DAYLONG, triptych, acrylic on canvas board, 24x12x3
IT IS THE BLIZZARD OF ’78, and I am working.
The storm has already begun but, like most people, I misjudge its magnitude. It has been snowing for several hours before I drive the roughly 13 miles from my Brookfield home to my three-to-eleven shift in the composing room of Worcester County Newspapers, a small chain of weeklies and one daily, the flagship Southbridge Evening News, owned by Loren Ghiglione.
The daily paper’s spacious, Elm Street building houses the company’s thundering offset printing press, and I have recently cobbled together a full-time job by combining writing for the weekly Spencer New Leader with work in the camera and composing rooms.
Though my daughter is barely three weeks old, I am the household’s primary wage earner, and I can’t afford to risk my new-found employment by not showing up. Besides, I subscribe to the newspaper ethos: journalists, like postal workers, do not get snow days off.
The newsroom is dark, and the typesetters have long since gone home by the time I arrive. But that’s not unusual for my evening shift, and I can hear the press’s rhythmic humming as usual in the basement two floors below.
Still, my boss decides to leave early, and gives me the okay to leave, too. I choose to stay for a few more hours before packing up for home.
* * *
AFTER 14 MONTHS as a door-to-door milkman, it is time to get serious about a career. I worked on my high school and college newspapers, and I’ve always loved to write, fiction and poetry mostly. Journalism? Not for me.
But here I am, taking notes at selectboard meetings as correspondent for the town of Brookfield for the Worcester Telegram. Afterward I will call Harold “Gush” Gushoe, a reporter in the Spencer news bureau, and read him my notes; he will then write the story. The job pays $50 a week.
After some months the weekly New Leader offers me the same position, only this time I can write the stories and get a byline, with the opportunity to write a column from time to time. I jump at it.
* * *
THE WAY NEWSPAPERS WERE MADE in the late 1970s seems as archaic today as hot type — a printing technique in which molten lead was injected into a mold to form the letters — seemed then.
In 1978, the flow of information begins with editors in remote locations marking up paper copies of press releases, reporter’s stories, and editorials banged out on typewriters. The copy, photographs scaled to size, and newsprint page layouts are sent by courier to Southbridge.
Typesetting is done on massive machines. The older women typing at rhythmic clips for hours look as if they could be making music at an organ. The sweet sounds of local news!
Each time they change fonts (there are only a handful, like Bodoni, Garamond, and Helvetica), they stop the machine’s whirring and strap a new strip of microfilm onto a large metal cylinder inside the machine. As the typist strikes each letter on her keypad, the cylinder spins beneath a light that replicates it on paper. It is state-of-the-art if clumsy, enabling these unsung typesetters to produce copy at remarkable speed.
The typeset articles are sent to the composing room, where people like me take over. I trim the edges neatly with metal ruler and Exacto, then run the paper’s backside through a bath of melted wax.
I carefully paste copy onto a light-blue grid, following the editor’s scribbled page layouts. The shade of blue cannot be read by the camera, so the gridlines are ideal for aligning the columns.
I cut and wax rectangles and squares of black, opaque film where photographs are to appear, since the artwork has to be photographed separately, overlaid with a dot pattern that gives images shading and depth. Photos are later stripped into the corresponding space in the page negative.
When the paste-up is done, complete with ads, the page is sent to the camera room.
Several mornings a week, including Saturdays, I operate a giant camera to shoot pages and artwork. Each page goes back-and-forth between negative and positive before becoming a newspaper.
The positive paste-up from the composing room becomes a negative page on film. The film is then burned onto a metal plate that raises text and image slightly, just enough to retain ink; now the page is positive.
The plate is then ready for the offset press, strapped to a cylinder that rotates at great speed. The plate passes through an ink bath first. Excess ink washes off in a second tray before the image transfers onto a hard, rubbery roller — now negative again.
Another roller feeds an endless sheet of newsprint across the inked cylinder, picking up the print. Cut and folded, the newspaper finally emerges in its permanent, positive form.
* * *
THE BLIZZARD OF ’78 was historic, the biggest storm in my lifetime. A typical storm arriving from the northeast (a “Nor’easter”) brings steady snow for six to 12 hours; the Blizzard of ’78 snowed heavily for 33 hours, from Monday morning, February 6, to Tuesday evening, February 7! Winds surpassing 80 miles-per-hour knocked down trees and power lines, leaving thousands of New Englanders without power.
The storm dropped a record-breaking 27.1 inches of snow on Boston, even more in some locales.
In perhaps his finest hour, a sweater-clad Gov. Michael Dukakis appeared repeatedly on television to reassure citizens and urge them to stay home. He activated a thousand National Guard members to help clear snow and evacuate people in flooded coastal areas.
For several days, the region came to a virtual halt. The storm killed around 100 people, injuring another 4,500.
* * *
IT IS AFTER 9 P.M. when I receive a phone call warning me that the storm is getting worse and urging me to start home. In the parking lot, several inches of fluffy new snow have blanketed my 1969 olive-green Plymouth Valiant since my arrival.
But I have driven through snow before, and besides, there is nothing I can do about it now. I hop in, shake off my boots, and begin my journey home.
