75 Years; Three Generations, Blue Collar Tradespersons

In earlier posts about my parents, Frank and Norma Boling, I mentioned that they met when they were in their mid-teens shortly after dad’s 33-year-old estranged mom passed away in March 1944. But, I neglected to say where they were when they first met. You see, schools were on break for the summer and families still were in need of extra income. So, mom, Norma, had just completed tenth grade when she went to work for The National Publishing Company at 301 M Street, N.E., Washington, DC. There, she operated a Graphotype-like debossing machine to prepare address plates with raised type.

The addressograph machine had a cassette-style plate feeder, a heavy-duty, rapidly moving inked ribbon, a platten for hand-feeding the mail pieces, and a foot pedal for stamping the addresses. Mom would insert individual steel address plates into card-sized frames which included a series of slots along the top where she could insert colored metal flags for mail-sorting purposes. She kept her plate assemblies in steel cassettes that resembled library card catalogue drawers. And, at her press of the foot pedal she swapped plate assemblies in sequence (similar to a slide projector), to create inked impressions onto pieces of mail.

Similarly, dad, Frank, started his career about this same time at the National Publishing Company. He started in the pressroom as a “fly-boy” or “jogger.” This entry level position required ongoing lifting and manual labor to square up stacks of printed sheets as they come off the press before they were sent to the bindery department. He worked for this company for about 23 years before he joined the Federal Government at the Bureau of Engraving and next the Government Printing Office. But, the bulk of his work required extended hours of standing and moving about a two-story 4-unit color Miehle Dexter Goss Letterpress. The sizes of the rolls of paper ranged from 14-72″ wide with each roll weighing about 3,300 pounds. When he retired due to his first stroke in 1987, he had worked 43 years in the printing industry.

Mom, on the other hand, worked only a couple of years in the printing industry before she and dad married and they started raising their family. However, the story as they shared it with me only about two years ago was: mom could sit at her addressograph machine positioned behind a window and have a clear view to the press in the pressroom where dad worked. Dad tells the story that said mom was forever staring and making eyes at him through that window. Mom, said it was dad who pursued her. Either way, they soon got together and were inseparable throughout their lives, until mom passed away on March 16, 2018–74 years!

This is not where my story ends. The printing industry provided income to several members of our family over the years. My dad’s sister, “Aunt Delores,” made a career as a bindery machine operator at various printing firms in the Washington, DC area. She met Uncle Luther, her husband, when they both worked in a bindery department. Upon his discharge from the Marine Corps in 1964, my husband, Bob, went to work at The National Publishing Company following the path my dad had taken. When my youngest brother, John, graduated school in 1981 he also went to work in the printing industry, as did our eldest son, Bobby after graduating in 1984.

Printing was one of those industries where work had its ups and downs. It was either feast or famine for workers, regardless of the firm you worked for. The biggest “famine” phase hit our family beginning in 1973, when McCall’s Printing Company, the biggest union-organized printing company in the Washington-Metropolitan-Area closed its doors. Many former big-name union-based printing/publishing companies declined significantly over the next 5 years until today. Only 5-10% of current workers in this industry are unionized and steady work at upstanding companies is difficult to find. In fact, the only remaining members of my family that remain in the printing industry are our son, Bobby, and my brother, John. Bobby transitioned himself over the years from first pressman, to shop foreman, and then to printing shop maintenance technician. With today’s print industry being computer- and big machinery-based, Bobby went to college to get a degree as an engineer. His salary remains steady and his skills remain in high demand.

However, my brother John is still struggling as a pressman in a non-union unsatisfactory shop to eke out a living. The “evolved” printing industry in our continually changing world of digital media has not been the kind of career to John that his earlier industry-based relatives enjoyed. Our family is supportive of John’s plight and cautioned him over the years to identify other means or interests that could help him achieve his earlier business successes. His current “catch-22” situation is to work in whatever capacity necessary for whatever hours possible at this small struggling shop, leaving him little scheduled time or motivation to pursue new ventures.

So to all you young adults who are out there looking for your way to “eke out” a living, please plan wisely and always keep current with fast-evolving technology. And, keep your options open–even if you can’t identify your full path right now. And remember: work to live, not live to work!

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