This is a short biographical essay I
wrote for the American Amateur Press Association in 2006.
friend Leland Hawes, an oft-honored member of the American Amateur
Press Association since 1942, the year before my birth, said I needed
to write a short biography as a point of initiation. I begin,
naturally, for me, with garlic.
|Malcolm in the kitchen cooking, of course, with garlic.
I came upon the “stinking rose” early in life. I may be the only kid
ever to be sent home from third grade because of it. My teacher, Mrs.
Childs, had me carry a note to my mother with this simple request:
“Please do not feed Malcolm so much garlic.” It didn’t work. My
favorite meal as a child was pork chops. My mother would make a dozen
or so nicks in each chop and imbed a hefty sliver of garlic into each
slit. In the roasting, the stands of garlic would swell, jutting from
the landscape much like the monuments on Easter Island. I often invaded
the platter early, extracting as many of the savory statues as possible
from the chops before being caught. It was one such episode that
prompted the plea from Mrs. Childs.
That brings me to Etaoin Shrdlu. I’d long
thought that Mr. Shrdlu was a person. When I was reading and delivering
the Norfolk Ledger-Star as a kid in Virginia, I often found the name –
in all lower case letters, to my dismay – at the beginning or ends of
articles. I wondered who etaoin shrdlu was. Adding to my curiosity,
that name followed me to New England, where etaoin shrdlu showed up in
the Providence Journal, and, later, in my Army days, in The New York
Times and Fayetteville Observer. (Once I began working at newspapers, I
discovered that “etaoin shrdlu” was really a universal exercise of
Linotype operators. Operators would run their fingers down the first
two rows of keys – e-t-a-o-i-n and s-h-r-d-l-u – to ensure their
machines were working properly. The bastard lines of type would
sometimes find their way into print.)
For me, the link between garlic and
etaoin shrdlu is powerful. Each evokes memories, pungent and pleasant.
Sizzling in a pan, olive oil popping, garlic emits a tantalizing aroma,
emitting a warm blanket of smell that, for my wife, Joyce, and me,
stirs the appetite to great anticipation, much as the bouquet of a good
wine does for the wine connoisseur. We use garlic in everything
possible, including our scrambled eggs. We believe in its powers to
ward off colds. Not sure about vampires, but we’ve encountered none.
For etaoin shrdlu, the mere mention floods my mind with memories
equally tantalizing: the enticing aromas of hot lead, printer’s ink and
fresh newsprint. Those smells, as with garlic, help define where I’ve
been and who I am: printer, writer, journalist, Africanist and teacher.
printer in me started in print shop at Granby High School in Norfolk,
Va. I fell in love with the bits of type in the California job case.
Without looking, I could tell by the size, shape and weight if I’d
selected the correct letter. I practiced to become the fastest
typesetter. I reveled in running the platen press at top speed, the
platen often licking my fingers as I pulled them from its snapping
jaws. I still bear a scar on the back of my left hand from hot wax when
setting the pins. I still have samples, simple in retrospect, of the
work from those days. And, today, in my office sit two California job
cases, with bits of type. When I sit close, the odor remains, evoking a
longing of the joy – in touching, in smelling – the process to
publication, something woefully absent today.
writer, journalist, Africanist and teacher parts of me all sprung from
the printer in me: a natural progression to writer and, then, as
journalist and to Africa and beyond. In 1996, after 34 years as a
reporter and editor, I traded the newsroom for the classroom at the
University of Kansas. And, four years ago, the worlds of my past merged
with the present: I also became general manager and news adviser to The
University Daily Kansan, the student-run daily. I now have the
opportunity, again, to enjoy the smell of fresh newsprint and, when I
make the journey to the printer, of printer’s ink and those memories of
Alas, no hot lead or handset type, but, at home, at least the garlic awaits, as always.