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The death of a newspaper, 1978

By: Jefferson Weaver

Jefferson-WeaverYou always had to beat the train. If a paperboy was careful, he could dash out the front door of the office, and run 50 feet to get across the railroad tracks. You’d balance on a broken railroad tie across the ditch or leap the ditch entirely, and climb the slight rise to run across the lot called the “Pond behind the Post Office,” where people joked they had caught the big fish they proudly brought by the paper to be photographed.

The trains came through several times a day, as well as during the night, usually a freight. Once there was a real, live circus train. I was 12, so I couldn’t be expected to know everything that was going on, but the newspaper that fed my family was dying. There were a lot of factors we needn’t worry about here, but the fact of the matter was that the paper was almost gone.

It was strange to be the last kid in the office, where a half-dozen paperboys had waited every day to insert sales papers and stuff their bags. I ran a retail route – literally, on foot – and piled into the car with Papa to deliver the rest of our vendors.

At the time, I didn’t see anything odd about the editor of a paper delivering a route, but by then a lot of other people were doing additional jobs at the paper, too. An old newspaper office, before everything became electronic and clean and sanitary, was a wizard’s lair to a little kid; a mechanical wizard with a penchant for iron, lead, noise, heat and ink. Dust floated through the air, especially when a train passed.

The air always had a redolence that was narcotic to a bright-eyed kid, and an irritant to the ladies who had sensitive sinuses. Ink, coffee, cigarette smoke, dust, old newsprint, dust, heat, chemicals, lead, ozone from sketchy wiring and flickering lights, aftershave and perfume blended to make a smell one would expect from a living, breathing, hardworking creature.

Every path in the office went to the press. I know now that it wasn’t any larger than the Goss Community that is background music in the building where I write these words. Still, the press looked massive to a little kid who thought he was on top of the world. I had a bike, parents who loved me, a great dog, a BB gun, and and around a buck a day delivering papers. With some extra lawnmowing money, I was rich as Croesus, in more ways than one.

Our newspaper printed local, state and national news, but it also printed the award pictures, the weddings and funerals, the big fish and bigger squash, the farm reports—everything that a community needed. You entered the front door of the newspaper, and encountered an “L” shaped counter. The base of the L was on the left, and where you went if you were a reader with a church announcement, subscription, or problem. If you were there for an advertisement – which we had too few of – you stood at the counter that made up the shaft of the L.

If you passed through the gateway at the end of the L, you went through the newsroom/circulation/advertising area, past my mother’s tiny desk and my dad’s crowded office, through a doorway into the camera room. The huge heliarc-lighted cameras burned the negatives and the plates that made the pages, and woe be unto anyone who hung out around that door when the cameraman was running back and forth carrying the embryonic pages from the darkroom to the processing tank.

Through there, and you were in the composition room, where the pages were put together like jigsaw puzzles. Those things which the Old Man did not think were done well enough on the modern phototypesetter were done by hand using lead type, physically printed using an ancient letter press, then carried to be “shot” by the big camera up front. Once, when an electrical surge killed the phototypesetter, the antique Linotype machine was fired back up.

In all this running back and forth, there was noise. There were voices, the rattle of the AP ticker or occasionally the alarm, machinery clanking and men cursing; and above everything, even the speeding trains, was the humming roar of the press.

The press was the heart and soul, while my parents’ typewriters, Mr. Johnny’s camera, Mr. Buzz’s plate burner, and Miss Louise’s telephone were the veins and arteries that fed the press, and were fed in return. It always had to run on time, no matter the weather or what might break down. It was always there, always spinning, stamping, folding and rolling at the same time every Monday through

Friday, and occasionally on Saturday, too. When the runs were completed, the press was cleaned, nearly-empty rolls of paper removed, plates discarded, and the joints oiled, fittings tightened, and rollers adjusted for the next day. In an hour or two, it would be a gleaming, waiting giant, like a stalled draft horse awaiting a new day at the plow.

But on April 25, 1978, the press was silenced one last time. The splotchy discards at the end of the press run were left on the conveyor. One copy was even halfway through the folder when the machine was turned off. The drums, rollers, and plates were left untouched.

I had no way of knowing that year would actually be a great adventure; my parents somehow kept us fed, and when Papa went to work as the front man of the circus, I was the envy of most kids my age. The Old Man had more time to take me fishing and go to my ball games.

That afternoon, though, the silence was frightening. Up front, in a corner where he thought no one would notice, my Old Man was crying. He was worried, as any man would be, but he was in mourning, too.

The great machine, the constant, reassuring roar that was even louder than the train, the machine that helped us let people know what was going on in their neighborhood and the world – the great machine had died.

And both a little boy and his dad were afraid.

For 21 years, the Old Man wrote a column every year, saying goodbye to The Dunn Dispatch. Sometimes it made print, sometimes it didn’t.

In 2001, he lay in his hospital bed, too weak to sit up. He asked me to carry on his tradition. I promised I would.

I also made a promise to myself that day , about another column. Lord willing, you’ll read that one in a few days.

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