monongah.  In 1907, the mines at Monongah exploded.  Over 300 men died in that disaster.  While there was an exact count of the number of horses and mules in the mine at the moment of the explosion, there was no such record of miners and other workers inside the mine.  The death toll has been based on the number of caskets ordered but nobody truly knows how many bodies were not recovered.  Even so, the known death toll is the highest for a US mining disaster.

In each case, Monongah and Farmington , the mines were modern operations for their era.  The Monongah mines even used ventilation fans, a rarity at that time.  But the coal seam contained a large amount of free methane gas.  And as the Farmington investigation would show, the weather conditions and barometric pressure of the air outside of the mine has a direct effect on methane gas buildup within a mine.

When the Farmington mine exploded, the then-president of the United Mine Workers of America, W. A. "Tony" Boyle, visited the site--some 2 days later.  Mr. Boyle was no friend of the coal miner even though he was their elected leader.  His remarks at the site consisted mainly of "accidents will happen" and then he left.  Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, a reform candidate, would later challenge Tony Boyle for the union presidency.  In late 1969, Boyle ordered his henchmen to kill Yablonski (Yablonski's wife and daughter were also murdered) and he was later convicted of the crimes.  Tony Boyle died in prison in 1985.  

Something had to be done about mine safety and the Farmington disaster was the catalyst for change.  In 100 years of underground coal mining, neither the industry nor organized labor had been up to the task of developing and running effective safety programs.  To be sure, there were safety laws on the books and there were safety-oriented mines and miners.  But with the Farmington disaster, the US Congress enacted legislation that placed the burden of mine safety more squarely on federal agencies.  This had the effect of removing safety issues from the bargaining table.  Instead of a "company position" or a "union position", safety rules became a "federal position."  While waving the federal wand is far from a perfect solution, the legislative changes did level the playing field.

At the Farmington disaster, most of the same rescue techniques and resources used at the Quecreek mine rescue were already in place.  Trained mine rescue teams entered the No. 9 mine but the fire and smoke inside the mine made their efforts all but impossible.  The rescue teams drilled holes to pump air into the mine, but again, the fire negated these efforts.  The rescue teams lowered microphones into the mine to listen for sounds of life.  They were able to rescue a few miners by hoisting them to the surface with a crane and lift bucket.  But in the end, the decision was made to seal the mine and extinguish the fire.  The difference between Farmington and Quecreek was the difference between fire and water.

The Quecreek mine rescue was certainly not the first successful mine rescue; many other cases abound.  But what made Quecreek so different was that the American public saw round-the-clock television news coverage.  In the past, only the miners' families waged a vigil and news coverage consisted of spot reports and updates.  For perhaps the first time in history, the Quecreek viewers got to see and eventually meet the nine coal miners without the familiar backdrops of the past.  Always in the past, television news gave us a stilted backdrop for these stories about miners--the coal miner on strike, or the smokestack pollution, or the acid water flowing into a stream, and so on.  But on this one occasion, America was introduced to nine everyday men, men who weren't so different from any other group of hard working men.

  At the press conference, the inevitable question was asked of the Quecreek miners: Do you plan to return to work in the coal mine?  Some answered, "No."

In what may be the greatest irony in coal's history, the Quecreek rescue of nine trapped miners may actually spell the end of the underground coal mining industry.  This televised event, from start to finish, had to have impressed an entire generation of youngsters that coal mining is not a safe option for their employment future, regardless of how well the rescue plan worked.  We won't know for a decade or more if meeting nine miners in our living rooms robs the future of the next generation of miners.  But the possibility is certainly there. 

Like Rodney Dangerfield, coal has never gotten any respect.  Which is sad (for coal).  Had the resource been properly managed, we could have tapped the methane gas to heat homes or run our power plants.  Instead, we let it float away.  And we could have developed methanol [1] to power our cars.  Instead we are dependent on oil from the most unstable countries on the planet.  When we look at the financial cost of Enron's failure, or the tax subsidies being paid out in the current "Farm" bill for ethanol [2] production, or the petrodollar payments that prop up the various OPEC dictatorships, it gives one pause as to why we didn't do more with the one energy resource we know we can count on.  Coal, however, is often thought of as our "misery" fuel.  And while coal has caused no end of misery and pollution, we should not forget that humans will never again live at Chernobyl , the one nuclear disaster that eclipsed all of the coal mine disasters put together. 

If we ever do have to rely on coal for more than our current needs, then finding the miners to do the work will be a problem.  Employment in the eastern coal fields peaked in the mid-20th century when steam locomotives ran on the rails and domestic steel production was at an all-time high.  In the last five decades, bituminous coal mining employment has shrunk precipitously.  Productivity gains are part of the reason.  But also, air pollution laws have had a major effect by causing power plants to replace eastern coal with lower-sulphur western coal.

Advancing a mine requires skilled engineers, miners, electricians, and mechanics.  Whereas a coal miner once only needed to swing a pick and then shovel his coal into a cart, the mechanized mine requires teams of miners who are very sophisticated when it comes to doing what they do.  The Quecreek rescue showed us as to just how sophisticated the modern coal miner has become.

As was mentioned above, the Farmington disaster was a turning point.  Coal mining is still a hazardous job.  But in the three decades that have passed since Farmington , the industry has taken great measures to prevent another such calamity.  When we viewed the organization and teamwork of the rescuers at Quecreek, the results of millions of man-hours of safety training were evident.  It was said throughout the ordeal that "the miners did what they were supposed to do and the rescuers did what they were supposed to do."

  And now, Quecreek is a turning point.  Will we view the rescue as so much luck?  A "made-for-TV" rescue as it were?   Will we view the Quecreek rescue as the dawn of a new era in mining--an era where tragedy is conquerable?  Or will the kids who watched the whole 3-day episode on TV simply say, "Mining is not for me."? 

In forty years, we'll know which direction the nation turned when it arrived at Quecreek.  But for now, we are the ones who must answer the question, "Which way?"

[1]  Methanol--usually referred to as "wood alcohol" because it was a distillate from the early charcoal-making process.  Methanol is now made from natural gas or coal.

[2]  Ethanol--usually referred to as "grain alcohol".  In this case, made from corn.