Sounds we no longer hear are the loudest memories

“It’s a long leap from newspaper stories typeset on Linotypes to publishing news as it happens using a device that fits in a shirt pocket.” — Leon Aldridge 2020 

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Once familiar sounds we never hear anymore. That thought came to mind while reading a 1981 clipping last week. Sounds like those made by my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine as she gently rocked the foot peddle and guided pieces of fabric under the needle to craft my shirts. Mom’s percolator pot brewing coffee. A Linotype machine in a country newspaper back shop.

Chances of hearing a treadle sewing machine or a percolator coffee pot these days are better than hearing the noisy clatter of a Linotype. That sound was almost gone when Garrett Ray wrote his column 39 years ago to the day I’m drafting this one. “Someday, all too soon, no one will be left who remembers the clatter of a Model 14 Linotype in a country newspaper shop,” he wrote. Ray’s aging admonition and my thoughts of another birthday in January, Lord willing, prompted me to pen some memories while I still have them.

“Cold type” offset presses were already taking over newspaper printing when I heard my first hot-metal typesetting machine run in the very early 1960s, but my grandmother was still sewing on her ancient Singer. The number of birthdays mentioned above hinders me from sharing much about experiencing the old Linotype other than I accompanied my father to The Titus County Tribune print shop located in a building behind the north-end Dairy Queen in Mount Pleasant. I think the man operating it on a warm summer night was a Mr. King. 

Ray’s memories were much better than mine when he wrote about remembering cold winter mornings and the country weekly where he worked near his home. “I walked anticipating the warmth I knew would greet me at the office door. No matter how early I arrived, the Linotype operators always got there first to turn up the gas under the lead pots, oil the bearings, and make the coffee.” 

“I never operated a line casting machine,” Ray also wrote. “I never did more than touch the keyboard to see where ‘etaoin shrdlu’ came from. But I marveled at those men and women who shared a love-hate relationship with their Linotypes.” 

Like Ray, I never operated one either. But I learned the meaning of the nonsensical typesetter’s phrase from Morris Craig at The Monitor in Naples, who did. Linotype keyboards had black keys on the left for small letters, white keys on the right for capital letters, and blue keys in the center for numbers, punctuation marks, spaces, and other items. The first two columns of keys on the left were e-t-a-o-i-n and s-h-r-d-l-u. If an operator typed an error, he or she would note it by running fingers down those two rows as code for the proofreader to remove that line.

While working for Craig in the 1970s, I also learned about other memories Ray wrote about. “I loved the smooth heft of a solid brass pica pole, burnished and glowing from everyday use.” Seems I recall Craig having a brass pica pole, a typesetting ruler also known as a “line gauge.” More common during my tenure were the thin steel type. Still keeping company with a few old rolls of border tape in my desk drawer is mine from The Monitor. Or was it The East Texas Light or The Boerne Star?

The last Linotype I saw working was at the Shiner Gazette in the mid-90s, but I don’t recall why I was there. Maybe it’s that birthday thing again or maybe it’s the stronger memory of the sound I heard upon entering the building: the unmistakable clatter of a Linotype machine. There it sat in the heat of the back-shop area still doing time, by then for job printing. I wonder if it’s still in operation.

As I peck on my modern-day laptop about hot type, I’m also wondering what a Linotype operator from those days would think about the long leap in writing news stories that many of us have seen. Especially typing stories as events happen and publishing them worldwide with photos and video on a device that fits in a shirt pocket.

It could even be a shirt sewn on a treadle sewing machine…if there is anyone left who still uses one.

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