Otto's Night Watch: Revisiting One of the Most Popular Columns in Magazine's 59-Year History
PHILADELPHIA — January 25, 2017 —When I first joined North American Publishing Co. (dba NAPCO Media) 35 years ago as an assistant editor on our sister title, packagePRINTING, Jim Burns was winding down as editor-in-chief of Printing Impressions in order to join Chuck Alessandrini and Gregg Van Wert at NAPL as the association's director of communications. Fresh with a journalism degree and a couple of years of experience as the editor of a small-town newspaper in Illinois, I was grateful to have landed a job in trade magazine publishing. It was 1982, and the U.S. economy was mired in a recession.
Covering the package printing space, whenever a tabloid-sized copy of Printing Impressions landed on my desk, I'd skim through it, but would invariably turn to the last page to read "Otto's Night Watch," a longstanding column written by Otto Boutin. And, when I took over as editor-in-chief of Printing Impressions in 1985 — Otto had passed away by then — we continued to republish his columns for a couple of years in deference to the most popular columnist the magazine had throughout its first several decades of existence.
(I would be remiss, though, to not properly recognize the monthly sales column written by Harris DeWese that appeared in our publication from 1985 until a short time before DeWese's passing. With his sharp wit, self-deprecating humor and fictional accounts surrounding the mishaps of Marvelle Stump — the world's worst printing salesman — Printing Impressions readers would often turn to read The Mañana Man's monthly column before perusing anything else in the issue.)
A typesetter living in Chicago who still earned a living operating a linotype machine, Boutin was also a literary master whose "Otto's Night watch" columns captured the spirit of a bygone era, including stories based around "tramp printers" who traveled the country. They plied their trade as craftsmen at print shops and newspapers in local communities often in exchange for room, board and a meager wage, before moving on to seek out the next adventure.
But, just as important as it is to look to the future of our industry, it's also just as paramount to reflect on the past. With all of the talk today about digitization, printing by the numbers, virtual reality and even artificial intelligence. We should not lose sight of the fact that the roots of the printing industry as a craft run deep and it makes our ongoing journey that much more compelling and meaningful. After all, there's no better view from a speeding car of what's gaining on you than that of looking through the rear-view mirror.
As Printing Impressions readies for its 60th anniversary in June of next year, I thought it would be appropriate to republish some of Otto's more memorable columns, which were collected in a hard-bound book in 1973.
Here's the foreword written by the editors of Printing Impressions back in 1973 to help set the stage, followed by one of his columns. We'll be publishing more "Otto's Night Watch" columns online during the next several days. So, sit back and strap yourself into your time machine to relive the bygone days of an industry that's gone through an incredible technological upheaval. But, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As before he still inspires laughter, dry humor, the sense of the absurd and above all the warmth of human compassionate understanding in the heart of every printer. But instead of speaking or writing from beyond the grave the spirit that was Twain the Printer resides in a modest typesetter in Chicago, Illinois, who still makes his living pounding the keys of a linotype machine.
Otto Boutin is a real, live printer. Perhaps he is the last one alive who still embodies in his own life story and in his personality the characteristic traits that embodied and personified the American printer from the Civil War days, through the turbulent era when Mergenthaler’s contraption turned a craft into a science, and through the 20s when craftsmanship in the strong personalized individualized sense made its supreme, final struggle, also to die — perhaps forever — in the depression years.
Yes, there are still printer-craftsmen around. They still exist in the hearts and souls of every man who has set his hands on the keyboard of a linecaster, or tied string around a page that soon pied, or gripped upon the press clutch as printer’s ink slithered across his hand. These printer-craftsmen now know that they can exist only in the spirit, but not for long in a world where return-on-investment, cash-flow and electronics dominate an industry. The printer-craftsmen, as epitomized by those wanderers who spend the most vital parts of their lives in the pressroom, cannot long survive in the age of plastics and jet airplanes. They are human beings and printers first, and business men second, if ever.
