READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This month we bring you Klancy Clark de Nevers, author of the memoir Lessons in Printing ( Scattered Leaves Press, 2018), which we excerpt below.
Clark de Nevers has also published two nonfiction books, as well numerous poems and articles. Recently, her essay, “My Life with Fonts,” appeared in Cagibi Literary Magazine.
Although she resides in Salt Lake City, Clark de Nevers indulges her printer’s-daughter-self by searching out letterpress museums, type foundries, old print shops, and working linotypes all over the world. Visit her website at www.KlancydeNevers.com.
Lessons in Printing
If a piece of paper gets into my house for a day, I’ll save it forever.
Some in my family had a penchant for alcohol. I’m addicted to preservation. So was my mother. My inheritance from her is box after box of memorabilia. When I lugged them into the package store near her last home, the clerk who helped ship them to Utah teased that my mother must have been a rock collector. But really, it was just paper. We’ve never thrown away postcards, dance cards, opera programs, airplane boarding stubs, birthday cards, train schedules, birth announcements, report cards, children’s art, newspaper clippings, books by our relatives, books we plan to read someday. Aunt Barbara saved her long-mourned cat’s whiskers, carefully labeled in a jewelry box. We raise the value of mundane things just by nesting them in shoe boxes, stuffing them into picture frames, stacking them in corners or under the stairs. Holding on to them. Letting the ink, and the paper, age, like fine wine.
This preservation project may hold the key to understanding my printer father, and to clarify why, from the time I turned twenty, I wrote my father off as a lost cause.
Librarians call the jumble of personal effects that one gives to an archive ephemera. That word makes me laugh. From the dictionary: ephemera–noun–items of short-lived interest or usefulness, especially those that later acquire value to collectors. Its Greek origin signifies “things lasting only a day.”
In my hand is the physical evidence that in 1941, my father, Kearny Clark, bought a Chrysler Windsor convertible with white sidewall tires for $953 with a trade-in. I remember the freedom of driving that shiny black car—the keys were always in it—the red leather upholstery, the leaky canvas top. My mother saved this receipt for fifty-two years, and I’ve stored it for another twenty or so. It bears my father’s signature, and he probably printed the sale form used by Hahn Motors. How can I throw all that away?
A piece of the EKG printout from Mother’s death bed shows the steady but irregular heartbeat that held until her other organs failed. The tape rests in an album beside her leather-bound high school diploma and a poem in spidery writing celebrating her marriage: “…To you he’s The Only One…/ So you gained by marrying / without tarrying /…Yours Cordially, Grandmother Cochran.”
I regret items that got away from us: Mother’s wooden peach box of family photos left behind during a hasty move; the letter my sister Kathy wrote from Kentucky as she learned to cook squirrel and was deciding not to marry the man who shot it; The Child’s Garden of Verses that Mother illuminated with water colors while she read it to my brother and me, which my sister-in-law took; my father’s old record of “St. James Infirmary,” no longer playable. I regularly go back to the cupboard where I last saw one of the many slugs that my father made for me in his print shop. It was a shiny casting of printer’s lead that I could press onto a stamp pad, then on paper to print a name. The first one said Nancy, my childhood name; a later one read Clark, because he made it for my son. The slug was always done in a cursive font, such as this:Monotype Corsiva, sometimes used for headlines. Nancy is not there.
These amassed materials open a window to my father. Tangible items like old 78 records tingle my memory, and letters and clippings fill in gaps to help me understand the boy and the man he was before I came along and started noticing things for myself. In among a daughter’s discarded dresses, I keep some of the bound volumes of his weekly paper, the Grays Harbor Post,and microfilm of the rest. Of course, there’s an old, awkward microfilm reader on a shelf above them, the better to look at my family’s hard-to-focus past.
One day I typed up a formal chronology of my father’s days on earth; my own life enters the list at his quarter-century mark. His breakdown makes a dark mark twenty years later. He and I coexist on the page for thirty-three years. The lineup of family events, births and marriages continues onto several new pages. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, I got news of the arrival of his eighteenth great-grandchild.
I’m a writer, a retired teacher and software engineer, a wife and mother, a grandmother. I am also the daughter of that loving but melancholy printer who inherited a small print shop based on old technology, operating in a town in decline. A daughter trying to understand her ambivalent feelings toward that father.
I want to tell you how he lived. And died.
Excerpt from Chapter 2: My Brief Career as a Bindery Girl
Help Wanted: Casual employment as a bindery worker in a print shop. Finishing tasks such as folding, numbering, assembling, stapling, counting, bundling, and wrapping printing jobs for delivery. Familiarity with standard proofreaders’ marks helpful. Only relatives of the bossneed apply.
When my grandfather ran the print shop, the front office looked more like a hunting lodge than a newspaper office. To make sure posterity would know of his prowess in the outdoors he called in B.B. Jones and sat for a photograph. The Boss in a dark vest, pinstripes, shirt sleeves, and tie sits in a swivel chair at a sturdy table beside his cluttered roll top desk. Books and stacks of papers crowd the table’s surface. A panoramic photo of Grays Harbor in 1910 and a large framed portrait of his youngest son, my father, a toddler in a knitted snowsuit holding a tin horn and standing on a Victorian carved chair, attest to his love of town and family. The door to the rest of the print shop and his stenographer’s work area is blocked by a stuffed Roosevelt elk.
In life, that half-ton creature roamed the Olympic Mountains; its species had been named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. My grandfather, The Great White Hunter, shot it, and kept it, I’m sure, to impress his friends and to commemorate a successful trip into the woods he loved. How did the taxidermist get it there? In its preserved magnificence, its antlers rose at least a foot and a half above the doorway, and its substantial body filled an entire third of the room. A spittoon stood at hand near the elk’s hind legs. J.W. Clark, his desks, and two wooden chairs took up the rest.
By the time my father took charge of the shop, the elk had found a home in the lobby of the Elk’s Club and the front office had become female territory. Three large wooden office desks filled the room, one for the office girl, one for the society editor or any other part-timer, and a third for the occasional news man. A sturdy black Diebold safe, with a pastoral scene that split in half when the heavy doors opened, stood against the west wall that for years had seen the rump of the elk.
The office girl served as stenographer and girl-Friday, with her finger on the pulse of Quick Print Co. She answered the phone and used a jerry-built intercom to notify men in the back shop of phone calls or messages, she proofread all copy, collected time sheets, typed invoices, handled the mail, balanced the bank account, and more. She added a welcomed female presence to a holiday party in the back shop.
I recall an Amy, a Gertie, a Maggie. This summer it was Emmy Laaksonen who would mentor me through the weeks [before my parents and I would drive away to New York]. I loved to hear her talk to her grandmother in noon-time telephone conversations—the stream of Finnish language a lilting and melodic delight.
The only office space my father claimed for himself had been carved out of the bindery room between the office and the back shop. A flimsy partition along the window wall created two compartments the depth of the roll-top desk, an area everyone called the “Hell-Hole.” One compart-ment was my father’s, the other was available for the sports writer.
My father’s sleek two-toned green Corona portable typewriter with a green ribbon usually sat on a small table next to the desk in his compartment. Over the years he typed out editorials, obituaries, letters, and wills on his trusty machine. This was the same machine I had set on our ping pong table in order to teach myself to type, pecking out several acts by Shakespeare: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” and “Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Alas, it is now an aging artifact in my family archive, having succumbed to a broken carriage-cable. Where would I find parts for an eighty-year-old typewriter?
Friday mornings, my father put on the old green eyeshade and took his seat at the Linotype keyboard. If he had not thumped out his editorial at the kitchen table the night before, he wrote it there and then. The galley of slugs would still be warm as he or Uncle Alec locked it into the frame while composing the editorial page.
Emmy turned her job over to me for the last two weeks of July 1953. I sat at her desk and pretended to be the office girl, hoping the phone wouldn’t ring. I didn’t dare open any desk drawer and had moments of panic—what if the men in the shop saw that I didn’t know what I was doing?
