Late night in the press room
By Tim Timmons
Halloween’s a few days away and it seems a good time to share a story I’ve never told anyone.
Years ago, I was a young sportswriter working late nights and loving every minute of it . . . except being alone in the building after 1 or 2 a.m. There were three or four of us rookies, so we got stuck with the job they called “clearing the wires.” That was back in the old days when every newsroom had a ticker tape wire service machine. Some of you probably remember the clackety-clack sounds from TV or radio news reports – usually when a deep male voice, holding an earpiece in place with a cigarette in hand came on to tell us about some piece of breaking news or a special bulletin report.
In my very early days, the teletype machines produced a thin line of perforated paper. That was later replaced by a dot matrix printer. Didn’t matter, both were loud and both produced mounds and mounds of paper – and the rookies got tasked with cleaning it up.
That meant scooping it (and all that paper dust) and putting it in a barrel that was on a wood cart with wheels. We then rolled it out of the newsroom, across the production department, past the press and out back to the dumpster (recycling wasn’t a big focus back in the day).
To be fair, it wasn’t hard.
It was spooky.
To make matters worse – and I swear I don’t know if this was true or not – the old press guys loved to to share a story about the newspaper being built on top of an old cemetery from the 1800s. They said that no one knew it was there or else the plant never would have gotten built. But years later, some historical group came along with plats and deeds and surveys and such and showed proof of the cemetery’s existence. And sure enough, the massive press was located smack dab in the middle.
It made all those creaks and groans an old building makes even more ominous.
The lights weren’t controlled by a switch. All the power to the press room, a dusty dark place that smelled of paper dust and ink, were located in a metal box that had a massive handle inside. The press guys would come in early, early of a morning and throw that big switch to turn the lights on. The sound was a little like Frankenstein’s lab coming to life. There was a whirr here and a grinding there and an electrical cackle that seemed to go from one end of the long room to the other.
In short, that meant when us rooks were hauling the paper from the teletype out we didn’t turn on any lights.
Did I mention it was spooky?
The worst part though was a story that the head pressman used to tell. He would wait until a few of the young folks on staff were in the break room and then he’d start in about the “scariest thing I ever done did see.” He had a rasp in his voice and his fingers were permanently stained with ink and nicotine. He said that when he first started working, there was a fatality that he’d never forget – and then he’d ask if we knew about it.
Of course we had not. So we’d beg him to go on.
It was late at night, he explained, and one of the newsroom folks had wandered back into the press room. This was before the teletype, so they had no reason to be back there. He said that inexplicably, a low-lying fog seeped up from the floor and covered the bottom level of the big iron press. The cub reporter didn’t know what to make of it, but rightfully decided it might be a good time to exit stage right.
Before he could, a coffin rose out of the fog and began to head toward the reporter. Scared beyond words, the reporter turned and ran. The coffin went faster. The reporter screamed. The coffin didn’t slow down. It might’ve been the fog, or it might’ve been the panic, but the reporter lost his way and fell into a corner – crying and begging for the coffin to stop.
But the coffin kept coming.
The young reporter’s chest was heaving and it wasn’t clear which would get him first, the coffin or a heart attack. And just as the coffin was almost on top of him, the young reporter grabbed the only thing he could find – a bottle of cough syrup . . . and the coffin stopped.
Happy Halloween, Montgomery County!
Two cents, which is about how much Timmons said his columns are worth, appears periodically on Wednesdays in The Paper. Timmons is the publisher of The Paper and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.