The Compositor

This story was told by my Uncle Joe, my mom’s eldest brother. Anthony, their father, died when my mom was just a little girl and Uncle Joe was 14 years old. As the years rolled forward, he became the keeper of their father’s stories. This is one of them.  compositor1

My father was a printer—a compositor, as he liked to say. He was the guy who set the type.  He had to be very good or they never would’ve picked him year after year to make those fancy calendars at Christmas time for the company’s best customers.  The calendar had to look like a picture but made from pieces of type. All year long Dad kept his eye out for good pieces of type just in case he got picked again.

Dad started working on the calendar in October. He would work his regular shift, then on the calendar for overtime.  I especially liked the opera box. There was a guy, in a tux, reading the program by the light of a huge fancy chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The wife, dressed in a fancy gown and jewelry, looked out of the opera box. The details of the drapes, side lamps, and borders were incredible. I’m lucky my mother saved that one. She always threw out stuff, like our marbles and baseball cards, and we’d have to start over every time those seasons came around again.

Then Dad got laid off. I couldn’t figure out why.  He never got drunk or fought. There was plenty of screaming and hollering in my family, but he never started anything. And he would be the one settling the arguments.  On weekends, I would often find him reading and using the dictionary. He told mom how he could out-spell all the guys at work and always won the bets as to where a hyphen had to placed.

So, how come Pat, who came in drunk, or Mike, who started fights, or Nick, who couldn’t spell or know where to put the hyphen, did not get laid off?  None of those guys ever got picked to make a calendar.  My friend, Monty, said we should cut our name in half and make it sound English.  When I told dad, he didn’t say anything, but his face got mad.

One day, I came home from school and found a machine in my bedroom.  It was made of iron, stood taller than me and was very heavy.  It had a foot pedal and a flywheel bigger than a car wheel.  There was a round plate on top for the printer’s ink. The plate spun part way ‘round on a ratchet each time the rollers rumbled over it, then over the type.  It had levers and gears and rods that made all the parts work together. It would feed the paper over the type then kick it out in time for the next sheet. It never missed no matter how fast you made it go. The rumble of the rollers, the sticky sound of the ink, the tinkle of the plate with the clicking of the ratchet, the whoosh of the flywheel and the beat of the pedal were the magician’s music making the print appear on the pages flying out of the flapping mouth.

Dad named the press Diana, after my little sister. I didn’t get it. All a little sister could do was play jacks and jump rope. Dad’s machine could do much more than that.  He should’ve picked a better name, like Hercules, and then it wouldn’t have been so bad to take the fliers to school, in my knickers, and ask the teacher if it would be all right to pass them out to the kids in class. The kids razzed me double that day and made airplanes out of them.  If any got their homes, it didn’t bring in any business.

But around October, dad was busy every spare minute setting his type with a little metal tool that had a slide and markings, then putting that line in a wooden frame that fit in the press.  When he got it composed, he’d give it a try. Then he’d put in tiny shims to straighten out a line or a letter or make the type sit up higher or sit down lower.  Then, he’d try it again, and again, and again, and again.

Come Dececompositor2mber, dad had finished.  It was a card with a border pressed right into the stiff card paper. In green ink, there was a poem in the shape of a Christmas tree with the first letter of each sentence in red ink.  It started with the letter “A” in red to give the tree an ornament at the peak. It flared out to make the tree, came in for the trunk then flared again for the stand.  Our name was printed at the bottom, right under the stand at the end of the poem, in neat black letters.  From across the room, it looked like a painting of a Christmas tree, with red ornaments, on a stand sitting on a little black rug.

It didn’t fold. It wasn’t anything like the cards my friends sent.  Their cards folded and had real pictures of real trees.  Ours was a Christmas tree made from the green letters of a poem with red capital letters.  It was like the tree was reciting, giving out that Christmas-y warmth.  The ink had a shine, and it stood out from the card.  I could imagine the feel of a Christmas tree when I ran my fingers over it. Every card came out perfect.  It was all we had to give that Christmas.


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