And his name was Floyd Lautenschlaeger. He was relatively unknown outside of his circle – hell, I barely knew him, and that was 25 years ago – but once upon a time I lived on what we referred to as Floydian Standard Time.
Let me explain: my first job out of college was as a reporter for the Mascoutah Herald. The Herald was one of several weekly, hyper-local newspapers, the kind that by the 90s were ekeing by in a sort of weird desperation. Pressures abounded for the Herald and papers like it: to start, local news is inherently a small-time business, with thin margins and dubious value propositions. The bulk of revenues were from municipal contracts, governmental notices that by law had to be published in a public forum. Classifieds made up the rest – it was still a few years yet before Craigslist would obliterate that revenue stream, and send the newspaper business – the kind of news you could hold in your hand to read and later line the birdcage with or slip under the puppy’s behind – careening down a hole toward insolvency and irrelevance.
But back then, the news was still the tangible news, and my crew and I would hustle all week long to fill the voids in the flats. Flats were immense blue-gridded pieces of paper, the exact size of a newspaper page, and over the course of the week it was my job to fill those voids with stories. We had computers, but they’d output to printers that spat ribbons of paper the width of gas station receipts. The words would come out pre-sized to a broadsheet column (hence the term “column inches” as a measure of story length) to be trimmed, waxed and stuck to the flat. We used hot wax rather than glue to stick the to the flats – if late coming ads would come in, stories could be moved around to accommodate (and it was always advertising that drove reshuffles – I mentioned profit margins earlier – a hot breaking story, at a weekly newspaper, wasn’t actually a thing. No one was yelling “stop the presses!” here… but you’d damn well fiddle some waxed columns to put another $50 on that week’s credit.
It was those flats that put me and my colleagues in Floyd Lautenschlaeger’s time zone. I was 25, married but still very much a kid, writing for low pay and helping others do the same. I’d do my stories, print my thin strips of words, butter them with hot wax and stick them to the flats. Tuesday night is when Floydian Standard Time would kick in. We’d start feeling it after 5 pm, when only the late stories – school board, the occasional city council meeting, maybe a couple of loose high school sporting events wrapping up late – still remained, their spots carefully reserved with the filling gaps on the flats. We had until six to finish them all: 6 a.m., dawn or near it on most days. Because 6 was when Floyd would come to pick up the flats and take then down to the printing facility in West Frankfort.
Now, by then, Floyd was already retired from whatever it was that he’d spent a lifetime doing. He was an old man in a small town, doing small-town old-man things. Like getting up very early in the morning, and making a few extra bucks on the side before he’d meet his coterie of similarly old, similarly retired and similarly early-rising contemporaries for coffee at Dairy Queen. Floyd’s extra bucks came in the form of picking up our flats, driving them 90 minutes or so to the press plant, driving the chicken-wire wrapped stacks of fresh newsprint back to Mascoutah where we, strung out from the previous evening’s exertions, would meet those same stacks to slip ads between their covers and bundle them up into brown cloth bags.
That’s all I knew about Floyd. Retired, ancient to my adolescent eyes. We spoke but little; he was cordial, remote but always kind. Unlike our publisher (“It’s $200 for those union printers for every half-hour you’re late!”) Floyd didn’t get angry when we were tardy on deadline. He’d grab a cup of coffee and sit quietly while we skittered around, desperate to put the week’s news to bed as quickly as we could, both to avoid our publisher’s wrath and get to our post-deadline sunrise cocktail hour and half-witted top 10 list.
I left there a few years later, like all of us eventually, and more or less forgot about Floyd. My brain slapped a coat of quick dry cement over those four years, and I moved on with my life, imagining if ever bothered that Floyd was still picking up those flats at 6 a.m. each Wednesday morning. It turns out I was correct – that’s exactly what Floyd was doing, evidently.
For another twenty-five years, apparently.
Floyd was 94. He was a kindhearted man, whom I fervently hope had a life as good, and as rewarding, as it was long.