Therein lies the fascination of Otto and his creations. No, “creations” is a bad word, for while parading as fiction Otto tells the stories of actual people who have lived and died in the composing rooms and the pressrooms, sometimes with a galley proof clutched in their hands. Today’s printer is besieged by business problems everywhere. He is tied down by mortgages, banker’s loans, accounts receivable and accounts payable. No one today dares tear off the golden chains he wraps so quickly and desperately around his neck, for who can argue that to succeed in the printing business is the most important thing in life, and that the greatest achievement is to increase sales volume each year?
Yet Otto, with all his printer skills, with all his ability to take apart and put together a linecaster blindfolded, turns his back upon the things that we hold most dear. He does not do so as the hippy youngster may do, spurning its value. Rather he asks himself sadly, and the reader too, “is it all worth it?”
While setting type he dreams of faraway places, of sun-kissed shores and wide open fields. What is most important, he turns those dreams into reality and when the mood moves him he says goodbye to the plant where he has worked. He bids goodbye to profit-sharing plans, to Christmas bonuses, to retirement funds, and goes off somewhere else in search of something — what? The Great Printing Plant Across the Wide Missouri? Who knows? For it is Otto’s supreme skill to make the wish to leave, the excuse, the pretense, the explanation, only a symbol for whatever personal reasons the reader may have for yearning to chuck the whole business and start anew somewhere — just doing a job. Now and then Otto, and all of us, may think of expanding, or growing, of getting into the Big Time, but his heart is not really there. All that he holds dear is his skill as a printer — and that is something he can take with him anywhere. Somewhere, somehow, he can always find some sympathetic soul who could put his talents to practical use.
With Otto, constantly in the background, is The Woman. But she is not a woman as most of us know her. Or rather, Otto sees her as part of every man sees her. Despite her outward appearance, whether she be beautiful or comical, rich or talented, and despite whatever her wiles and attractions may be, she is to Otto and to every man, a source of suspicion and possible danger. Woman, to Otto, represents precisely the thing which total commitment to the Printing Plant means. And that is bondage and loss of freedom.
A woman, like the management or ownership of a plant, can tie a man down. How can a man dream, and just pack up his troubles in his old kit bag and go, go, go, if there is a Woman, or a Printing Plant to tie one down?
Otto’s story, then, is essentially the story of every man’s search for freedom. But it is told in terms which are readily recognized by anyone who has worked in a printing plant. It is told in anecdotes about printers, printing plants and printing operations. It is told mostly about a class of printers. Tramp Printers they were called, who knew nothing of union rules and regulations, or management’s prerogatives. They knew only their own worth as craftsmen, and their own worth as human beings. They knew true freedom, and when it was threatened, they left, despite the cost to them in time and effort. The Tramp Printers, in Otto’s stories, though he never uses the word since he and his people reject classification and insist on being individuals, are gone. A few remain in our memory. Most remain in our hearts as symbols of the truth that Otto tells about our inner thoughts, our inner feelings, as we go about daily work as Craftsmen.
The stories published herein have all appeared in Printing Impressions and continue to do so. As one of the most popular feature writers for Printing Impressions, Otto Boutin has been the recipient of many honors and awards for his perceptive, moving accounts of his fellow printers with whom he has worked, and with whom he continues to work.
At this moment Otto is watching the matrices slide down, and soon another hot slug will drop. As his fingertips touch the keyboard, they also touch the keys to our inner being, our heart.
— The Editors of Printing Impressions (1973)
Love Letter to an Old Linotype
Love Letter to an Old Linotype:
I felt sorry for you the other day when the efficiency experts decided you were too old to keep on working.
I did my best to show that you still could produce six slugs a minute, even with an old duffer like me at the keyboard. But that’s not enough for the wonder boys. They want to run tape through everything, but not through an old Model Five like you.
And they said I’m too old for this tape operation, same as you are. Maybe they’re right. I don’t want a tape running through my head, in one ear and out the other. I’d rather go back to selling peanuts in the ball park.
It’s tough to see you go, you old clunker. We’ve done a lot of living together. The first time I met you I was as nervous as a bashful boy on this first date. I tried hard to please you, but kept doing everything wrong. And I kept stuttering, especially in the caps. I never wanted to see you again. But I came back.
