Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Listen to the Rumble

A pleasant phone call from old high school friend Jim Shea caused me to reflect once again on how dramatically computers have changed the way information is processed and exchanged in our world. Shea was a co-worker on what was to be my very first job in publishing. The contrast to my most recent contact with the publishing industry is remarkable.

Several months ago, designer Arik Thuesen and I put together a 300-page book during a series of sessions in his electronic studio. We seldom had to move from our two chairs in front of his multi-screened computer display. When we were satisfied with the outcome, Thuesen merely pressed the “send” button. Our document was on the way from Utah to New York. “It’ll take them a while to download that,” he said.

In less than 10 minutes, a message popped onto our screen: “You are published.” Although not a single page had been printed, the book was just as available as though thousands of copies were stacked in a warehouse. When someone ordered one, a finished copy could be generated from the electronic version in a matter of minutes.

Sixty years ago, anyone who said this would one day be possible would have been laughed out of town. Type for publications was produced by ponderous linotype machines, or put together letter-by-letter by hand. Big, slow presses generated the pages, and workers had to assemble and bind the pages to finalize the document.

Jim Shea and I were among the workers who assembled a new edition of the telephone book for the City of Medford, Wisconsin, in about 1950. The others were Jim’s brother, Danny, and Charlie Bebeau. The age gap in the temporary workforce was noteworthy. Jim, Danny, and I were young teenagers. Bebeau was a Spanish-American War veteran (the only one I ever met) and one of the oldest residents of Tomahawk. The publishers of the Tomahawk Leader had won the directory printing contract and hired us to work a few hours daily after school to assemble the pages. We worked on the project for about a week for 50 cents an hour.

The printed phone book pages were arrayed in some 20 piles along a wooden bench in the bindery section of the Leader printing plant. The Shea brothers and I continually walked down the line picking up individual pages. When we had a set, we placed it neatly in a stack next to Bebeau, who ran a machine called a saddle-stitcher that put two staples in each directory as he manipulated the stack of pages into just the right places.

My recollection is that we put together 2,000 directories. Whenever a substantial number had been stitched, Loren Osborne, one of the brothers who owned the publishing company, appeared to trim the books on a paper cutter. The machine weighed several tons, and its knife could have removed a finger or a hand as easily as it could slice through a stack of phone books. Osborne was a careful man.

Osborne also was a man of few words. He said very little, and his few pronouncements almost always were delivered quietly. So it was a somewhat startling spectacle to watch him in action on the day the Leader was printed. Osborne perched atop a big flatbed press as he fed large sheets of paper into the extremely noisy machine. The back part of the building shook when the press was running. When Osborne hit the button that got the press rolling, he launched into a song at the top of his voice. He almost seemed to be engaged in a contest to see if he or the press could generate the most volume.

Osborne’s song was appropriate. The chorus of “The Wabash Cannonball” opens with the words, “Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar. . .”

No comments: