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Country editors boy, p.6
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.6

           Hal Borland

  He stepped aside and I took his place. I missed three sheets out of the first ten. Then I caught the rhythm and fed close to a hundred sheets without a miss. That was enough. I stepped back, and the printer asked, “How long has it been since you fed press?”

  “Thirty years or more.”

  He nodded and smiled. “The hands don’t forget.”

  So I learned to set type and feed press, in those years of my apprenticeship—years, I say, though I know it was really only that one summer. I worked and learned, and raised my basic pay from one dollar a week to two dollars and a half. I advanced from the status of printer’s devil to that of a real apprentice. I was on my way to learning the trade.

  And along the way I learned many other things, for Father was an expert printer. He had special skills at handling color and making layouts. Before he was married he worked for a year or two as an itinerant printer all over eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, and the year I was five he was a traveling salesman and job printing advisor for a printing supply house in Omaha. From him I learned to lay out advertisements as well as special job printing. I learned to coordinate type faces, to appreciate the value of white space, to mix colors, to be cautious with color and thus gain emphasis.

  Because that little shop in Flagler had a limited amount of display type, I learned to make extra letters for the big wood-type display font by gluing linoleum to wooden cut bases and carving out the letters with a sharp pocket knife. I learned how to cast new ink rollers with a mixture of glycerine and molasses. I learned the formula for tabbing glue. I learned how to overlay and underlay and mask to get special effects on the job press.

  I wondered where Father learned all these things. He laughed. “When you’ve knocked around as many shops as I have, you pick up lots of tricks and shortcuts. There are some mighty good printers in country shops, as well as some awful dubs. But some of the best printers I ever knew were tramp printers.”

  Tramp printers, as he called them, were a breed even then beginning to vanish. They were itinerants, men with itchy feet, and a good many of them were addicted to the bottle. They drifted from place to place, usually riding the freight trains like ordinary hoboes. But, as Father said, some of them were first-class printers—just as long as they were sober. Too often, however, they would work only long enough to buy new clothes and a bottle of liquor. Then they would go on a binge, sober up enough to climb into a freight car, and be on their way again.

  From time to time one of them would appear at the News office, usually when he was thrown off a train by a hardhearted brakeman or conductor. Few itinerant printers would have stopped in Flagler otherwise. He would come shuffling down the steps, hesitant, dirty if not ragged, unshaven and often bleary-eyed. He would pause at the doorway, stiffen his shoulders, fight off the hangdog look, and come inside. If Mother was at the desk she would give him one cold look—she seemed to sense a tramp printer’s identity even before he opened his mouth—and say, “If you’re looking for a handout you can look somewhere else.” That usually turned the man on his heel and got rid of him. But now and then it backfired.

  One afternoon a seedy-looking man in old dusty clothes and with several days’ beard came in, and she gave him the cold look and the curt dismissal. But this man stood his ground, smiled at her, then looked around for Father. Father saw him, called out, “Hello, John!” and came to the front of the office to shake hands. He introduced the man to Mother, who still watched him with cold suspicion, and the seedy-looking visitor gave Father an order for twenty-five dollars’ worth of printing. He was, Father explained after he had left, a sheep rancher from thirty miles south of town, and he and his herders had just trailed a flock of fifteen hundred lambs to town to ship to Kansas City, a consignment that probably would net him around twelve thousand dollars.

  But now and then a tramp printer appeared when Mother wasn’t in the office. He would come in, look around, see Father at the stone or the job press, and ask, “Need a printer?” Father would stop what he was doing, talk for a few minutes, point out that his was a one-man shop, and suggest that there might be work in Limon or Burlington. And always he gave the man either money or a credit slip for a meal and a bath and shave, then tried to hurry him out before Mother returned.

  The day came, inevitably, when Mother came back just as the seedy printer was pocketing the money and thanking Father. She stood bristling while the man, sensing trouble, hurried out. Then she turned to Father. “So, you gave him a handout.” There was both anger and bitterness in her voice.

  “Yes, I gave him the price of a meal.”

  “If you’re so free with your money—” Mother hesitated, seeing the set of Father’s jaw. He seldom crossed her, but when he did he couldn’t be budged. Now he reached into his pocket, drew out a half dollar, and held it out to her. She refused to take it, turned away, and went to the desk, flushed and bristling. He followed her, tossed the coin onto the desk in front of her, and went back to work at the stone.

  “That’s not what I meant!” Mother exclaimed.

  Father didn’t answer.

  “He’s just another booze-fighting tramp printer!”

  Father looked at her and asked, his voice low but tense, “How do you know what he is? You didn’t even talk to him.”

  “I could tell just by looking at him!”

  Father shook his head. He worked quietly for a few minutes, then asked, “Remember where it says in the Bible, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters’?”

  “What do you mean by that?”

  “I mean that some day my own son may be hungry and out of a job. I hope that if he goes into a print shop and asks for work and there isn’t any work for him, the boss will give him the price of a meal. That’s what I mean.”

  “Oh.” Mother bit her lip, fighting back the angry words. She probably had just paid the interest on the loan at the bank and knew how little money there was in that tin box in the vault. She may have been wishing she could afford a new dress, or that Father could buy a new suit. I know there wasn’t any extra money that summer for new clothes, sometimes barely enough to buy groceries. She fought down the angry words, blinked back the tears, and began to type, furiously banging the old Oliver’s keys. Slowly she worked out her anger.

  Half an hour later Father went to the desk, picked up the half dollar still lying there, and handed it to her. “I wish you’d get some round steak for supper,” he said quietly. “We haven’t had a good piece of steak in quite a while. Steak and gravy and fried potatoes would taste awfully good.”

  He went back to work, and a few minutes later Mother put on her coat and left. We had fried steak and milk gravy and fried potatoes for supper, and not another word was said about tramp printers.

  The summer passed and I served out my apprenticeship. I learned the basic skills of the printer’s trade, which I would polish and improve over the next few years until I became a competent journeyman by the time I had finished high school. It was a long summer, the way I remember it, ten hours a day, six days a week, the same hours that Father worked. What hours were left for that other boy, that other self who had afternoons off and even whole days of freedom? I can’t say, exactly. That other self lived another life, and this chapter is about the printer’s devil, the young apprentice who started the summer getting one dollar a week, and not even worth that, and ended the summer getting three dollars a week and worth twice that, Father said proudly. Mother heard him say it, and she said, “Maybe so, Will. But if you remember, you were only making ten dollars a week when we were married.” Father smiled and said, “That was more than sixteen years ago. Times change.” Then he turned to me. “Son, you could hold an apprentice job in almost any print shop now. Another year and you’ll be worth fifteen dollars a week, maybe more than that in a city shop.” That was one of the proudest days I could remember.


  MEANWHILE—LIFE IS FULL of meanwhiles; that’s what makes it so difficult to tell the whole truth—I was discovering myself a
nd that new world around me. As I found the twin arrowheads, and the snakes, and the strange rocks on Kit Carson Hill.

  It was the last Friday in June. The paper was printed for that week and I had the whole day off. Mother asked what I was going to do and I said I didn’t know, maybe go down to the river and hunt arrowheads. She made two bread-and-butter sandwiches for me and said, “Just be home in time for supper.” I put the sandwiches in a paper sack, tucked it inside my shirt, told Fritz I didn’t even want him along, and set out on my bike on the road east, the road to Seibert. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to go alone and find whatever it was I was looking for.

  It was almost eight o’clock. The sun was nearly four hours high, but the night’s coolness, typical of the High Plains, still hung in the air, especially in the hollows. It was a graded country road but it followed the contours of the land, and when I coasted down a slope into a hollow it was like easing into a cool stream. But the hilltops were already warming up and I knew that by noon it would be a brassy-hot day. The sky was a vast blue bowl that sat on the horizon without a tree or a mountain to dent its rim.

