Western Reserve Print Shop
My start in college was cut short at the end of my first semester in 1966. I was smoking pot openly in the dorm at Ohio University and another student ratted me out. I’d bet within two years, everyone at O.U. would have been openly smoking pot, but I was a few years ahead of the times, so they made an example and expelled me. My dad, of course, was concerned, and pulled some strings for me:
He got me a 2-S deferment from the draft – in those days at the beginning of the Vietnam War, men my age were looking at a very probable death sentence if conscripted into the Army. He also got me enrolled part time in Western Reserve University (this was before it merged with Case) and finally, I found myself with a fulltime job at the University’s print shop. As a part time (non-credited) student, the one thing I remember was a relatively small & casual class taught by Dr. Benjamin Spock, a famous and game-changing author at that time. It wasn’t anything special, about thirty students, listening and taking notes. It didn’t seem (and wasn’t presented) as a big deal – but there he was!
But my job at the print shop took up most of my time. I think that was my father’s plan: Keep me busy and out of trouble. My first position was as the paper cutter, and my nemesis was a scary and formidable machine – The Paper Cutter. It has a large, sharp blade that could easily chop off a hand, but the safety built in was two red buttons on either side to activate the blade. Very similar to the two separate launch buttons in the Minuteman Silos launching a nuclear attack in North Dakota. In that case (and still is) two officers must press their buttons at the same time to fire their missiles. In my case, the cut buttons were far enough apart that both hands had to press them, eliminating the chance that for some unfathomable reason, I decided it was a good idea to put one of my hands in the path of the hydraulically powered blade. This made sense to a point, but never underestimate the power of human stupidity. There’s always a workaround when the human brain is trying to solve a problem.
And the problem wasn’t the blade; it was the paper press, also powered by the same powerful hydraulic system. It was controlled by a toggle foot pedal at the base, in the center. Toe the pedal to lower the press, heel to raise it. Now here is the problem that my competency was tested: I was given finished print jobs to trim for mailing. It was a mishmash of different stocks of paper, in different sizes like stationary, pamphlets and return cards. After carefully stacking them against the left wall of the cutting gate, then ever so slowly lowering the press by feathering down the toe pedal, the finished order would splay so I couldn’t get a clean cut on the edge. It was an uneven blob. I tried steadying the stack with a wooden stick – no luck. But this 19 year old mind was smart enough to realize if I put my hand against the stack, and ever so carefully lowered the press until there was just enough pressure to steady it, I could ease down on the press by toeing the pedal, remove my hand and get the product lined up for a clean and straight cut.
The next thing I remember (and I remember this clearly, even though fifty years ago) was seeing stars: Bright, colorful stars of white, red & blue in my field of vision. I’m not clear on what happened immediately after that, but I didn’t crush my hand into a soup of bone fragments. My last memory was, realizing I was in trouble, healing the pedal to raise the press. I was no longer The Paper Cutter, but was moved to a less important job of stapling and assembling mailers. But that’s not what this story is about, it’s about the guy who replaced me as The Paper Cutter, and my first brush with Karma, although a few years before my life with The Hippies (who loved to use the word “Karma”).
I can’t remember this guy’s name, but let’s call him Steve. Steve was weird, very weird in two ways: First of all, he was the first guy, and thinking about it, the only guy I’ve ever met who freely used the N-word. I find this the most distasteful word in our language, not only because of its historical meaning, but just the shear ugliness of the way it sounds and the way it’s used. For that reason, I will use it once (and only once) in this story. The other thing you should know is a fair number of our staff were black men & women, maybe because we all worked for a prestigious university and they were at the cutting edge (then) of employment practices. Most of the printing press men were black, and Steve would (almost proudly) say “nigger” within earshot of them, for no apparent reason. No complaints (to my knowledge) were ever filed. Also, just to note, these black men worked two jobs, the printing presses during the day, and night shifts at the steel mills. My guess was that was how they made ends meet, and stay financially ahead for their families. Nothing lazy about these black men.
The second weird thing about Steve was some kind of fetish involving first aid kits he stocked in his car. Bandages and braces and oxygen tanks & masks. In the break room, he would confide in me of his rolling stock of emergency supplies “in case he drove up to an accident scene”. Then, with almost a giddy glee, he would confide to me in a lowered voice, that possibly, just possibly the injured party would be a pretty woman. I assumed that might involve disrobing and handling her while he applied emergency first aid. I didn’t really want to know, but Steve really seemed to be enjoying this fantasy. Perhaps he thought she’d fall in love with him (for saving her life) when he visited her for “a welfare check” in the hospital. Who knows? I didn’t want to. The thing is, this story is true, I could not make this up. And another thing is this true story does come together in a logical, if dramatic conclusion.
One day, at the print shop, there was some commotion at the paper cutter. Steve was almost on the floor, except his limp body was hanging from his hand, which was caught in the hydraulic press. Steve had done exactly what I had done a few months before. No one probably knew why he did it, except me. I’ll bet a finished job was splaying under the press, and Steve thought he could steady it with his hand while applying just enough pressure with his hand to keep it straight. And then saw stars. I left my job at the Western Reserve print shop soon after that, and I think I heard Steve lost his hand in that accident; at least that’s what I remember. I still wonder if “karma” had anything to do with it and if my hand was saved (I’m a pianist) and Steve lost his for a reason. There was only a split-second, maybe 1/8 of an inch that made the difference. And I’m wondering if, the moment that happened, what the black press operators were thinking.