‘WHERE’S another font of twenty-four point chelt extended?’
To this question, and to dozens of others which arose daily in the small-town print shop where I received my college preparatory education, came the reply from any one of the force of five linotype operators, printers, and devils, ‘Ask Effie.’
‘Ask Effie.’ I have heard that gentle command until it rings in my ears. It was a wise order, for Effie did know where to find everything from the lost benzine can to a fifty-year-old cut of the first mayor of Reed City, my home town. If you did n’t know how to cut slugs, Effie was there to show you. If you wanted someone to doctor up the temperamental linotype, your shortest and best way to end your troubles was to call on Effie. If you were reading proof and wanted to divide ‘Canada,’ Effie would tell you every time.
I have never had a teacher or professor from whom I have gained so much genuine knowledge as from Effie. She was no Doctor of Philosophy; why, she did n’t even have a high-school diploma! Yet she succeeded in pounding into my spongy brain more than any other person. Effie taught me how to read proof, how to feed a press, how to cut paper, how to handle a stick, how to operate the linotype, how to set heads, how to lay out ads, how to make up the front page, how to fold and jog paper, and above all how to feel at home in a jungle of presses, type cases, hot lead, and imposing stones amid the sweet odor of printer’s ink and musty newsprint.
And it was Effie who saw to it that I was sent complimentary copies of the hometown paper (on which I had so assiduously slaved for three years) after I bade the old Herald force good-bye and sought further fortune on a college campus. It’s been nearly two years since I left, but I have n’t missed a single issue of the ‘old rag,’ as we called it.
Effie is now nearly sixty. Save for a few weeks’ illness she has been on the job every morning at seven-thirty for forty years. How many miles of shiny silver linotype slugs and of sticky ink foundry type she must have set! How many tons of paper she has folded! How many barrels of ink she has seen whisked on to auction-sale handbills, school newspapers, supervisors’ proceedings, and merchants’ stationery!
While scanning old files of the Herald-Clarion one day I discovered my own birth notice. I showed the item to Effie. ‘ Why, I remember setting that,’ she smiled. I was amazed. To think that this good woman, ever since (and long before) the beginning of my frail existence, during the distant days of my babyhood and throughout my grammar schooling, had been setting type day in and day out! Some indescribable religious respect for her overcame me.
Out of every five phone callers at the office, four would demand to speak to Effie. ‘No, it is n’t anything you can’t take, young man, but I should like to give it to Effie.’ Even the Boss had this happen to him. Effie knew how to place every comma to suit the taste of our ‘persnickety’ customers. We would let Effie talk with all the cranks who came into or telephoned the office and who ‘knew what they wanted to say, but not how to say it.’ Effie always ‘fixed them up.’ And they liked it. Who would n’t?
Effie kept the books. She was the only one in the shop (Boss included) who knew how. If you wanted to find out the amount of the six-year-old account of Jeremiah Roberts, Effie would dig it from an inksmudged, chaotic set of ancient files in less than a minute. She could tell you how much less the shop was earning than a year before, how many copies had fallen off, and how many years Frank Taylor was in arrears.
If I ever run a publishing business, Effie will be the first employee I shall ask to work. But she won’t accept. She will turn down higher pay (as she has done dozens of times) to stay in the old home town, where she must care for her aged mother. She will set many more miles of type before . . .
She dies with a stick in her hand.
Olivet College, Michigan
Clyde H. Wilcox, Instructor
- This paper won first prize in the Atlantic Monthly College Essay Contest for the academic year 1931-1932. — EDITOR↩