My Life Story


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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.

 

shutterstock_cocaine-2For several years, I transcribed police reports for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department in West Michigan. A vivid memory from that period is the day a stranger asked me to arrest her.

It was a sunny spring day, so I was eating my sack lunch at a picnic table behind the sheriff’s office when a car pulled into the parking lot and a smartly dressed young woman got out. She approached me and asked, “Would you arrest me?”

I explained that I was a member of the clerical staff, not an officer, so I didn’t have the authority to arrest anyone. “Well, I need someone to arrest me because I’m on my way to a crack house,” she said.

I called my sergeant, who came outside to hear her story with me. She lived in a fashionable suburban home not far from our office. In fact, she was hosting a Tupperware party that morning, so a couple dozen ladies were in her living room at that moment. She had excused herself to buy refreshments at the local grocery, but the truth was that she wanted a “hit” of cocaine. She was en route to her dealer’s house in a seedy part of Grand Rapids with enough money in her purse to buy what she needed. “I can’t help myself,” she told us. “Please lock me up so I don’t do this.”

My sergeant asked a series of questions. Did she have any drugs or drug paraphernalia in her possession? No. Was she “high” on drugs at the moment? No. Was the money stolen? No. “Then I’m sorry, but I can’t arrest you,” he said. “I have no legal reason to detain you.”

She broke down and wept.

Sgt. Van Beek was my supervisor, but there was another reason I’d called him. He was studying for the pastoral ministry through a correspondence program of Moody Bible Institute, so together we could offer assistance of a different kind. We joined hands around the picnic table and prayed for her. Then the sergeant called a pastor friend to meet and counsel with her that afternoon.

I don’t know the rest of her story, though I certainly hope God enabled her to break out of the addiction that was destroying her life. But I will never forget the desperate look in the eyes of that attractive woman who asked, “Would you arrest me?”