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Newsprint and Maple Syrup

By Tim Hayes

One of the best experiences of high school never took place in our high school.

It would happen four times each academic year, 75 miles away from the high school building, when a bunch of students working on the school newspaper would pile into one car and drive to the tiny headquarters of a rural weekly to spend the day.

I never got it straight in my mind why this peculiar arrangement had been concocted.  The assumption was that this little town’s publisher would make a few bucks, but how our faculty advisor ever found this place remained beyond my detective ability.

We attended Carrick High School, part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools system.  Our school newspaper was named The Carrickulum.  I know, clever, right?  Our sojourn took us to the offices of The Meyersdale Republican in the heart of that quaint borough tucked in a faraway corner of bucolic Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Believe it or not, besides a carful of kids from Carrick showing up every couple of months to liven up the place, Meyersdale also became known as the “Maple Syrup Capital of Pennsylvania,” with its annual Maple Festival that draws tourists—seriously—from far and wide.  In college, in fact, my wife had a roommate who had been crowned the Maple Queen one year in Meyersdale.  Heady stuff, and high praise indeed.

With each visit—after securing clearances from the teachers whose classes we’d be missing that day—this jolly caravan of budding journalists would drive the 90 minutes south, arrive at the paper, pencil out each page’s stories for that issue of the Carrickulum on layout sheets, and then the real fun started.

In Meyersdale, PA, in the mid-70s, computers remained in the realm of cheesy science fiction movies playing down at the Bijou.  Real people—real newspaper people—instead used these hulking, cast-iron behemoths known as Linotype machines.  We would retype all of the approved article copy we had brought with us, hearing the great Linotype lining up the words in order, filling the ancient production room with clinks and clanks.

We’d write the headlines in larger type, with the Linotype assembling all of this inside a wooden frame containing thousands of tiny chunks of raised letters on metal for each page.  Photos got sized by hand to fit their available spaces, then transferred to a series of microscopic dots in reproduction.  Once each page—each box—had been proofread by two people, we tightened the box so that nothing fell out or got misplaced, then fit the box into another large cast-iron machine to be inked and printed on newsprint.

It took hours to complete this process for an eight-page newspaper, but we did it and loved every second of it.  There were few moments for me as satisfying as picking up a finished, flawless newspaper that you personally helped to write, assemble, and print.

At the Republican, a couple of old hands hung around to help us figure things out, but mostly to make sure we didn’t destroy their irreplaceable equipment.  Those machines had been around, probably, since the turn of the century.  In between their smokes, those guys couldn’t let a bunch of city punks from Pittsburgh do anything too stupid to their printing house.

The rides to and from Meyersdale had a few interesting occurrences.  One time, driving down a lonely two-lane blacktop out in the country, somebody saw a deer not far from the road.  Having grown up in the city, we hadn’t seen a deer since—well, none of us had ever seen a deer at all, actually.  And here one stood, looking at us, standing perfectly still, as if to say, “Yes, please come over and be my friend.”

What a bunch of mooks we were.  A couple of the girls walked up to the animal to pet it, confident that they would be met with gentleness and affection.  But when they got within two feet, the deer grunted, stomped its front hooves, and ran like lightning away from us—all within a second and a half.  The girls shrieked, the guys froze, and we all stumbled over and pushed each other out of the way—just like in the Scooby-Doo cartoons—to get back in that car.

Then came the time that the guy driving his dad’s car for the trip stubbornly left Meyersdale in the wrong direction—despite the rest of us telling him so—and kept going until we saw a sign across the roadway reading, “Welcome to West Virginia!”  Mortified, he turned the car around.  Twenty minutes later, we ran out of gas.  And none of us had any money.

Somehow we made it home from that trip and all the others.  Each one loaded with its own stories, adventures, frustrations, and friendships.  It lit the flame for me to pursue a life in journalism that still burns today, nearly 40 years later, as a professional writer.

The Maple Festival is coming up pretty soon in good old Meyersdale.  Maybe I’ll wend my way down there to see the old Linotype and tap a tree or two.  Making a run at Maple King is not out of the question, either.