By Jefferson Weaver
A newspaper office is a living, breathing thing during the week.
People are coming and going; phones ring; the scanner blares a tone announcing a tragedy in someone’s life. People talk, and sometimes they just yell across the room. Carts and handtrucks rumble through the back, carrying newspapers and inserts. Sometimes even readers raise their voices.
Through it all, almost any day of the week, there is the rumble of the press, feeding huge rolls of blank paper between aluminum sheets treated with chemicals and run through ink jets that are carefully adjusted to touch the paper at precisely the right moment before the paper is cut and folded and rolls out on a conveyor. The finished products drop into a stacking tray, and those papers are collected and rushed to the back to be inserted and labeled and readied for delivery.
The whole time, the press keeps rolling, its quiet thunder a barely noticed heartbeat through the building. Sometimes it’s our paper being printed, often it’s others, but the process is the same.
I grew up with that sound; at the Dunn Dispatch, we printed five papers a week, plus a few other newspapers. The Goss press, which I found to be one of the most fascinating devices ever created, never seemed to stop rolling. We kids were forbidden to cross a wide, dirty yellow line on the floor, but we often did so anyway. Sometimes we were drafted to help catch papers coming off the press. Sometimes we were just being daredevils.
I visited the press a lot when it was resting on weekends; I’d go to the office with my father when everything was quiet there, before we headed off on one adventure or another. Viewed in my perspective now, those adventures were really just work, and I was probably a pest, but I was a little kid with my father, and that was all that mattered.
The press was only supposed to be quiet on weekends. The Linotype and Ludlow machines that acted as backups for the temperamental modern phototypesetter were cool, but not cold, since their lead pots had to remain ever-ready for work. The phototypesetter stank a little less on Saturdays when it was not operating.
I loved the dark, dusty cavernous ceilings of the newspaper office, where bound
editions and clip art books were stacked up front, and a Formica-covered
countertop built by the founder of the newspaper in the first part of the 20 th century greeted visitors. The railroad was less than a stone’s throw out the front door, and every passing train caused plaster and dust to shake from the ceiling, drifting in the light of the bare bulbs and a scant few flickering fluorescents.
My father’s tiny office was stacked with copies of the Congressional Record
stretching back to the First World War. The curious reader could read the official
comments of politicians long since dead and forgotten, on topics that were little
more than drops of ink on the historical record, alongside important things that
changed our country.
Those big paperbound books were also handy for use as a booster seat when a little kid needed to be able to reach the typewriter so he could pretend to write a news story. I may have been perched on one of those stacks when I wrote my first “real” piece, but I think I was able to reach the keyboard from a chair by then.
On the weekends, the office was peaceful in its darkness and near-silence.
Sometimes the Associated Press ticker would suddenly begin hammering out news from across the nation and around the world, startling anyone who hadn’t noticed the red light that signaled an incoming story. Sometimes the appropriately and ironically named Mr. Casper was there. He was a tiny, skinny man who made a sort- of living by sweeping the floors and emptying the trash. Occasionally he slept in the big boxes of scrap paper, making noises that would not have been out of place had he been a real ghost lurking in the shadows of the old building. The only consistent sound was my father’s manual typewriter, jamming ancient engraved letters through an inked ribbon to impress words on a piece of yellow paper, as it had done since the early years of the Great Depression, more than 30 years before I was born.
Our newspaper was a slumbering beast on weekends, and slept as any well-trained beast should be able to as it prepared to stretch and go back to work.
By 7 a.m. on Monday, the beast would re-awaken, with lights burning and phones jangling and people talking and machines humming, banging and roaring. And the press, which everything we did was designed to feed, rolled and roared hungrily along, a beast that the newspaper staff fed and were fed by in return.
Tuesday, April 25, 1978, was a beautiful spring day. A new department store had
opened in town. It was an election year, and back then almost every political event was covered. One of the towns in our readership was mulling a water and sewer project. A man had stabbed another one in a drunken fight, and in turn been hit with a baseball bat, but both were expected to recover and face charges.
Any other Tuesday afternoon, the newspaper would have been busy and noisy. Mr. Billy or my mother would fuss at the boys who gathered our papers to run our routes. Miss Louise would complain and gossip and answer the phone and take subscriptions across the worn Formica. Mr. Buzz would be running the press with Tim, who we all thought was cool. Mr. Johnny would be counting dimes (he managed the paperboys) or preparing to go cover a baseball game.
But on this day, I was the only kid in the office. Not many of the adults were left, for that matter, after the last copies of the last edition came off the press, and the Goss shut down with an almost anticlimactic flip of a switch or two.
Across the top of the front page, in two lines across all eight columns, were the
words I refused to believe. I refused to read anything past “Dispatch to cease
My parents had already told me things would be changing very soon, that the
newspaper we called our own (although they just worked there) would be closing, bought out by the competition. That offended me, since sometimes the boys with the Dispatch and the boys with the other paper engaged in fistfights to defend the respective honor of our publications. You didn’t just sell out to the enemy, although as I grew up I realized that while they were the competition, they weren’t really the enemy. Our paper was old and tired; theirs was not. It was just the changing times. I kept my chin up as I ran my route, delivering small stacks to the bus station, the service station, then the store where I bought comics and candy, the pharmacy, and the uptown grocery store. The Old Man picked me up as always, and we ran the rest of the route to the other vendors. I don’t remember what we talked about, but oddly enough, I don’t think it was the newspaper. When we got back to the office, as always, there were some loose ends to tie up for the day. I wandered to the back, as I often did.
The machines were cool, and everything was dark and quiet. Not as quiet as a
Saturday, of course, since there was traffic outside the stone walls and phones still jangled, but the building was quiet in a different way, a scary way.
It frightened me, and not in the delicious haunted house way of a quiet Saturday
morning when they AP would rattle and write its stories by magic.
The silence scared me in a way I had never before experienced, so like any kid –
even if I was a strapping 12 year old – I headed for the safety of my dad’s little
That was when I heard another noise, one that frightened me even worse than the silence, a silence that was so wrong. For the first time in my life, coming from the office in the corner, I could hear my father crying quietly. He was 63 years old, with a wife and son, and had to start over. He had no real idea what he was going to do, but he felt the weight on his shoulders, and he was afraid. And for the first time in my life, I too knew real fear.
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 do so. I also made a promise to myself that day, about another column. Lord willing, you’ll read that one in a few days.Share: