This excerpt is from the memoir, Lessons in Printing, by Klancy Clark de Nevers. In the middle of her college years her father began to hear voices. Her reaction to his breakdown was not what you would expect from a “well-brought-up” girl. At a time when housewives waxed floors, ironed sheets and washed woodwork, the mentally ill were often warehoused, or tranquilized and sent home to fend for themselves. Shielded by her mother from the reality of his condition, de Nevers willingly looked away, and didn’t mourn when he died. In Lessons in Printing, exploring evidence carefully preserved by her family, she revisits her father’s life and reconsiders her own responses. The result is a meditative memoir, a journey from scorn to compassion, from guilt to forgiveness.
This memoir is available to order online now from the King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, or from Amazon.
This excerpt includes two chapters:
- Chapter 1: A Trip Gone Wrong
- Chapter 2: My Brief Career as a Bindery Girl
Chapter 1: A Trip Gone Wrong
Alexander MacDonald maintained and operated a toll road across this pass from 1876 to 1885… Water from the meadow lake flows to both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.
—Marker at the Continental Divide, Montana
As conservators, my mother and I worked in tandem in the business of saving things. She gathered and stored souvenirs and maps from trips into neat packages, as I still do. There, in one of those shipped boxes, was a bunch of papers tied with grocery string, records from a driving trip during one of my college summers—gas station receipts, 2″ x 2″ snapshots, and the water-damaged spiral notebook travel diary. On the first page of the notebook, my younger handwriting offered a title, “The Big Push.” I am flooded with memories of a trip gone wrong.
The small blue Plymouth station wagon is headed out of town. My father is at the wheel, Mother, our eagle-eyed observer, sits beside him with an index finger fixing our place on the map, eager to point out curiosities and to watch for road signs. We are wound up, excited, anticipating a time-honored American auto-tourists’ trek across the country. We’re starting from Aberdeen, a lumber seaport in western Washington State. I am in the backseat plumping up a pillow and organizing the trip notebook. “Aug 1, 1953 and 3,000 miles to go.” At almost twenty, I have two years of college behind me and hopes for two more.
Our destination is New York and my brother’s graduation from the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island. We left my two little sisters behind with Aunt Peggy. My father has taken time off from work—his first vacation since before the war, since he has been doing the work of two men in the family print shop.
Sixty miles from home we turn onto the new road south of Mount Rainier, and it feels like the trip has begun. White Pass has been open just two years; the road cuts are still raw, and there are no picnic areas. At a wide spot just over the four-thousand-foot pass, we stop to eat sandwiches. Mother opens the top of the Rollei camera, focuses. We smile in the mottled shade of tall firs, a father and daughter on a road trip.
After a stop for a fresh peach and a Schlitz, my father hands me the keys. Sometime later he writes in the journal, “Nance takes the throttle.” The road toward Spokane twists through a narrow canyon with a river cascading far below us. I enjoy steering the car carefully on the winding road, leaning into each curve. His hand shakes as he tries to light his pipe, and he says, “Do you ever think you might drive right off the edge? Like the void’s going to pull you into it?”
I don’t know what to say. A cold fear grabs my heart. I don’t like edges. Looking over a railing at the top of a tall building brings on a sudden lunge in the gut, weak knees. The sensation of blood plunging into my legs and feet rivet me to whatever I’m standing on. I grip the wheel more firmly. Nothing here is going to pull me off the road. I wonder what he is feeling? And why?
Once at age four I was showing off, walking around on the wrong side of the railing above the steep stairway to my uncle Jack’s basement, saying, Look what I can do! I remember the shock of wonder as I felt myself let go of the railing, the sickening blast of color in my head when I landed on the cement far below. I came to on the lawn and saw my father bent over me, his face anxious. He feared I would die. Someone said, “Don’t turn her head, it might kill her.”
Driving after dark another day, as we try to eat up some miles, my father asks whether I see the huge coronas swirling around the street lights. I don’t.
In Superior, Montana, after picnicking by the Clark River, we park and leave him in the passenger seat, while Mother and I go to a drug store and post office. He’d said he didn’t feel like walking. When we come back we see that he has rifled the glove compartment and scattered things onto the bench seat: pipe tobacco, a tin of Band Aids, a tire gauge, some sandy shells, a scratchpad. Static crackles from the radio. He has taped a Band Aid over the glove box, as if to seal it, and is talking to himself. He keeps looking in the rear-view mirror. He cradles a folded newspaper with two hands, as if hiding a secret treasure, or a gun. Mother comes up beside him and asks him what he’s doing. “Er, nothing, just looking for a match,” he says, and lets the newspaper fall open to reveal a screwdriver. He empties his unlit pipe into the ashtray.
Mother drives the rest of the day.
Just before the trip, my father hired me to help out at the shop. I filled in for some of the office people as they took their vacations—tasks ranging from writing society notes to picking up ad copy to bindery work. Our business occupied several large rooms above Pinckney Plumbing. My father employed as many as ten workers, and turned out quality job printing. Though nominally the manager, my father worked wherever he was needed, as a printer, pressman, or most often, linotypist. I enjoyed my brief stint at the shop but was eager to go back to college in the fall.
Sagebrush alternating with shrubs and willows crowd the roadside. Mother, at the wheel, fingers another cigarette and pushes in the lighter. As she smokes she will try to distract my attention from what’s becomes a steady stream of my father’s odd behaviors: he won’t look us in the eye; he keeps peering out the back window or the side mirror. Mother draws me out, “Tell me about your new friend Jean,” or finds something in the passing scene: “Look at that hillside, those fluffy sheep! Have you ever seen so many?” My father does not join in our conversations. If he is mumbling in the back seat, we don’t hear it over the noise of the road.
We don’t talk about him. An unspoken understanding is building—this will be our secret. When it is my turn to drive, I ponder what must be happening to him, and a new memory hovers in the background:
It happened the summer we went camping at a beach or a river every weekend. I was four, almost five. We’d walked from the cars to the edge of a wide stream. Branches of a huge maple arched over the slow-moving, shallow water. People ahead of me had crossed to the other side on a wooden path and disappeared from view. My turn came to cross, and I balanced on the boards happily, looking for tadpoles, watching the riffles in the water, the pattern of rocks on the stream bottom.
Someone shouted, sounding excited and upset. It sounded like my mother’s friend, Fran O’Connor. “Somebody help Kearny!”
I didn’t see him fall. I didn’t hear anything else. But the scream sent shivers through me. Something bad had happened to my father. Sunlight filtered through green leaves, and their shimmering reflections danced over the smooth flat stones of the stream’s edge, engraving the green image into my mind. Low branches overhead offered shelter, planks bridging to the other shore, and gravel sloping upward opened to something unknown. The rush of water under the boards, the only sound. I felt alone, desolate.
That is the memory—my Green Tunnel Memory. No one told me what happened, neither to reassure me that all was well, nor to brush it off as “Nothing.” I didn’t hear the word seizure until years later. The adults must have hoped the kids hadn’t noticed. The camping weekend continued as planned. A snapshot from that trip caught me, a skinny kid standing in shallow water eating a slice of watermelon, a bathing suit strap falling off one shoulder, hair escaped from a pigtail blown across my face, and several young aunts wading in the background. I seemed content to be there.
But the solidity of one of the pillars of my life felt threatened, a hairline crack insinuated in the construct of father.
The modest auto courts where we stop are close to the highway and often also to the railroad tracks. Train whistles, thundering engines, and the rhythmic click-clack of the heavy rolling stock punctuate our dreams, but my father doesn’t seem to mind. We’d heard how he watched the trains on his 1929 road trip, before he married. Being on the road means being close to trains. He seems on edge much of the time, causing me to wonder if he wishes he could hop on one and ride away.
I am the cheery daughter singing in the bathroom, daydreaming in the backseat, or all business when it is my turn to drive. The driving—my mother and I have taken over— feels like an impossible, interminable chore. It is hot; the only relief is a breeze coming in from a turned-in wind wing. As we make our way into the humid Midwest, I hate the feeling of the rayon slip and cotton dirndl sticking to the leatherette car seat, and to my legs.
My father tries to look normal, but he isn’t making sense. He is nervous; he talks with his pipe clenched between his teeth; he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He says he is being followed, but doesn’t know by whom or why. Mother seems to know how to handle him, telling him each time we get back in the car: “You’ll be comfortable in the backseat. You can rest and read the paper.” He does not complain. Posing for a snapshot, he looks slightly off-kilter, his cap askew, his body leaning against something.
We drive and drive on what seems like an eternity of concrete ribbons and through hundreds of small towns. Belching trucks loom in the rear-view mirror on the downhills, threatening to push us out of the way, then hold us back on the next uphill grade. This is 1953, our new president, Eisenhower, has not yet set the country to work on interstate highways. Between us and New York are miles and miles of narrow two-lane roads whose construction barely disturbed the contours of the land. I have plenty of time to worry.
It seems that my father’s mind is making the transition I saw in art history paintings: serene landscapes morphing into tortured, terrifying places where every tree, cloud, or star is surrounded by a brashly swirling corona, by threatening waves of light and dark. I know Van Gogh was a sick man. I don’t know what is wrong with my father. What he is seeing or feeling scares him.
Mother and I take turns making meticulous entries in our journal about mileage, gas, and other purchases, but never once do we write anything about the change in my father. We record each lost hour crossing into a new time zone, a supper in Billings where Daddy scrawls, “Lost hat,” the sighting of several oil wells, watching sport fishermen (“No hat”), lunch in a new cemetery (Mother: “Nobody’s planted yet!”). We write nothing about what we are feeling, the desperate sense that with just two of us driving we might never get to Wisconsin, never mind all the states beyond Lake Michigan!
My father has moments of lucidity and gets into the spirit of journaling. On the fourth day out he writes: “2 pm–lunch in a wheatfield out of Dickinson, N.D. Some doubt whether Nance or Mama inspired the wolf calls, whistles.” What would he think if he saw a note on the page, if Mother were to write, “Kearny acting strange,” or I were to pen, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
My own world beckons. I have boyfriends to ponder. When it’s my turn in the backseat I daydream about my future, the endless time that stretches out beyond. I see myself as a grown up woman wearing pretty clothes. She’s holding the hand of a child, other children in Sunday clothes trail behind her like a clutch of ducklings, always walking along some unfamiliar sidewalk in a nice neighborhood. I know I want a husband, but my late-blooming body is only beginning to be aware of what is interesting and attracting about a man.
Because of what I’m seeing so close at hand, I am realizing that the “right man” must not be like my father. The center-fielder with the electric blue eyes whom I dated back at school is too much like him: too focused on his batting slump, too melancholy to relate to other people. Tom doesn’t like parties, he doesn’t like my friends, he doesn’t much like himself. I want someone exciting, outgoing, agreeably cheerful, considerate, and smart.
Since my father publishes a weekly paper, I am used to seeing our names in its pages. The society editor will report on this trip in the Social and Society News Notes on page two. Many events in my life, such as birthday parties, teas I hosted, have been cast in metal slugs and pressed onto shiny book stock, bound into the year’s volume. My past is tidy, safe.
Though I didn’t read them until years later, my father’s editorials during the Truman years analyzed subjects that don’t seem to go away. He criticized the new United Nations, the policies of our State Department, and of our U.N. ambassador, Eleanor Roosevelt. In the midst of the Korean Conflict the previous spring, President Truman fired General MacArthur—my senior English class listened to the general’s famous “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech. My father called the firing, “the summary action of an erratic and unpredictable administration.” The next week he questioned the wisdom of having the president be commander-in-chief, asking “what is the world coming to when a [former] artillery captain is in a position to fire a five-star general?” He needn’t worry that such an affront would happen again, since former General “Ike” Eisenhower had moved into the White House. (MacArthur outranked Eisenhower by mere days, it would have been interesting.)
At dinner in Bismarck my father stares at his plate as if he’s never seen chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes before. He smells the food as if it were poisoned and pushes bites around with his fork and only reluctantly eats some of it. The next morning I stare out the car window at the barren Dakota grassland and flirt with a new worry: how will this man who seems to be losing his mind be able to write a coherent opinion piece when we get home? How will he keep the business going?
There is little time to read the book my father brought along for me: Inside USA by John Gunther. Probably a review copy from the publisher, it is thick, more than nine hundred pages of fine print. I like the idea of it; the author traveled to every state and wrote about the people and the politicians. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read about life in the country we are crossing? Gunther is a reporter. That’s how I think of myself sometimes, though I am majoring in elementary education rather than journalism. He must have driven many of these same, slow, roads.
We are following the northern route, mostly U.S. Highway 10 and sometimes 12, that winds through Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. We notice the different character of Midwest deciduous forests, admire scatterings of conical evergreens that make me think of scenes on summer cottage wallpaper. We each at one time or another say, “These people don’t know what a real forest looks like,” homesick already for the enormous firs and cedars of our Northwest rain forests.
Boarding a night ferry to cross Lake Michigan brings a nice change of pace, the freedom of being on open water, fresh air, and someone else at the wheel. On such a big boat I hope I can get away from my parents for a while.
As the lights of Milwaukee grow tiny, my father seems cheerful, actually smiling for a few minutes; then he tenses, whispers, “Don’t look now, over there…” and points to two men in suits further down the railing of the Clipper. They look like business men, but we move away. Later we go below to find seats for the long ride and my father starts talking to a man nearby, the fear forgotten. He boasts that he is traveling with two of the most amazing women you would ever meet. He goes on and on about how wonderful we are, what a great mother his wife is, until the beleaguered listener excuses himself and finds another seat. My father’s strange talkativeness is embarrassing. He feels he’s being watched one minute, and reaches out to strangers the next. Weird. I don’t want to be seen with him.
Even though we’ve been behind schedule the whole trip, my parents have taken time to sit down for a beer most days. I’m still underage. Sitting with my book outside the bar or tavern I recall long slow hours during the war, when my brother and I waited in the back seat of our car while Mother tried to get Daddy out of the Bright Spot tavern after work. Plaintive phrases run through my head: “Father, dear Father, come home with me now,” or “What’s keeping dear Father, why doesn’t he come?” These are songs my mother played for us from her mother’s green volumes of the Old Home Music Library, music I loved. My father loves beer and hard liquor and won’t be hurried. Perhaps the drinking helps him lose his pursuers, or silences whatever is going on in his head.
Partway across Michigan we stop at a pay phone to call my brother with a progress report. I hear Mother’s side of the conversation:
“Yes, Michigan. We’re almost to Lansing.”
“Yes, late. We’re doing our best.”
“Yes. How much do you need?”
We maneuver the streets of Detroit and its bridges and start across rural southern Ontario, the “Sun Parlor” of Canada, and I think about the brother we will soon see:
Phil. Of course I worship him; he’s my big brother. He has a confidence that makes you want him on your team, a smile you want to trigger, a smugness you envy. I knew from childhood that he had the dash and swagger that my father lacked, that his brother, our uncle Jack, had. Phil took to the outdoors like our Clark grandfather. Barely five, he would sneak out before sunrise to go fishing in the gully below our house and come home with a good-sized minnow. He brought home stray dogs, frogs, salamanders, and nearly dead kittens. He and a friend backpacked in the wild North River country south of Grays Harbor. He thought nothing of sleeping in a gravel pit on a weekend jaunt out of town.
I am glad we will be seeing him soon. We return to the United States near Niagara Falls to reach our first objective, Aunt Louise’s in Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo, late on August 7. Mother’s oldest sister, Louise, is always homesick for news of the Northwest, and is glad to see us.
“You poor things,” she says. “You need a rest.” Since we’ve driven more than 2,700 miles, we let her talk us into a day off. Mother wires fifty dollars to Phil, we pack a picnic lunch and go to gape at Niagara Falls. Our journal will summarize our eventual accomplishment: 7,478 miles in twenty-eight days, spending $960.00. In those days gasoline cost 36 cents a gallon, dinners for three or four, our only restaurant meal, seldom more than $7.50. Heading east again the next morning, we are two days behind schedule.
We pass through “Italian parts of Albany and on down to Taconic State Parkway and direct to Danbury,” where we spend the night. Heading south from there, finding no parkways, we get truly lost in the winding, overgrown roads of the New York City reservoir system. We barely arrive in Kings Point, just across the Wheatstone Bridge on Long Island, on my birthday, August 10, in time to change for the graduation ceremony. My father, distinctly uncomfortable in a suit and tie, stays close to Mother. Phil looks smashing, straight and tall and handsome in his dress whites, his officer’s cap. My father is proud of him. Here is another person on whom he can dish lavish praise. We say nothing to my brother about what is going on with his father. He will see for himself soon enough.
Phil will drive home with us for a leave, but has things to finish up. My parents and I spend a few days sightseeing in New York City. We take a boat ride around Manhattan Island and go to see the Dodgers play the Giants at the Polo Grounds; Daddy is pleased because “the Bums” won! One memory from that visit stands out.
We are walking downtown on the Avenue of the Americas. My mother and I are talking about the murals we’ve just seen in Rockefeller Center and about what else we hoped to see while we are in the city. The energy of a Manhattan street is contagious, and we are walking fast, as if we’ve some-where to go.
Then we realize we’ve gotten ahead of my father. Or perhaps lost him. We look back, but he is not in sight. We step to the curb to let others pass. Many well-dressed people hurry by, as well as some gawkers, tourists like us, unused to so many tall buildings, so much noisy traffic.
Small knots of men loiter beside shop entrances, several are leaning against a blank wall. Their clothes are dark, even their hats are dark, their faces indistinguishable. Then one of the figures takes a stick match out of a shirt pocket, whips it along the underside of a trousered leg, cups the flame to the bowl of a pipe, and pulls on it to get a red glow.
We have found Daddy.
He is trying to disappear. His hat is pulled down so no one will recognize him. As he puffs on his pipe, he strikes up a conversation with the man next to him, in the overly friendly manner that seems to have overtaken him.
He steps away from the wall and grudgingly agrees to stay closer to us. We start walking again and find we’ll have to slow down. He will walk with us, but at his own speed, continually drifting two or three paces behind, like a reluctant child headed for the dentist’s office.
I am embarrassed to see him looking so out of place, his clothes hanging carelessly, his steps uncertain as he straggles behind. He is acting like a tramp, and seems pretty happy about it.
Why can’t he be like my friend Ann’s father, so good looking and neatly dressed, who comes to church with his family even though he is always bored. After Mass he tells us how many candles had been lighted, the number of cracks in the plaster, the number of times Father O’Donnell said “Umm” during the sermon.
The comparison, of course, is not fair. Ann’s father is one of our town’s lumber barons who married the daughter of another—he can choose not to work if he wants to; my father is a printer who inherited too much responsibility when he was the one left to run the business.
I don’t understand what has happened to him on this trip. We will call it a “nervous breakdown” in the next few years, but I don’t know that yet. I am already extending the case against him, collecting the observations that will allow me to reject him. I do not want the tramp-like man I see behind me on that Manhattan sidewalk to be my father.
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 boss need apply.
Fresh off the train from California after my sophomore year of college, but before The Trip Gone Wrong, I sat on Mother’s perch in the kitchen and admired her organizational skills. She’d punched holes in the edge of my letters and filed them in a black three-ring binder along with those of my brother from Kingspoint.
The binder stood beside the flour canister on the kitchen counter—salt, sugar, flour, letters from progeny. Tiny school pennant stickers marked the battered spine of the notebook, one for each of our schools—Stanford and the United States Merchant Marine Academy. The notebook survived in a dusty box for forty years in my mother’s archive, and the contents are still in good shape, the paper only slightly yellowed. I scarcely remember being the excited girl who wrote those breathless missives, a girl who often wrote in the third person:
Branner Hall, 1951-53
Your eldest daughter at long last takes pen in hand to tell you of her life at Stanford…
She, this eldest daughter, is out for fun and says so. She describes dates, organizations joined, praises everything about the place and assures her parents that the school is making sure the students know they are special. She doesn’t mention her growing realization that she is no longer the smartest kid in the class, especially in a special Western Civ section—along with other valedictorians from bigger high schools—taught, not by an instructor, but by the head of the program, distinguished Professor William Bark. Humbling!
She sprinkles ungrammatical expressions into her letters in the folksy style affected by her father, presumably to help him relate to her letters, to bring him in. (It’s time to close this-here epistle.) She intersperses newly acquired French phrases, most of them from Le Petit Prince, because she knows her mother studied French in high school. (On ne sait jamais.) One never knows.
She raves about her roommates, her friends, she decorates her dorm room, she enjoys the food. Until the rains come in January, she doesn’t mention the sunshine, knowing the folks at home aren’t seeing any. She talks about the football games, sounding like she really pays attention, knowing her readers care.
She always apologizes for not writing sooner, or more often. Humble apologies. Every letter. So does her brother.
Her more studious friends label her a rah rah. She gets picked for Rally Committee, a lot of work, but is it ever fun! She gets to be a cheerleader! At the Rose Bowl her team loses to Illinois. It really was a thrill to lead that monstrous student body in the songs, though, in that beautiful full bowl, jammed with people . . . wow!
She types the letters unless her roommates are sleeping. She wears out several typewriter ribbons, but never runs out of exclamation points. Mid-freshman year she gets the job as a hasher and waitress in the dining hall. This covers board, and she makes friends with the male hashers, many of whom are athletes.
She works hard to get a scholarship for the second year, then fritters away her concentration that year on activities and social life. She wins a campus-wide election for secretary of the Association of Women Students, defeating, among others, the classmate who goes on to be a long-term senator from California. On an almost-failed French exam, her Professor writes, “Too much extra-curricular, perhaps, Mademoiselle?”
In the spring of her sophomore year her letters describe hours sitting in the sunny baseball stadium. Her fellow hasher with the ice blue eyes plays centerfield. What she does not describe are hours spent in his Model A Ford in the dining hall parking lot, while her class work suffers.
For now, I am,
Your loving eldest daughter,
We expected to make what we would call “The Big Push” to New York in August but meanwhile that young Nancy would qualify for the position at the shop as a bindery worker.
I even agreed to take over the front office for two weeks while the office girl, Emmy, went on vacation. The summer plan was complicated. My father and I would hold the fort at home while Mother and the little girls moved to the rented house, called The Barn, at the beach. Mother’s sister Peggy would come there to tend the girls so that my parents and I could be gone for most of the month of August. Until then, we working folks, like big city types, would spend the week at our jobs and drive out to Cohassett Beach to join the vacationing family on weekends— all 24 miles.
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 Laak-sonen who would mentor me through the weeks. 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.
Images of that early summer linger in my memory: my father at the kitchen table reading the paper, a drink at his side; I at the stove cooking something so we don’t starve—broiled salmon steaks, slices of tomato, buttered toast. Kraft macaroni and cheese. I haven’t cooked much. Cakes and cookies are the sum of my culinary experience. And at the shop: my father at his typecasting machines: the Linotype and the Ludlow, trimming cuts from the stereotype on the metal saw, leaning against a type case loading tobacco into his pipe, chewing the fat with the Hammermill paper salesman, smiling.
There’d been no reason to pay special attention to him. Who anticipates that a vacation road trip would become a life-changing event? I hadn’t questioned my father’s sanity. I had not said to myself, watch what he’s doing, he might never be able to pick up a composing stick again. I’d no inkling that I should be noticing and remembering anything. After all, he was a forty-five-year-old man with a wife and four children, a printer managing a small print shop, the father I’d grown up with, no more, no less.
Even so, things did feel upside down that summer. Our house, where I’d been the pampered eldest daughter, was now my responsibility–the laundry, the yard, as well as the meals. Though I’d done some useful work at the shop, it had always seemed like an extension of family and a playground. Now it was a serious workplace. Though just a college girl home for the summer, with friends to see, I had a job.
My father and I mimicked the bachelor household that had once flourished in the big house below ours. In my grandfather’s day, he, his sister-in-law, Klara, and his two adult sons sat together at meals, then each drove his or her own car downtown to the same workplace. One big difference from grandfather’s household—my father never hired a cook. But we did have plenty of cars. The shop’s delivery car—a sorry two-door affair with no backseat—was balky and hard to drive. Aunt Klara’s prewar Chrysler sedan, one of the first cars with fluid drive, was now ours. And we still had the convertible, but Mother had gone to the beach in the sensible Plymouth wagon that we would drive to New York.
One week, that summer of ‘53, I camped at the “society desk,” doing small folding and collating jobs and writing articles for the society page of the Post. Pages two and three featured brief notices about the parties, travels, visitors, and weddings of people known to the woman who collected the information. For years, my namesake, my father’s Aunt Klara, held this position. She wrote about the doings of her golfing friends, our family, and many women’s clubs. For wedding stories, she collected detailed information about the bride, the groom, the bride’s gown, her flowers, her going-away suit, the mother of the bride’s outfit, the attendants and their attire, the couple’s backgrounds. She couldn’t possibly have attended all of these weddings, so the printers teased her when she wrote, “The bride looked beautiful in ivory satin” or “… Chinese silk,” or some other luxurious-sounding fabric, whatever had been filled in on the wedding form she’d created. She was gone by the time my wedding announcement appeared in the paper, and the account lacked descriptive details because I wasn’t asked to fill out the form. Aunt Klara could not have imagined her grandniece looking beautiful in a simple sheath of faux white linen.
The paperless world, much touted as a boon of the computer revolution, eludes me today in my home office. Or rather, I reject it, printing out emails and photos and articles and stashing them somewhere. Digital images of family members festoon the walls of my office. Heaps of notes, drafts, and unfinished manuscripts offer shifting nap sites for my cats. Untidy folders lean in the bookshelves, a pile of catalogues lies on the floor under the large Webster’s Third. Random papers overflow several in-boxes, books and papers rest crossways over many shelved books.
I come by this love of paper clutter honestly. It started back in the stockroom of the print shop, where every surface sagged under the weight of stacks of paper, where as a child I was never told, “Don’t touch.” Odds and ends in the shop’s waste baskets became my raw materials for making fancy dolls, sometimes decked out in a skirt of red or gold paper. I would crawl onto a package of paper in one of the cubbies, stretch out full length like a cat relaxing soft-side up on a cushion and peek out of the shelf. The long narrow room was lined all the way around with columns of shelves, some of them small, some large like this one. Out of almost every cubby hole where someone had opened a package, torn wrappings waved at odd angles like pennants at a football game. Light came in from a skylight and from a single bulb hanging in the middle of the room. I’d inhale the clean smell of paper and imagine I was the picture printed on a huge page. This was my fortress.
How did the huge bundles of paper make it out of a truck, up the double stairway and into the shelves? They were bulky and hard to handle. I’d never seen a delivery, but I did know how big sheets turned into small ones.
The paper cutting machine, a monstrous mass of cast metal with smooth calibrated surfaces, levers, cranks, and wheels, could easily accommodate a thick stack of the largest paper in the opening below the electrically powered guillotine cutter. The sharp, shiny blade was barely visible in the superstructure. I loved to follow Uncle Alec—an in-law on my mother’s side—as he brought a bundle of paper from the stockroom and flung it like a heavy blanket onto the bed of the cutter, smoothed it out and nestled it against the stops at the back. His hands would be everywhere under the blade as he cranked the bed forward or back to set the depth for the first cut. He reached up and turned a large horizontal wheel to bring the paper holder down tight, securing the stack. I watched with open-mouthed concentration. What if he pinched his fingers, what if the blade cut one off?
He’d straighten up, push me out of the way, and pull a big handle sideways. The wide vertical blade sliced diagonally across the firmly held stack, then retreated into home position. The cutting motion made a loud “ss-sl-lk-k” in a descending scale, and it sent a shock wave through my body, like the sensation that comes from even thinking about a razor blade coming near skin. Again his hands moved in under the blade. He’d remove the outside stack, or maybe add it to the one just cut, reach under the knife to rotate the cut stack, adjust his crank, and repeat the process. My heart raced faster knowing he was going to pull that handle again, another slice. The cut face was often perfectly smooth like a slab of butter, but sometimes showed a moiré pattern due to variations in the paper or the knife edge. In the hands of a skilled operator, the cutter turned huge pieces of paper into neat stacks of custom-ordered invoice-sized sheets, a process repeated for three or four colors. On a final trim cut, a cascade of long skinny strips fell away from the shiny blade, fodder for the trash barrel, and welcome supplies for my doll-making.
Several afternoons that summer of ‘53 I held copy for Emmy who had refreshed me on the list of proofreader’s marks. Reading copy is an exercise in speaking clearly and enunciating with precision every typographic or punctuation mark. She read quickly and I hoped to hear some of the music of the conversations with her grandmother as I frantically marked typos or deletions.
Some tasks felt like make-work: drive out to the coast to pick up copy from one or two correspondents. I’d stop for coffee at the Westhaven dock, pretending to be a reporter listening for news, and watch fishermen unload fresh tuna and salmon from their well-iced holds, a chance to buy fresh salmon steaks or cracked crab. In town I also delivered jobs wrapped earlier, and picked up ads from local stores to be set for the week’s paper.
When I tell someone my family had its own newspaper, it feels like putting on airs, asserting how different, how important we were. Oh! A newspaper! Watch for reflected awe. I hoped my listener was visualizing some version of the New York Times with its angular nameplate and many pages of up-to-date and important stories about what is going on in the wide world. Or something like the now-abbreviated Salt Lake Tribune, which publishes some national and plenty of local news. But if you think of folksy articles in the vein of the “News from Lake Wobegon,” you’re getting closer to the mark.
A large newspaper establishment would have specialists responsible for each function: reporters and editors to create content, typesetters and layout men, printers and pressmen to assure the appearance of the final product. And proofreaders. In my father’s modest operation for the Grays Harbor Post, the editor often wore two hats, or brought all of them together under the green eyeshade: publisher, reporter, editorial writer, typesetter and printer. In a pinch he could run the press.
The Post went out in Saturday’s mail, a slim eight-page deal. Well past being fresh, the “news” had already appeared in the local daily and been read over local radio by the reporter who threw his packet of articles and stories over the transom in the hall door on Thursday nights to be set for Friday’s press run.
These many years later, I inflate the stature of the paper, imagining its name set in the elaborate European-looking font the New York Times uses, something like Old English. On checking, I am disappointed to see that the Post’s nameplate was presented in a fat, upright font called Poster Bodoni:
The paper came out weekly, mailed to possibly a thousand subscribers. I don’t believe anyone sent out past-due notices. Subscription renewals resembled church contributions: sporadic and voluntary. If you were a friend of the family, a local business, an advertiser, your name was on the list, and your postman brought your Post every Saturday morning.