She left me a list of tasks. I calculated invoices for the boilerplate from several national services. Papier-mâchémats arrived in the mail, our printers cast them in metal, cut the casting apart and used the cuts as filler in the newspaper: recipes, sewing patterns, house plans, human interest and celebrity photos; there were also advertising cuts. We billed so much per column inch for advertisements, for example for railroad, airline, cigarette or telephone companies and Lydia E. Pinkham ads for products to ease women’s distress. I recall typing an invoice to Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, because those were names thrown about as a joke by Jack Benny and other radio personalities; the history of the advertising company BBDO inspired the TV series, Mad Men.
It felt good to be useful, and I liked earning money. One day on an errand to pick up ad copy from the nearby men’s store, I bought four yards of men’s tweed fabric to make into a suit for myself. Another day I came back from a lunch time shopping trip with a pair of blue platform pumps I’d been pleased to buy for thirty dollars. A pressman stopped to chat, maybe it was Moody, and saw the package as I stuffed it into a cupboard outside the stockroom. When he started at the shop, he said, he earned thirty-five cents an hour. The shoes suddenly seemed extravagant, representing most of a week’s wages at one dollar an hour. I didn’t have to pay for food or rent, or even gas for the car I drove. Though the shoes matched my blue suit, they were never comfortable.
My least favorite task was what Emmy did every lunch hour while eating at her desk: call each business on the Accounts Receivable list to find out when they were planning to pay their bill. It was a long list. I hadn’t realized that a company didn’t just cut a check when a dunning statement arrived. And my father’s business might be such a company.
ThePost depended on income from the county’s legal notices and institutional ads from big companies, such as Weyerhaeuser, Rayonier, or Harbor Plywood, companies on the endangered list, at least on the Harbor. Local merchants were put off by the Saturday delivery of the paper—they’d have preferred a Wednesday or Thursday mailing in order to advertise weekend specials. I heard discussions about the advisability of change, but it didn’t happen.
My father managed as best he could, trying to satisfy customer orders with old technology, meeting payroll without benefit of a salesman to bring in more work. Other printing plants in town were buying offset presses, which were cheaper to operate but didn’t produce as crisp an image as letterpress printing. He preferred doing things as had his brother, his father. He didn’t want to lower the quality of his job work or take risks on new equipment or a new format for the paper. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, those early summer weeks at the shop marked the close of the secure chapters of our family saga, the chapters with my father in charge and able to provide for his family.
The father who came back from the trip to New York seemed like another person, a confused and helpless man. I stopped paying attention to him. Convinced that she needed to do something, Mother contacted doctors and psychiatrists, looking for answers. Would he recover? What would happen at the shop? She could only hope that his employees would keep things going until he was able to go back to work.
Excerpt From Chapter 7: Printing Runs in the Family
The week his youngest son was graduating from high school, my grandfather’s editorial lauded the Board of Education, the fine teachers, and his adopted town: “Aberdeen has gained a place in the sun as one of the great industrial manufacturing centers of an essential industry” he wrote. He offered words by Nathaniel Hawthorne to inspire the graduates: “Let us each make the best of our natural ability…and with the blessing of Providence we shall arrive at some good end. As for fame, it matters little whether we acquire it or not.”
He mentioned that past graduates of the high school had “given a good account of themselves” in various colleges of the Pacific Coast, and that the class of 1925 could boast a high percentage of honor students. He didn’t mention that his youngest son was graduating with distinction. He didn’t mention that he would not be sending his brilliant “Benjamin” to college.
 Aberdeen’s lumber production reached its peak in 1924. The Post that year acknowledged the big celebration when the year’s billionth board foot was on the dock to be shipped, alevel of annual production never again achieved.
A young man peers out of a ship’s huge air intake funnel. His smiling face is framed by the shiny bell that looks like an over-sized tuba—young Kearny is taking the place of the horn’s mute. I often puzzled over this tiny snapshot in my father’s photo album. How did he climb into the tube? At the age at which his brothers, and later, his children, went away to college, my father shipped out.
College wasn’t in his future. There was money only for his brother Jack’s education. The six-bedroom house J.W. built on West Sixth Street, the big house I remember, may have seemed too large and empty and haunted by his mother’s sadness.
While his friends were getting ready to go to Stanford or to the state universities, he packed up his trombone and some clothes and hitched a ride to Portland. It was the summer of 1925 and he had just turned seventeen. He signed on with the Sunugentco, a 3,000 ton steam freighter out of New Jersey. In photos it was unimposing, having modest hoists and very little superstructure; most of the cargo (lumber, wheat, sugar, manufactured goods) rode in the holds. He worked two “cruises” as a cabin boy on that ship, and years later told his wife that those sailings were the high point of his life.
The family narrative is that he was too young to go to college. Many young men on the Harbor worked on ships as a way to earn some money, and going to sea was thought to be romantic. Stories about the great sea captains of the era when four-masted schooners tied up at Aberdeen’s docks often appeared as filler in the back pages of the Post.
He did write about college in letters to his Gal Sal a few years later. How might his life have been different if he had spent a year or two listening to professors talk about the wealth of nations or the causes of the Great War? Perhaps he would have developed an interest in science or quantum physics, fields exploding with new discoveries every year of the 1920s. Or would he have found the classrooms stuffy?
His scrapbook includes photos from those two cruises and he is smiling in all of them, looking young and carefree. “[It’s] my favorite snapshot, taken in an outside passageway,”he wrote later. “The coat and hat are the steward’s. That is, I was in the steward’s department and while serving the meals, I wore the white coat. The hat was a loan for the picture. The rest of my attire was just as dirty as it looked. In fact very little of the sweat, dirt, paint, and general run of ship’s dirt seems to create the atmosphere that I no doubt smelled.”.
The mere possession of type does not make a typographer any more than [possession of] paint makes an artist.
Lessons in Printing
In the early days of printing, when every line was set by hand, there were type-setting tournaments among printers in the composing rooms of large newspapers. A crowd would gather about the competitors, place their bets, and a race would be on. In 1870 in New York, one famous printing compositor, George Arensberg, won by setting the equivalent of five pages of modern typescript in an hour, letter by letter. In those days a typesetter with a union card, a composing stick and an apron could travel the country as he chose, confident that he could pick up a job in any composing room—a practice called tramping. Tramping was considered a respectable way of life, though some itinerant printers got a reputation for drinking up their paychecks and skipping out. But they could always move on and find another job.
My father would try tramping in 1929, while still an apprentice.
The invention of the Linotype cut into the world of compositors and competitions. In one corner of my father’s shop there were cabinets full of type faces in a different kind of metal drawer – the fonts for the Linotype, an automatic type-setting and type-casting machine. I can still see it.
The machine looks like a mechanical monster threatening to eat up its operator, who sits at a keyboard, small and low relative to the machine with its top-heavy banks of fonts. It is my father in that huddled chair and as his keyboard clicks, he is surrounded by the sounds of wheels, pulleys and moving metal. Bits of cast metal fall into the machine’s stick. The smell of hot metal from the machine’s pot is unmistakable. I can see him examining the line of matrices, molds of letters, rearranging two here, removing one there, adding or removing spacers. The half-page of copy he is working on is clipped onto a board just above the keyboard. The Linotype, whose adoption soon reduced the need for hand compositors, casts a slug for each line of type as the operator completes it, then distributes the type back into its case, which provides the most satisfying of the machine’s musical sounds as the matrices rise up on spiraling trolleys and fall back into their type case slots in a chorus of descending clicks.
From Chapter 16: The Printer’s Devil
Benjamin Franklin somewhere…wrote…that hanging around a print shop was not too far from attending some fancy institution of learning, like, say, Harvard.
Kearny Clark, 1961
Pat O’Connor may have seemed an unlikely hero, but he earned the title. Standing tall at 5’8″, he lacked his father’s rugged good looks, but he did inherit the old man’s charm and his weakness for booze. Even at sixty, with his smooth skin and a crewcut, in spite of a few extra pounds, he projected a youthful and carefree demeanor. As a girl I would have described him as silly, abashed, endearing; later as overly affectionate—any woman who’d sat next to him in a restaurant booth knew what I meant—a flatterer, a clever card dealer, undependable in his drinking years, but always, a committed friend to the Clarks.
