My first paying job was at a county-seat weekly newspaper called the Herald & Tribune in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Founded in 1869, the H&T had survived many competitors across the years and dared to test its survival again by hiring a farm boy like me. After working part-time as cub reporter and delivery boy during my high-school years, I presented myself to the owner right after graduation and asked if he could use me full-time before I went off to college in Indiana that fall.
Bill Breeden exhaled a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and asked what I wanted to do. With dreams of journalistic fame percolating in my brain, I said, “Anything! I want to learn this business from the ground up!”
He led me downstairs to the employees’ rest room, where he pointed to the porcelain sink and commode, stained black by many years of printer’s ink. Bill took another long drag on his cigarette and said, “Make ’em gleam.”
After three days of back-breaking work and several cans of Comet cleanser, I made ’em gleam, so Bill hired me as their full-time printer’s devil. “Printer’s devil” is a term of art meaning the lowest, most servile employee of the press room–a minion who could be summoned to do any grimy, slimy job that no one else wanted to do.
The term “devil” seemed fitting in an old-time printing establishment, where electric pots of lead alloy simmered 24/7 on the Linotype machines and delivery doors swung open so frequently that no one bothered to install air conditioning. It was a purgatory of a place to learn the newspaper business.
Our pressman resigned after a particularly heated exchange with the foreman, so the task of running the newspaper press fell to me. Our press was a 50-year-old Goss Suburban flatbed that printed 8 pages at a time from a continuous stream (“web”) of paper. After putting new pages on press, it inevitably needed some coaxing and fine-tuning to print them with proper margins and cut-offs, so I was fiddling with that when the pressman stuck his head in the door to see how I was doing. “You need to tighten the tension on the web,” he yelled over the press. “Turn that handle clockwise.”
I gasped the control he indicated and gave it a full twist. The press seized up. A heavy steel idler bar flew out the back and slammed into the cinder-block wall. Paper spewed everywhere while I waited for the press to coast to a stop. The pressman grinned, shook his head, and disappeared.
The Herald & Tribune survived more than a century of devils like me, which is quite a tribute to the perseverance of its owners. It’s still there.