Some influential moments are missed

Have you experienced moments that, in their passing, were little noted, only to discover later a significance you hadn’t initially perceived?

I expect you have.

I witnessed some of the most influential machines ever invented pass out through a hole in a wall. I was 16 at the time and had no appreciation of the significance of what I witnessed that day.

If you walk down the alley that runs alongside the Black Sheep Pub in downtown Alpena to the back of that building and look up — you’ll see a section of the old wall filled in with new bricks and glass blocks.

That’s where the hole was.

On the front of this building is the name, Sobczak.

Joe Sobczak was a printer and the founder of Alpena Printing Studio. It was Joe’s old presses — big letterpresses — Kluges and Heidelbergs and heavy oak cabinets designed to hold lead type that went out through that hole pushed onto a platform held by a crane then set down gently on the bed of a truck waiting below.

All the drawers of lead type and some larger letters made of wood were moved by hand down a manual elevator and placed in the back of either a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon with three-speed on the column or a 1956 Plymouth station wagon with a push-button automatic.

I know — Bob Ellery and I put them there.

Many printers worked in the print shop on the second floor of that building: Ralph Kelley was the owner and boss. Tony Gutkowski was the head printer; two other printers worked under him, Irene Zolnierek was the compiler, Bob Ellery, an apprentice — I was the go-fer.

We would all laugh and joke while the printers set lead type backward in composing sticks to be transferred to galleys, then locked in chases by blocks and quoins before being placed in presses whose cycles impressed them onto sheets of Fletcher Paper bond, creating words and images we could live and learn by.

I cleaned those presses, purged oil, grease, and ink from surfaces where it didn’t belong, swept the leavings of the printing trade — ran doughnuts from Climie’s Bakery.

Gutenberg’s development in 1450 of the letterpress with movable type created a communication revolution in a growing, changing world.

Michelangelo and Leonardo created new art, Columbus sailed to a new world, letterpresses printed new knowledge: Copernicus’ “On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” taught multitudes that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the Earth.

Letterpresses increased awareness, broadened perspectives, and opened doors to a better understanding of where we were and where we were going.

Knowledge that brought some folks up short.

In 1517, Martin Luther posted demands on the Church’s door that were later printed by letterpresses in thousands of pamphlets that became the tweets of their day. They went viral.

The Protestant Reformation spawned a violent division of Christendom into Catholics and Protestants. This brought wars, human displacement, mass migrations — social upheaval that took years to settle.

Now, computers work at the speed of light, disseminating new knowledge; people are brought up short again; disinformation is spreading that’s perplexing, disturbing, destabilizing — promoting mistrust and division, even the questioning of our elections.

People to blame are being sought.

Intolerance and hate are spreading. Political power lost is being craved, upheavals are recurring.

Don Quixote, a seeker after chivalry and knight-errantry, ventured forth attacking windmills in his search for the perfect past, an illusion he wanted to carry back to the present.

Haven’t we all, at times, traveled with him?

Those days of running doughnuts from climes Bakery, of cleaning the old letterpresses and working to their rhythms have passed. Those printers who set movable type backward now follow other occupations, are retired, are no more, or work with new technologies in computer-guided systems disseminating new knowledge.

Those great times, those wonderful old machines, those good and skillful people have passed through a hole in the wall, and they aren’t coming back.

The hole’s been patched.

Now, out on our own, we need to stick together; there are challenges, too much to lose, much to be thankful for — so much to learn.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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