`Old timer' recalls start at Sun

August 01, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,Perspective Editor

One morning last week, I found a note and a gift in my office. The note wished me the best for the future from "one old timer to another." This was because, as of today, for the first time since April 29, 1969, I am not a full-time employee of The Sun.

Time will tell whether retirement is a good thing. Right now it looks very good. I still get to write my column, but I don't have to come into the office. I barely got a job here in the first place. When I was hired, Scott G. Sullivan, the city editor, suggested he was doing me a great favor by employing me because I had scored so unremarkably on The Sun's peculiar general knowledge test. But Sullivan was everyone's intellectual superior. He had a Phi Beta Kappa key from Yale to prove it, and he wore that key to work every day. Later I discovered that others on the staff had scored worse than I.

But this is not about Sullivan - not altogether - or even about semi-retirement. It is about the fellow who sent me the note and the gift. That was Mike Farrell, majordomo extraordinaire of The Sun's wire room. Farrell started at The Sun the same year I did. He was a copy boy then and he sent me this kind note and gift even though he is notoriously unimpressed by reporters and editors. The higher up the ladder they are, the less impressed he is. He has gone out of his way to antagonize them, which brings me back to Scott Sullivan and a night when I came close to murdering Farrell.

Sullivan was better than everyone at everything that did not require physical exertion, especially cards and chess. He took a perverse delight in goading his subordinates into trying to beat him.

Very late one night at the city desk, I was in Sullivan's clutches, desperately trying to beat him at Gin Rummy after months of humiliation. Farrell walked behind me and said, "You better get rid of those two aces, Mr. Price." I lost my temper, threw the cards on the desk, grabbed a copy-spike and chased Farrell the length of the newsroom. If I had caught him, I would still be in the slammer today. But I did not, and we have been friendly colleagues ever since.

As a copy boy (later to be called "copy person") and later working in the wire room, which he now supervises, Farrell was one of the countless anonymous individuals who were indispensable to the production of the newspaper.

There were no computers in those days. We worked with typewriters, paper, carbon paper, pencils, scissors and glue. People who cut and paste in word processing documents today may not be aware that once upon a time, we really cut and pasted. We wrote stories with about three paragraphs on each page, sent to the desk a page at a time. If the writer or the editor wanted to move one paragraph, scissors were used to cut it out and a paste pot was used to paste it where it ought to go. These pages were carried by copy boys from the reporter to the assigning desk for the first edit. Then they were carried from the city desk to the copy desk for the final edit and a headline. The headline was sent on a scrap of paper back to the assigning desk. The whole masterpiece then was carried from the copy desk to a pneumatic tube and sucked down to the composing room where a printer would set type in hot lead. If the copy boys had not been there to carry this stuff from one place to another, the whole operation might have collapsed.

There was much noise in the newsroom in those days. Typewriters clattered. There was no instant messaging, so there was a lot of hollering. "Copy to the desk!" "Copy to photo!" "Copy over!" "Copy down!" This cacophony reached its crescendo every night in a room so filled with cigarette smoke it was as if a fog had descended on the place.

Farrell scurried about in the midst of the din like a busy ant.

Later he moved to the wire room. There must have been two dozen teletype machines clattering away around the clock in that room. In addition to their incessant clatter, bells would ring if an important story were moving. A lot of bells meant something very big had happened, and it thrilled Farrell to run out of the room, teletext in hand, to announce the news of some disaster. Now, sad to say, the newsroom knows about most things before the wire room does, because the room is full of televisions set to CNN.

Speaking of bells, one large bell was attached to the wall of the wire room in the middle of the newsroom. That bell was connected to the Baltimore fire department and it rang for every alarm in the city. The bell rang out a code of, say, two rings, followed by three, followed by five. This meant box number 235. A clerk at the desk, usually a fire department buff named Holton F. Brown, would look in the book to see if the box was at an important place. If the bell rang the same sequence again, that meant that fire had gone to two alarms, and so forth.

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