I haven’t gone far before I appreciate the storm’s severity. I’ve never driven in anything quite like this. I decide to stick to the main roads rather than chance the back ways that I normally take to shorten my commute.
Even so, the plows have not kept pace and snow is everywhere in sight. My world mirrors the camera room: black and white.
Still, I am calm. The going is slow, but I am in no hurry. My car’s heater and AM radio work. I have plenty of gas, and each mile brings me closer to home.
As I turn off Route 20 to Route 148 in Sturbridge, though, I am increasingly concerned. I still haven’t seen a plow, and thick snowflakes fill the air before my headlights, nearly blinding me. After a few miles, the snow reaches my bumper.
The Valiant holds steady but can only manage about 20 miles an hour no matter how much gas I give it, even pressed to the floor. At least I am still moving, guided by the bare outlines of the last car to have passed before me.
That is, until I pass my old high school. The Valiant struggles mightily as I begin a slow incline. Suddenly and without warning, the engine quits!
I am stuck, in the middle of the road in a blizzard in a dead, snow-clogged car.
I consider my options. There are no cellphones, of course. I am utterly alone and in the dark, literally and figuratively. I can’t just sit and wait; I could freeze or be hit by a plow. It’s late at night, and there’s no telling how long I might be stuck here.
My best chance, I decide, is to attempt to walk the mile or so to my cousin’s house. The prospect is daunting, but I can’t stay in the car. I steel myself to leave. Before I do, I decide to give the key one last try.
Amazingly, the engine turns over! It is more of a whimper than a roar, but the Valiant is running.
I forge ahead as best I can, pedal to the metal, maxing out at 20 miles an hour as I push through ever deepening snow. I don’t see a plow or another car the entire way.
I have one last hurdle: the steep, half-mile climb on my rural road before I reach home. If I have to abandon the car now, I can trudge the remaining distance on foot.
To my great relief, the well-named Valiant manages this final ascent and the remaining distance — just long enough to pull into my driveway. The Valiant stalls instantly, barely off the road. My boots are swamped as I plod to my door. It is nearly midnight, but I am home.
I am not able to start the car again for five days.
* * *
AS A CORRESPONDENT for the New Leader in 1978, it was assumed — correctly — that even in small towns like Brookfield (population less than 3,500), there is enough news of interest to fill a couple of tabloid pages once a week.
It meant, among other things, that meetings like conservation and recreation were covered periodically, not just the selectboard and school committee;
that townspeople could learn about the otherwise unrecognized accomplishments of their talented neighbors; and that
an enterprising reporter had leeway to track down controversial stories, like a hushed-up oil spill (for which reporter Lois Brynes received a special commendation from the Environmental Protection Agency while I edited the Auburn News).
At the New Leader, a column of mine explicating the critical but poorly understood process of revenue sharing appeared with the headline, “Bleeding the Benevolent Behemoth,” one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t write the headline, but hopefully the article enlightened townspeople about the obscure process for divvying up state funds.
It’s not just the reporting of government that gets shortchanged when local newspapers retreat. When I moved to Amherst in 1983, a full-time reporter covered education for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Today our region’s wealth of colleges and universities struggle for coverage.
Without local newspapers, we might live near a world-class scientist, a retired Broadway star, an elite woodworker, or an influential inventor, and never know it. Gone are the days when parents can routinely take pride in seeing the names of their children in print for their achievements.
* * *
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN 50 YEARS, a newspaper was not delivered to my home Monday. Actually, that is not quite accurate; the Sunday New York Times and Boston Globe bailed when I moved here in late August.
Now the Daily Hampshire Gazette, my local newspaper since I moved to western Massachusetts in 1982, can no longer justify the time and expense to deliver a paper copy. Except for a few trusted periodicals, I am now fully digitized.
I love the look and feel of a newspaper, its flexible size and appearance and mobility. It’s nice to be away from a screen, even if it’s just long enough for a cup of coffee while flipping through the pages.
Getting my news from a website requires a different aesthetic. But there are distinct advantages to getting my information online. It saves an enormous amount of paper, for one thing, and in fossil fuels used in its production and delivery. I can get news whenever I want for a fraction of the cost of a printed copy in my driveway.
Journalists will adapt, as they always do. But as the business model for local newspapers changes, the revenue has not caught up, making reporting about our community vulnerable. I understand the Gazette’s decision. Reliable drivers are hard to find, and many have to double up on routes. The 20 minutes it took to deliver to me and a neighbor simply didn’t make sense.
Subscribers in some outlying towns now receive their Gazette in the same day’s mail. It’s not perfect — subscribers receive their copy a day late on the post office’s 12 federal holidays — but it saves time and energy, and spares both drivers and subscribers from risking falls on snowy or icy driveways.
National newspapers like the New York Times have adapted by diversifying, adding games (Wordle), sports (The Athletic Daily), and consumer news (The Wirecutter), à la carte. Our hometown newspapers, uniquely qualified to report on their communities, lack the scale and clout for these features, and struggle to find ways to pay for the news.
If we value reliable news about where we live, we must continue to find ways to support the people who produce it, in whatever fashion we can. Even writing about puppets.