Wednesday, November 21, 2007

One of the best of the last of a breed

My friend Ed French was part of a world that no longer exists, a world that now seems as far away as the days of the horse and buggy, although it came to an end only within the last 40 years.

Ed, who died last weekend, was a newspaper printer for 44 years, a period that included the days when hot type was set by Linotype operators, the days when anyone visiting a newspaper would be greeted by the caressing aroma of ink and paper, the olfactory equivalent of a siren song to those who were susceptible to the charms of newspapering, charms I willingly surrendered to as a high school student interested in journalism.

By the time I entered the business a few years later, computers had turned the Linotype into a museum piece. Hot type had bowed to "cold type," which was either set by an editor pushing a button on a newsroom computer or scanned into the system by a printer using hard copy. Ed and his remaining colleagues were at the other end of this process, pasting up stories after they came out of a machine in the composing room.

I often had to work in the composing room, troubleshooting problems under the always cocked trigger of the deadline gun. Some of the folks in the composing room were good at paste-up. Others were not so good. A couple of them could put a piece of type in straight only if an earthquake struck on deadline, and it had better be at least a 7.0 on the Richter scale.

But Ed French was pretty near perfect. I can still see him tilting his head this way and that, his omnipresent pipe in his bearded mouth, checking the completed page from seemingly every conceivable angle before turning it in to the technicians who would use it to make the printing plate.

After hours Ed and I would get a jump on the next day's paper, all the while discussing old movies. The composing room was hardly Gertrude Stein's salon, but if you had to be somewhere other than your own home at 2:30 in the morning, Ed French was very good company.

Many times, earlier in a shift, we'd have an exchange like this:

"Hey, Ed, we've lost another one!"


"Greer Garson died! Just came over the wire!"

He'd puff his pipe, shake his head. "They're droppin' like flies!"

Other quotes from Chairman Ed:

Upon noting that an editor has sent out a story that's way too long for the assigned space: "You can't get 10 pounds of (expletive deleted) in a five-pound bag!"

Upon examining a graphic or a layout plan that he deemed too arty: "Yeh, this'll sell a lot of papers!"

And he'd bitch, and he'd grumble, and he'd groan -- and then he'd get the job done, making that crazy graphic or layout work, getting it done better than just about anyone else.

No one does paste-up anymore, at least not by hand. It's all computerized; someone in the newsroom presses a button, and a fully formed plate comes out at the other end of the building, ready for the presses. It's streamlined and efficient, and people like me no longer have to go to the composing room and garner more gray hairs on deadline.

Heck, there isn't even a composing room anymore, not that I miss it.

Mr. French retired many years ago. I ran into him once or twice at company clambakes. Now that I, too, am retired, I had hoped to talk to him again.

We've lost another one, Ed.

1 comment:

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

A fitting tribute, Mark. You conjured up memories I thought were lost.