His parents, Fran and Bill O’Connor, had known mine since their high school years, both as neighbors and friends, so he and I had to get along. We tagged along on picnics and camping trips, birthdays and holiday parties. We grew up together, but reacted differently to things. A class ahead of me in school, he liked to joke and tease. Raised to be prim and proper, I lacked a sense of humor. He didn’t much like school, I always had my hand raised with the answer. He was thrown out of St. Mary’s for chewing gum, while I flew blithely through all eight grades with the nuns on a carpet of “A”s. I went off to college and never lived in Aberdeen again. He spent most of his life on Grays Harbor. Only in recent years have I realized how much we had in common. We honored the past, we hoarded family memories, and we shared a fondness for my printer father. We both felt nostalgia for the old hot metal print shop.
My junior year in high school, I invited Pat to be my escort for a girl’s-choice dance sponsored by my high school sorority. He seemed to me a safe choice since neither of us went out much and obviously we were just friends. Lest I’d forgotten, this dance date is one of the many events in my young life documented in the Post’s society notes. For the United States, the New York Times has always been understood to be a newspaper of record; for my family, the Grays Harbor Post was suitably authoritative enough to be our newspaper of record.
Pat O’Connor may not have been a great student, but he learned quickly. He enjoyed recounting how he got his first job. In the new Effective Living Course in high school, its title much ridiculed by our parents, he chuckled, the teacher sent the students out to interview a business man. Pat went down to Quick Print to interview the business man he knew best, my father. He asked him to talk about the printing business and “Kearny handed me a broom!” Pat earned seventy-five cents an hour for sweeping out at the end of the day, and he paid attention. By his senior year he left school an hour early every day to work at the shop. Like my father, or perhaps learning from him, Pat could tinker with machines and keep them working. He soon became a pressman and poured the hot lead for the stereotype machine, a typical duty for a printer’s devil. One year his cousin Bunny got a job selling ads for the paper. Pat said, “Kearny was great, he would give anybody a job.” As I well knew.
Pat worked at the shop most of its final fifteen years. Toward the end, when my father struggled, Pat took up the slack. After the second fire, he helped move the business, then bought it. Unbeknownst to me, he held onto my father’s printing lessons until that book signing in 1995, which gave him top billing on my list of heroes.
When was that second fire[in the print shop]? It had to have been after I left home. My sister Kristine’s memories of the shop straddle the transition to the new location. She did some proofreading in the old shop: “up those steep stairs, stinking of a combination of tobacco smoke, ink and grease.” Sometime before she went off to college in the fall of 1960, she also did some work in the new building. “There was something pathetic about having to move into a church,” she said. Pat and my father put the paper’s last issue on the press at the new location in January, 1961.
The fire left behind a dismal scene. Pat said he and Kearny talked about conditions in the shop being so bad that, if they wanted the business to survive and continue for some years, they should move out of the ageing second story space. In order to buy new type and two used presses, my father mortgaged the house we had owned free and clear for twenty-six years. In hindsight, cancelling the paper then and downsizing the printing business might have been a better idea, but that was a decision my sick father was unable to make.
The move out of the Pinkney building presented challenges. Pat found the only crane in town and hired it to hoist the heavy equipment out the double doors above the alley. A used press just large enough to print the paper came to the new location from theLongview Daily News. But my father wouldn’t give up the huge Babcock flatbed press he and his brother had bought just before Jack went off to war. He patiently took the cumbersome machine apart, rupturing several of his spinal disks in the process, and they lowered it in pieces in order to cart them to the new building.
“Your dad was in love with the big press,” Pat said. My father never got to reassemble it in the crowded space of the former chapel. Later, when he owned the business, Pat called Western Steel to haul the carcass away as scrap.
Recently I asked Pat if he minded going back over all these memories. “It’s OK, honey,” he said. “I been dreaming about it all. Around election time you would feel a strain, maybe not conscious, but it was always there. The dream, it’s always the same. It’s the day before the election, and we hadn’t printed the ballots yet…You didn’t get drunk or anything. But it was a strain.”
