Religion

ITU printer's idiosyncrasies might seem eccentric to some

Printers at The Washington Post were all members of the International Typographical Union (ITU)—a very independent lot—especially tramp printers. They knew they could work anywhere. Some might seem strange and often quirky, but all were my kind of people. Many had considerable talents in addition to their type-setting, proof-reading, page make-up and printing press skills. Not all, but more than a few, drank considerable quantities of alcohol which may have contributed to odd behavior.

Why else would a printer violate the restricted air space around the White House by buzzing the Washington Monument in his airplane unless he was drunk? The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused and grounded him for intoxication. Today, he might have triggered a deployment of military fighters from nearby Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. They may have shot him down, making him, posthumously, one of those terrorists Homeland Security wants us to fear today.

Fritz was in World War II and fought in France—on the other side. He had just finished his apprenticeship as a journeyman printer, when he was conscripted. The German Army needed paratroopers, so he volunteered. Soon, after D-day, he and his unit parachuted into Normandy to reinforce the German infantry. As often happens in war, his division landed in the wrong place—in the middle of the British invaders. Those who weren't killed became prisoners. Fritz got shrapnel in both legs. The British sent him to a hospital in a prisoner of war camp in Scotland. There he waited out the war and married a Scottish lady. He applied for a membership into the ITU and was accepted. Then he, his wife and son immigrated to the United States and became citizens. He spoke English with a German-Scottish accent.

Juan, the "Revolutionist," was a Linotype operator from Argentina with a wooden leg and a hot temper. He had no trouble cursing out anyone in two languages, English and Spanish. Well, maybe three, because he sometime got so mad his curse words might come out in other languages. He cursed me out because I became one of the bad guys—a supervisor. I just laughed at him. By union contract, all supervisors of ITU printers had to be union members. We supervised work, not printers. In spite of this, a supervisor was dead meat.

Anyway, the first time Juan showed up at The Washington Post, I was just one of several Linotype operators who set type. We went to lunch together and he had many stories to tell, since he had worked as a tramp printer in many countries.

I was curious of how he lost his leg. He was a world class soccer player in Argentina and was paid big bucks. Then he broke his leg in a game. Infection set in and the surgeon removed his leg from the knee down. He began to drink a lot. Part of his rehab was to learn the printing trade. When he became competent, he got his union card and became a tramp printer.

One story he told me was traveling from print shop to print shop in Bolivia, riding a bicycle. He arrived in a small town big enough to support a church and found a long line of people waiting at the doors. Most were starving peasants dressed in their Sunday best of tattered clothes. They were barefooted. No family had money, so they contributed what they could—chickens, pigs, corn— needed to feed their starving families.

While Juan was talking to the people, the priest opened the church doors. He was a rotund little man adorned in expensive robes, gold rings on his fingers and leather shoes on his feet. A gold cross dangled on a gold chain from his neck as he proceeded to bless these starving people, while a well-fed assistant took their food.

Juan exploded in anger, cursing this so-called man of god in several languages, calling him a fat pig living off starving people.

The priest labeled Juan a "revolutionist" and sent for the police. They arrived on bicycles, barefooted. Juan was jailed. The priest took his money and confiscated his bicycle.

Juan loudly reiterated charges against the priest from his jail cell, yelling, "The priest has stolen my bicycle and robbed me, as he does to you!" In the middle of the night, the policemen returned with his bicycle and a bag of food. They freed him with the warning: "It is best you go and never return."