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WOSTER: Lead foot story deemed unbelievable

Not long ago, I told a co-worker about the time one of the guys in the back-shop of a weekly newspaper spilled molten lead down the inside of his boot.

The co-worker didn't believe me at first. It occurred to me that most people I know these days have never been in the back-shop of an old-time newspaper where hot metal was used in linotypes to set a line of type, called a slug, one line at a time to make a newspaper. What romance and mystery most people have missed, including my co-worker, whose first reaction to my story was, "You're making that up.''

"Making it up?'' I said. "How could I make up something like a poor guy pouring hot lead into his boot and having it cool so fast they had to cut his boot off and rush him to the emergency room because even through the metal had cooled enough to turn solid, it was still way hotter than most things most people will ever touch in their lives and it burned the living daylights out of his foot and ankle. I couldn't make up something like that, and even if I could, why would I when the real thing is so much more unbelievable?''

It was, in fact, a true story. The guy was using a long-handled dipper to scoop molten metal from a pot and pour it into a mold called an ingot, or pig. Somehow he caught the handle on something or lost concentration, and part of the scoopful spilled into his half-boot. Bad business all around, and one of many dangers of a newspaper back-shop 50 or 60 years ago.

When I broke into the newspaper business, most papers were using hot lead and linotype-style type-setting machines of one sort or another. Many papers were still setting type a line at a time until the product became a story and they could lock it into a page, ink the page, apply a piece of paper and pull a proof for editing and correcting errors. It was a crazy, wonderful world back there, all hot and noisy and messy, with ink stains on rags and clothing and hands and anything else a person touched, even if he tried hard to be careful.

I pretty much always wanted to make a living somehow by writing, at least from the time my high-school journalism teacher read "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,'' to her class back in 1959. For a time, I thought I might like to be a writer for a magazine like "Sports Illustrated,'' but then I had a chance to work at the Chamberlain Register during a summer when I was in college, and I was hooked on newspapers.

Part of the hook was the opportunity to witness events, ask questions and tell people what happened. Part of it, my brothers and sisters will tell you, was that it was mostly indoor work without a lot of heavy lifting. (I once said, "Not much physical lifting, true, but you should try to lift somebody's spirit with words.'' Turns out, I was the straight man, because the reply came, "You should try it sometime, too.'' Siblings. What are you going to do with them?)

Part of it, though, was the romance and mystery of the back-shop, of the press running the latest edition with midnight-black ink fresh on the white pages, of the pounding and clanking and the yelling across the room, of being able to read type backwards in the galleys, and of the smells of ink and hot metal that stay in the memory longer than they stayed in the scarred, stained floors of the shop.

I didn't like walking the streets trying to sell ads. I absolutely hated making cold calls for sales, in person or by phone. I wasn't the least bit interested in the business office, and I'd have been as bad at that as I was at sales. But I loved the reporting and the writing and editing, and I cherished the simple joy of finding just the right words to fit a one-column headline.

Never was there a finer trade.