  On the high ground the meadow larks were singing. They probably had stuffed themselves with chilled beetles and grass-hoppers and now they perched on fence posts and whistled loudly. Their breasts were gleaming yellow and the V’s on their chests were coal black. As they sang they lifted their heads, opened their long beaks, and seemed to stand on tiptoe, putting their very hearts into it. By afternoon they wouldn’t make a sound. They would hunt the shade, even the shade of a fence post, and stand with wings half spread, beaks agape. Then, just before sundown, when the cool returned, they would sing again.

  In the road and at the roadside the horned larks were feeding on weed seeds or taking dust baths. They rose in front of me, half a dozen at a time, twittering as they spiraled upward, a good many of them young, of that year’s broods, without the yellow throat-patches of adults. They were past their peak of song by then. Earlier they had sung beautifully as they spiraled high, a sweet, warbly song that seemed to spill out of the very sky.

  The plains were just beginning to show the bronze of ripening buffalo grass, later than usual because of the wet spring that had made such a good wheat crop. Another few weeks and they would be tawny. But the roadside had its bright green fringe, Russian thistles not yet gone to seed, resin weed with its gummy green foliage and inconspicuous yellow flowers, and, in the sandy places, prickly poppies and sand verbenas. The verbenas sprawled along the ground and lifted fragrant white clumps of blossom as big as baseballs. We called the prickly poppies fried-egg flowers because with their overlapping white petals and big pollen-yellow centers they looked very much like fried eggs. They were true poppies, though their light silvery-green foliage and stems were thickly set with prickles as long and sharp as those on bull thistles.

  I stopped to look at a clump of verbenas and smell their almost too-sweet fragrance, and was surprised to see how many bees and ants were already busy there. Still stiff with the night chill, the ants walked like arthritic old men and the bees had to sit in the sun and flex their wings before they could fly away with a load of pollen. There were half a dozen kinds of bees, from tiny black ones to brown-and-gold ones as big as honeybees. I wondered where they lived and where they stored their honey. Probably, I decided, underground like bumblebees, maybe in ground-squirrel holes. Some day, I thought, I would try to follow them and find a honey hoard. I tried several times, that summer and the next, but I never found a High Plains bee’s nest.

  I rode on, singing inside. The world was a good place to be, and it was all mine that morning. Or I was the world’s. It didn’t matter which. It wasn’t a matter of ownership; it was a matter of being, of belonging. I belonged right where I was.

  Two miles from town I passed a wheat field, a quarter section, half a mile square, where the sod had been plowed the previous autumn and seeded to winter wheat. It stood almost three feet tall, gleaming in the morning sun, gently rippling like a golden sea as a few breaths of breeze crept over it. The bearded heads were four inches long and heavy with fat kernels, the bumper crop everyone in town was talking about. Another week and the harvesters would move in, begin to reap the precious grain. Not only here and in a similar field half a mile down the road, but north of Flagler where dozens of such fields rippled in the sun.

  I rode slowly past the wheat, marveling, wondering what Flagler would look like with harvested wheat overflowing the elevator bins and piled in vacant lots like huge ant hills of golden grain. Then I went on, toward the river. Wheat was a money crop, tamed, domesticated; and that day I was wild and free, an untamed wanderer without a nickel in his pocket or a care on his mind.

  The river was five miles east of town. It was called the Republican river, but it wasn’t a river at all. It was just a broad valley with a gravelly run winding through and no flowing water except at the height of the spring melt or after a summer cloudburst. It was supposed to have a stream of underground water, and the occasional long, narrow, willow-lined water holes in the dry river bed seemed to prove it. The only flowing water was at Crystal Springs, in the hills north of the road just before one came to the river valley. It was one of the few springs in the whole area, sweet water that bubbled from a rocky ledge and fed a small pond whose overflow became a narrow creek that wound down into the big valley and in turn fed one of the river’s bigger water holes. A wagon trail angled across the flats from the main road to the spring.