Eventually I got to like you. You were quite a gal that time, all shined up and full of ideals. You had just been through a war to end all wars, the one that made the world safe for democracy. It was while sitting with you in the evenings that I learned a lot of names like George Clemenceau, Tomas Masaryk and Lloyd George.
As the years went by we had conversations together every night. You told me about the German inflation, about Cal Coolidge being sworn in as President and about Lindy landing in Paris. That was some story, wasn’t it? A kid from Minnesota flying across the ocean all alone. We pounded out column after column after column of that story, night after night, and we loved it. That was a happy story.
We were hot shots at that time. Visitors used to watch you work, remarking that you were almost human — and that I was almost a machine. We got along together real good.
And then something happened in Wall Street and I found myself out in the cold. There were a dozen men anxious to spend the evening with you. Now and then you favored me, but not too often.
You really can’t blame me if I began to parade outside your window with signs hanging over my shoulders telling the world that you were taking unfair advantage of me. You felt so humiliated that you froze up for a month, refusing to have anything to do with anyone.
When we got back together we had to learn a lot of new names. Haile Selassi, Mussolini, Franco, Von Ribbentrop, Goebbels, Goering, Hitler. Our conversations had lost their cheerfulness. Then we separated for a while, because there were other things for me to do besides setting casualty lists.
When I came back I was rather restless. After all the excitement I had in uniform, you seemed drab. I couldn’t stand being with you 10 or 12 hours a day, as you demanded.
So I ran off with a cute little portable typewriter and had quite a ball with her in a secluded cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. Then the money ran out. And, sheepishly, I came back to you.
Then there was that affair with the slick attache case. She was not a stick-in-the-mud like you. She took me to the best places, swanky offices, with thick carpets and plush drapes. But she was a fussy girl, insisting that I wear a white shirt every day, and a necktie even. I got tired of polishing those tight shoes and attending Dale Carnegie courses.
And so I came back to you, my one and true love, in my baggy slacks, sport shirt and bedroom slippers.
You greeted me like a jealous wife, splattering hot metal over me. I got so mad I picked up a hammer and knocked a tooth out of your damn mold disk.
Then we simmered down, knowing we were stuck with each other. Sometimes we’d think about the amazing things we had described on the keyboard: crystal radio sets, four-wheel brakes, seven-day Atlantic crossings, short skirts, Volstead, long skirts, Repeal, short skirts, television, filter tips, atomic bombs and tranquilizers, Sally Rand and photographs of Mars. We were grateful for having had the privilege of living in such an interesting era.
And gradually we realized that we were growing old together because of the names appearing in the obituaries. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Flo Ziegfeld, Douglas Fairbanks, Colonel McCormick, John Barrymore and Ethel and Lionel, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Ernest Hemingway and Ben Hecht, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. Come to think of it, we even set the obituary for Enrico Caruso.
And we’re still at it, you and I, pounding the obituaries every day — Kennedy, MacArthur, Churchill, Stevenson, Nat King Cole, Spike Jones, Marilyn Monroe. We’re afraid to look at the obituaries for tomorrow.
So maybe it’s true that we’re too old for tape, both of us. We’re just the two of us talking together now, because there’s nobody to listen about the days when we were setting the first reviews for the “Student Prince” and the “Vagabond Kind.” Remember the newcomers of that day? Al Jolson, Fred Allen, Houdini. And, of course, there were the movie reviews with Rudy Valentino and Pola Negri. Ages ago, isn’t it?
Well, let’s face it, old timer. It’s about time we got melted down into something else, like old Linotype slugs that get bright new faces every now and then. Maybe you’ll come out of the pot as a space capsule and I’ll be an astronaut. It doesn’t sound right, does it? We’re not suited for that kind of razzmatazz.
I’m really the type of guy that should be raking leaves, slowly. And I hope you keep me company in the future, as you did in the past. I don’t want to insult you, but I’d like to see you become a shovel or a rake or something like that. A wheelbarrow would be just fine.
Then we could walk together between the hedges of zinnias until we came to an old maple tree. And we’d stretch out in the clover and sleep.