On Friday afternoon, my job was to get mailing labels onto the finished papers. I wound the long paper tape of subscribers’ names and addresses into the contraption that would attach them onto the paper. The labeler was awkward, big as a breadbox, with a handle, a cutting blade, and a roller in a glue reservoir. The wheat paste glue mustn’t be lumpy, and not too runny, a just-right smelly but useful porridge. The heavy machine worked smoothly most of the time. The windowless bindery area felt muggy, uncomfortable that afternoon. The machine and I pounded out label after label, then the tape would break, or the glue reservoir would run dry, or my arm would tire, or…I looked forward to Emmy’s return.
The print run wasn’t as large as a thousand by that time, or I never would have gotten through it. My father bundled the stacks of labeled papers into canvas mail baskets and hefted them off to the post office two blocks up the street. He and the shop crew disappeared into the Bright Spot, and I drove out to join the family at the beach.
In the bindery area, I found myself surrounded by jobs I would learn to do with dexterity that summer: multicolored stacks of numbered business forms to be collated, finished jobs to be wrapped with neat printer’s corners like reams of paper, booklets to be stapled. Overhead, flimsy shelves sagged under years’ worth of file copies of the Post. From the back shop around the corner I heard the clack of the linotype, the regular whine of a printing press, inhaled a mixture of hot lead and ink and scorched paper and knew this was a welcoming, familiar place. We Clarks often claimed that we had printers’ ink in our veins and standard proofreaders’ marks embedded in our vocabulary. I can’t read a block of text or a menu or a playbill without seeing typos. Modern copy machines now incorporate many of the bindery chores I mastered, rendering bindery workers—not to mention printers and typesetters—obsolete.
The stockroom where I had once made paper dolls by then had the only worktable where we could number ballots: stacks of old-fashioned paper ballots for each voting precinct, each with a tiny perforated corner that had to bear a unique number on its backside. Because of the B.B. Jones photo-graph, I recognize the table as my grandfather’s former desk from the front office. While still in high school, I sat with a group of college girls around the rickety table, our numbering machines in full motion. They talked about the local boys who had been sent to Korea with the first group of Marine reservists. The office girl’s best friend hadn’t heard from her fiancé, now on a battlefield. The news from Korea was all bad, our men were getting killed, they lamented, we were losing. The stockroom that had seemed safe and secure, a favorite playroom, suddenly felt drafty and mean. I began to notice the dirty glass in the skylight, the clutter on the shelves around us, the oil-stained floors. I felt helpless as I pounded numbers onto ballot corners, tidied up one precinct’s ballots, reset the numbering machine, and picked up another. My fortress, no longer a shelter.
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-mâché mats 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.
The Post 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.
As we packed the car for the drive east he’d been cheerful, joking with our neighbors who lent us their compact travel kitchen box, drinking toasts to each other and one for the road. Could the pressure to get away from the shop, the excited anticipation of a long vacation, the expectation of seeing the big city and his son, could all of this have caused his breakdown?
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.
September came. The family agreed I should go back to college. Their “sweet eldest daughter Nancy” would return to the campus where she had for two years answered only to “Klancy,” the nickname given her by her Great White Hunter grandfather.
Mother did her best to keep up appearances at home. Only now, searching her archive, do I appreciate how difficult those years must have been. I’d taken for granted her ability to keep the house “shipshape” and able to support the activities of her children—she’d always followed through when one of us said, “My mom’ll bake a chocolate cake.” But my father’s illness shook her world. She lost track of the letters I sent home during my last two college years, a notable lapse in her faithful husbanding of valued papers. Few as there may have been, those missives never made it into the black three-ring binder in the kitchen counter line-up: salt, sugar, flour, letters from progeny.
Klancy Clark de Nevers’ memoir, Lessons in Printing, is available to order online now from the King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, and from Amazon.
This excerpt appears with permission of Scattered Leaves Press. Copyright 2018 Klancy Clark de Nevers.
About the Author
Klancy Clark de Nevers is the author of The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II (available from University of Utah Press), and co-editor with Lucy Hart of Cohassett Beach Chronicles: World War II in the Pacific Northwest by Kathy Hogan (available from Oregon State University Press). Visit her website at www.klancydenevers.com.
Read her essay, “My Life with Fonts,” that appeared in Cagibi Issue 1.
Cagibi Issue 4