Keeping track of Wednesdays

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, October 29, 2019

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There’s a one-day calendar device on my desk. It’s a simple little thing that you turn by hand to remind you of today’s date. It’s been on my desk since I came to the paper in August 1972, but its always set to the date of the next Wednesday, because that’s the date of the next paper, and that’s the date around which my world has revolved for all those years.

This week, it shows Oct. 30, the final paper I will publish. It happens also to be my birthday (I’m not looking for a card) and that’s probably appropriate since nothing has marked my years more than the time I’ve spent in this building, doing this job.

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Publication dates have been so pivotal that I’ve actually kept track in my mind of the current date by counting forward or back from the nearest Wednesday.

The workweek in a small weekly begins on the morning when the paper is delivered and ends six days later — in our case, Tuesday — when the next week’s paper is finally put to bed and sent to press. That’s the point at which news people have always said, “Now, it’s up to God and the printer.” God never let us down, printers either for that matter.

Because of the publication cycle and the challenges faced by the small staff that has always made this paper possible, it’s Tuesday that’s embedded in my brain as the “big” day of the week. From the time we turn the lights on in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday until makeup is finished, Tuesday is a day that takes precedence over all others.

The paper had to be made up on Tuesday whether we were ready or not, and in those 47 years, neither snow or ice storms, hurricanes, computer failures, sickness or complete power outages have prevented production and publication of nearly 2,500 weeks worth of The Smithfield Times that I’ve been privileged to put on the street.

Much of the process, frankly, is far easier today than it once was, and as a result, we do more with less than we ever could have in the 1970s.

When Tom and Betty Phillips bought the paper in 1963, it was printed in the back shop on an old flatbed press, every line of type set on a single Linotype machine and every page made up of single lines of lead type placed in a frame, called a chase.

Soon after they bought the paper, the old press breathed a sigh and died, never to run again. Tom called a local paper that owned a press — I’m pretty sure it was the Suffolk News Herald — and they agreed to print the paper.

Tom dutifully made up the lead type pages and locked them firmly in steel chases. He then slid the heavy chases onto pieces of plywood and loaded them into the back of a station wagon to be taken to the neighboring newspaper, where the 8-page Smithfield Times was then printed.

Things progressed pretty rapidly from there, and today we do it all on computer screens, from the time stories are written until the paper is finally made into offset plates at the Virginian-Pilot. Tuesdays have thus gotten a lot easier.

But they have still governed my life, and will until this week is done.

Henceforth, they won’t. In fact, I did something a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t done in 47 years. I voluntarily agreed to a doctor’s appointment on a Tuesday morning in November. I almost said “no” when the scheduler offered the date, but then it dawned on me that I won’t have to turn the lights on that morning. I’ll go see a doctor instead, and that probably says a lot about the future.