  Little Doc Williams had told me about Crystal Springs. He and Spider Miner and I were going out there some day and catch bullfrogs. But we hadn’t got around to it, and this morning when I came to the wagon trail I knew I had to go there alone. I started to ride down the trail but soon knew that I would have to leave my bike and go on afoot. That hilltop was one of the few places around where cactus throve, an old sheep range that had been overgrazed a few years before and taken over by grizzly-bear and prickly-pear cactus. The past few wet years had begun to restore the grass, but the cactus persisted. Most of it was grizzly-bear, as we called it, with grayish-green pads and covered with white-tipped spines that glistened frostily in the morning sun. The few clumps of prickly-pear were greener, less thorny, and had bigger fruit. All the cactus had bloomed early, with the wet spring, and the fruits, big as a man’s thumb, were beginning to show touches of red ripeness. A few more weeks and those fruits would be apple-red and juicy, those of the prickly-pear reddest and juiciest by far, but all of them so full of ivory-hard seeds that they were hardly worth eating.

  There was too much cactus for bicycle tires. Those thorns could penetrate even a heavy work shoe. So I left my bike beside the trail and walked, watching for snakes. Where there was cactus there usually were rattlers, and on a morning like this they probably would be sunning themselves in the trail’s warm dust. By afternoon they would be out in the grass and in the shade of the cactus clumps. Sure enough, as I rounded a sharp turn in the trail I saw a huge silvery snake writhing and rippling just ahead of me. I leaped back. But when I looked again the snake floated right up out of the trail and into a clump of cactus. It caught on the thorns for a moment, then ripped loose and was blown away, no snake at all but the cast skin of a snake five feet long and big around as my arm. I caught my breath, but my heart still thumped. It was a warning. Snakes were molting, and molting rattlers sometimes strike without warning. I walked on warily.

  Half a mile from the road I came to the crest of a slight rise and saw the whole rolling panorama of the river valley: high rounded hills, deep valleys, and the shadowed line of still higher hills beyond the river. Just to the right of due east and beyond the river was Kit Carson Hill, highest of all.

  I went down the slope to the brink of the sandstone ledge. It was a sheer drop of about fifteen feet, and below it a little valley widened into a hollow several hundred yards long where a pond of clear, sweet water rippled and glistened in the sunlight. The far side of the pond was fringed with willow brush and catt
ails, with a few scraggly cottonwoods lifting their green heads above the brush. The near side was mostly grass and reeds. At the foot of the ledge, just beneath me, where the spring bubbled and whispered and fed its constant flow of water into the pond, was a thicket of poison ivy, its glossy leaves deceptively inviting. It was the only poison ivy in the whole area and probably was planted there by the droppings of birds from better-watered places far away.

  I sat on the grass at the brink of the ledge and watched a dozen killdeers on a sand bar just off the near shore. They bobbed, ran about, fed on small insects, peeped; and now and then one would leap into the air, crying kill-dee, kill-deee-dee-dee, circle the pond on graceful wings, and return to the sand bar. Beyond them, at the far side of the pond, half a dozen ducks came out of the reeds, mallard drakes with gleaming green heads and canvasback drakes with heads exactly the color of a sorrel horse. They swam about, upending grotesquely from time to time to feed on something at the shallow bottom. The females apparently were hiding back in the reeds, with their ducklings.

  At the lower end of the pond were several grebes—we called them hell-divers or mud hens. I thought there were four, but there may have been more. They were diving, and a hell-diver can swim a long way under water, and every time I tried to count them one would disappear and another would bob up somewhere else. High overhead a big hawk was circling, just floating without a wingbeat. I watched it, expecting it to come rocketing down and catch a duck. But it just floated there, in a great circle. But even as I watched the hawk, something swept in, seemed to brush the treetops, and climbed again with a blackbird in its talons. It was a prairie falcon. I knew it by its sharp wings and the light color underneath, almost white except for black patches at the base of the wings. I hadn’t even seen the blackbird in the cottonwood.

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