Opinion: Recollections of a printing press

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By Ward Degler

We watched a movie the other night that wove its plot around, among other things, a printing press. Not just any press, either. This was an antique Heidelberg Platen Press, the kind with the big flywheel on the side and a large, flat metal platen where the ink is smeared.

That press played a big role in my life when I was in third grade. It was part of the weekly newspaper in the southern Missouri town where my dad worked as a forester.

Dad always stopped at the newspaper office after work on Wednesdays to pick up the current edition. One day, I went with him. Inside the office, I was instantly mesmerized by the clank-clank-clank of that press while the operator deftly and rhythmically placed one sheet of paper after another on the bed of the press. Dad had to say my name three times before I heard him when it was time to leave.

On the way home, all I could think of was, ‘Wow!’ The next day, Dad informed me that the paper wanted to hire me after school. It didn’t matter that the job was sweeping the floor and doing odd jobs. I was going to spend hours in the same room as that magnificent printing press.

Part of my job was running around town collecting advertising copy from local merchants. I moved quickly from store to store so that I could get back to that press.

Like most small towns back then, commerce relied heavily on printed flyers that could be stuck in mailboxes and on car windshields. That was what the Heidelberg was for. The newspaper was printed on a larger flatbed press in the back of the office.

After sweeping the floor on Wednesdays after the paper came out, my biggest job was separating the type used to print the flyers and return it to the wooden type case. I learned that case was called a California Job Case, and the newspaper had 30 or 40 of them, each for a different type font. I also learned that type was set in a handheld metal box called a stick, and that the frame it was set into for printing was called a chase.

I also learned that a stick or chase of type spilled onto the floor was called pied type. Still, I loved every minute of it.

We moved away after that summer, and even though I kept my eyes open, I never found another newspaper office that would hire me to clean up around its Heidelberg press. But I did wind up in journalism school and spent a lot of time writing and editing. And, of course, remembering my first newspaper job.

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