Breaking In


Breaking In
I had known our office manager, Madonna, for several years during my Correspondent-from-Harper column days.  In the first couple of weeks at her side she taught me the fine art of dealing with small town folks who took their weekly newspaper very personally.
She taught me to be courteous to irate subscribers calling in to say they didn’t get their paper, sympathetic to the bereaved bringing in obituaries, quick to move when the boss set the wastebasket on fire with a live cigarette, tolerant when it rained and the back shop filled up with huge puddles of water, and how to make myself scarce when the boss was on a rampage--usually the day the paper was put to bed.
And you never said a swear word out loud when visitors were present.
Madonna was the soul of discretion.  She was the kind of person who said "Excuse me" when someone else broke wind, but she never took any guff from anyone if she knew she was in the right.  I don't know how I would have survived my orientation period had it not been for her cheerful, lighthearted guidance.  She had the "everything will turn out okay" attitude that I lacked, because I was always sure  nothing would ever turn out okay, especially when I made a mistake.
I'd been in the outer office a few weeks when Ace came crashing through the door to announce my promotion--to news editor!  I had written an obituary during lunch when nobody else was around to take it.  It was a simple chore and not deserving of any praise, I thought.  I had even left out the date of the funeral.  But no matter--Ace thought my talents were being wasted with office duties, so back I went on the strength of a local citizen's demise, God bless him!
It took about a week at the knee of my editor to learn how to "slug" my copy, write a headline, shoot (and develop) my own pictures, and swear like a longshoreman. (The latter I tried hard to keep in check).
In addition to Madonna, Ace and myself, there were two full time employees at the Independent; Stella, an elderly, church-going lady who wore an old fashioned house dress as she punched out copy on the Line-O-Type machine, and Fred and later on Cam, who did everything from setting type, to running the press, to melting down the lead, to sweeping up the back shop after the paper was published and bundled off to the post office each week. Cleaning out the toilet and making coffee was delegated to me, although cleaning the toilet was by choice since the only bathroom at The Independent doubled as the darkroom, which was my domain.
As we rolled, then roared, toward the weekly deadlines the area behind the outer office began to resemble the county dump. Periodic warnings from the Fire Marshall's office encouraged us to keep a pathway from the fire box (where the lead was melted down each week after the paper came out) to the back door (where the resident rodents hid during the day) in case of emergencies.
For the first couple of months our publisher was a voice on the phone and a signature on my weekly paycheck.  I soon fell madly in love with him for giving me a $5 bonus after a particularly difficult week, and for granting me a raise to $80 a week when I was promoted to the editorial staff.
Jack Rogers was a colorful figure in newspaper as well as political circles, having served in the Washington State Senate for a few years before they brought him up on what I was convinced was a bogus income tax charge.
He was a six-foot-two imposing figure of a man, a white shock of wavy hair topping handsome rugged features when I first met him face to face one day on a ferry ride to Seattle.  I recognized him from photos and went over to introduce myself. He said, "Oh, yes...(long pause)'re the one with the breezy style of writing."
Man of few words. Breezy style?? I wondered if he meant my columns and editorials were light and easy to read?  Full of hot air?  What?  I decided not to pursue it.
I did make a point of scrutinizing my copy after that brief encounter, but not knowing what I was looking for, I never did find out what my publisher meant by "breezy".
     Mostly I took my cues from Ace who rarely criticized any of my writing.  He hardly ever complained about my work, but on production day I used to go into fits of depression when I would see yards of witty and incredibly clever prose cut from my stories during paste-up and cast aside on the shop floor.
I attributed most of this insensitive editing to Bernice, the boss's wife, who was called in to help put out the paper.  She clearly had no talent for recognizing genius or wit.
Sometimes I'd hang around after everybody went to lunch and rummage through the wastebasket to retrieve those scraps of golden story ends to tack onto columns in later issues.
Improvements to the plant came in rushes during the first year I worked at the Independent.  Partitions were slapped into place on weekends to provide more-or-less private offices for Ace and me.  Before that the only privacy we had around there was in the toilet/darkroom.
Homemade light tables were constructed by Ace and served the purpose until the day he stuck his elbow through one of them and bled all over the freshly pasted up pages.
     During the transition period from hot metal to the cold type (offset) method of printing the paper, accidents were frequent…and I'm sure Bandaid stock soared…with the regular occurrence of Exacto-blade mishaps.
Production day resembled a three-ring circus with film processed and developed into screened prints, original copy and headlines transformed into strips of justified, ready-to-paste-up slicks, followed by pages being assembled at the Port Orchard plant. These were then transported to another plant 30 miles away, the Kitsap County Herald in Poulsbo, where negatives and plates were made.  These final plates were then trucked via ferryboat to a printing company in Seattle where the papers were printed and folded, and finally delivered back to the office in Port Orchard for final labeling and distribution.  In the wee hours of the next morning the job was complete with only hand-trucking of the copies to be mailed to the post office a block away, and news stand copies taken to the stores around town.
It seemed to me a time-consuming, labor-intensive operation for a circulation of 4,000.  I suspect a large portion of our expenses went into the gas tank and even at 32-cents a gallon in those days it had to amount to a sizable expense in putting out our little weekly newspaper.
     The next day at the Independent office you could have shot  off a cannon in the back shop and not hit anything alive.  Nothing moved.  Least of all me.