After my family moved from Fredericktown to our farm on the Black River, my mother wrote freelance articles for the Mountain Echo in Ironton, which was then owned by Richard and Isla Armfield. They were a lovely pair or people, old-fashioned newspaper folks down to their toes. Richard suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which ultimately led to their selling the paper, but when I knew him he just walked with an odd gait and showed a minor tremor in his hands. Isla was an elegant dresser and extremely cordial, who was engaged in all sorts of community groups.
But the person I’m thinking about today was one of the back-shop guys, a printer named Wilbur Larkin. Sometimes when my mom traveled to Ironton I would accompany her, and I always found myself drifting into the back shop to watch the printers work. Although the paper was printed elsewhere, the Mountain Echo had a thriving job printing business, with Wilbur and another gentleman whose name will occur to me as I continue (I hope – I think it was Kenneth, but can’t be sure).
Wilbur was the master of two machines. One was a Linotype, an honest-to-goodness Linotype, which fascinated me to no end. I remember the distinctive, horrid smell of molten lead that emanated from the machine when Wilbur fired it up; there was a container on top, where he would toss in some lead blanks and whatever waste pieces of type were lying around from previous jobs, and once the lead had melted properly, he would set the font size and line width and then begin typing the new job on a weird keyboard that bore little resemblance to the standard QWERTY keyboard used by everything else. Lead would run down a little channel and be formed, letter by letter, into a line of type (thus the name), which would then be ejected into a receiving rack on the side. I was always warned to keep my hands away from the finished product, because as you can imagine, it stayed hot for quite a while. It was like watching a cathedral organist at work: intense, concentrated hand movements on an oversized apparatus, incomprehensible to the casual observer.
The other machine was a platen press. This one was electric, although there was a treadle-operated one elsewhere in the shop. Wilbur would daub a paddleful of ink (also strictly do-not-touch) onto the platen, then gradually accelerate into the on-off rhythm of placing a sheet of paper or posterboard into the frame in the moment of open space when the inked lettering was retreating from contact while simultaneously removing the newly printed sheet. Left hand out, right hand in. It was beautiful to watch, made even more so by the fact, repeated to me more than once, that despite the gentle, musical clanking of the machine, any finger that happened to be between paper and type at the moment of printing would be crushed. The platen press was mainly used for posters, and Wilbur kept several composing sticks hanging on the wall in which he would set the type; for the largest sizes, display type over an inch tall, he actually used wooden letterblocks instead of metal ones. I marveled at the cases of two- and three-inch type from which he would pluck the needed words: the number of letters was limited, so if your poster was something like “Massasoit for Assessor,” it might require two passes on the printing press so that the s’s could be reset onto the second line. Years later, I found a couple of job sticks and a type case at a garage sale; I bought them and still have them as souvenirs.
Wilbur was a soft-spoken man who didn’t seem bothered by my presence but didn’t exactly encourage it, either. But he tolerated me, let me watch, and answered my questions with patient good humor.
Few things in life are as satisfying as the sense of mastery: of a subject, a challenge, a tool, an activity. It’s always thrilling to watch someone who’s a master: I think that’s part of the reason for the popularity of professional sports, watching people whose skills are so clearly at a peak. But mastery takes many forms, all of which deserve honor. We tend to associate mastery with physical skills and to bemoan their diminishment. To some extent, that’s true; there’s aren’t as many master saddlemakers or quilters as there once were. But we shouldn’t overlook other forms of mastery. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to watch other masters, digital masters, at work, with design programs, data management programs, and others. And the speed and assuredness with which they work is just as thrilling to me. It’s just as amazing to watch over the shoulder of someone who’s creating a unique design on screen as it was to watch my dad peer into the innards of malfunctioning hay baler out in the field and diagnose its problem within a few minutes, or to watch Wilbur Larkin perform a sonata on the Linotype.