In truth, nothing could have saved the Grays Harbor Post. The move to a new location only delayed the decision. Lacking timely advertisements and an editorial presence, the paper lost its readership. The era of the traditional weekly paper had run its course.
One terrible day just after New Year’s in 1961, my father sat down at his typewriter to write to his readers for the first time in seven-and-a-half years. He would have to confess to failure.
From that last editorial:
That when you attempt to take a modest and honorable approach to signing off a weekly newspaper after 57 years of effort, more or less, on the face of it there really isn’t much to say.
He mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “hanging around a print shop was not too far from attending some fancy institution of learning, like, say, Harvard…. We don’t lay a lot of claims to any education, but hanging around our shop hasn’t left too much to be desired….” He claimed to have learned a lot from back-shop philosophers who also turned out “remarkably fine printing.” He ruminated about the talents of the previous editors, his father and brother, who would disapprove of his decision to quit publication, and of the columnists.
My father retired after thirty years at age fifty-three with a small annuity from the Printer’s Union, but he knew he would miss the smell of ink and the soothing sounds of a printing press, so he offered to help out at his old shop. Pat tried to keep the printing business going, and recalled, “We had an under-the-table-deal that Kearny would come in and do Linotype work for me.” Pat couldn’t always count on his former boss to show up, Kearny was unpredictable. “One day,” after a week or two of working for him, Pat said, “Kearny went over to the Aberdeen Worldnewspaper print shop and turned in his time.” He must have been confused. He couldn’t keep track of who he worked for, or of what the under-the-table-deal meant. Here was further evidence of my father’s mental state. This episode got Pat in trouble with the union and he could no longer let Kearny work.
Pat may have carried a torch for me all these years. He always found out when I was coming to visit Aberdeen or the beach. In the 1990s he came to the cocktail party at a reunion of my class, just to see me. A pleasing and flattering experience. A faithful friend who still felt the bond between our families, as did I.
One summer visit to the old town, friend Sharyn and I picked him up to go to lunch in Tokeland. He chatted cheerily in spite of the usual grey Harbor weather, the noticeable moisture in the air. Though he seemed not to have a care in the world, Pat claimed he found cities stressful. He was living in a motel unit in Westport, a beachy village on the coast west of Aberdeen, where he kept the grounds, the lawn, and the flowers for the owner. The quiet life suited him. He recalled my family in the old days. “The saddest thing is when Jack died. He and Kearny were perfect partners. Kearny was happy to be in the back shop, Jack was happy to be the bullshitter. Things could have been different if…”
I heard in Pat’s voice the familiar family narrative. As one of our family’s oldest, and oldest surviving, friends, one who stayed in town in the years after I left home, he knew what he was talking about. His loyalty to my father, to my family, touched me.
“That’s what’s wrong with all these wars, they take the good guys.”
The weathered New-England-severe shingled building of the hundred-year-old Tokeland Hotel stood on what’s left of the sandy point at the north shore of Willapa Harbor. We welcomed the warmth of the homey dining room, the view of mossy grass, a few brave petunias in sandy flowerbeds.
Over lunch, as we talked about my father, the print shop, and Pat’s life, I watched a steady downpour bounce off the roof of a small gazebo. Because I’d lived in Utah’s desert for many years, I mentioned that I enjoyed a good rain. “It’s just a mist,” he said.
His conversation moved back to the shop. “The pressmen always joked that Kearny was going to start a fire,” he said. “The sink was behind the big press, and it always had a leaky faucet; Kearny would go back to shut it off or try to fix it, and in passing, pop his pipe out in the ashcan. All it would take is a few hot coals….” The first fire did start in that corner, ignited spontaneously in a pile of inky cleaning rags, according to the investigators.
It felt right to be with Pat on a beach day, to hear his stories. He had a remarkable memory for names and details. When he tilted his head and gave that self-conscious smile, I saw again the grinning boy fidgeting in frames of Uncle Jack’s home movies, eager to get away from the center of attention all those years ago. He put his arm around me as we walked back to the car with the mist in our faces, tasting the sea.
Visit Klancy de Nevers website at www.KlancydeNevers.com.