I was a teenage printer

August 1, 2010

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

High on a hill near the Mississippi River Palisades — about midway between Hanover, IL, and nowhere — sits Trinity Lutheran Church. In the church basement is a bookshelf, and on that shelf I recently found a Can of Squirms.

Can of Squirms was a role-playing game created by religious publisher Arthur Meriwether Inc.'s Contemporary Drama Service in the 1970s, when such things were hip. It was a collection of cards imprinted with descriptions of difficult moral situations followed by, “What would you do?” questions. Different versions were targeted at different age groups, all designed to make kids “squirm” uncomfortably as they looked deep into their souls for moral guidance.

To the best of my knowledge, this game is still available, but corporate name and address changes helped me to determine that this particular copy of the Squirms game was pretty old. Old enough for me to know that I printed it.

From pressman to digital print maven

I wasn't the president of the printing company. Nor was I the salesman. I was just a teenage pressman.

I put paper and ink into the press, mounted by hand the plates that I had burned, and thus produced all the printed components of the game. If I recall correctly, I cut and folded them as well, before sending the materials on to the hand bindery for insertion into silkscreened tin can containers.

Three plus decades later, I'm a grandfather and a lion of the graphic arts. The game creator became Meriwether Publishing and long ago left the Midwest for the more picturesque environs of Colorado Springs. Yet, this game printed in the seventies is clearly still in use at Trinity Lutheran Church.

I'll bet you are thinking that I'll once again note that any digital media from that time period is unreadable today, while print remains timeless.

Fact is, there wasn't any digital media in 1975. Computers were still massive proprietary behemoths locked away in climate-controlled rooms. Computerbased games, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. Antique file storage devices such as SyQuest and Bernoulli drives had not even been invented yet.

Those devices, now utterly unusable, were still 15 years in the future. So what was the competition to print, way back then?

The same company that sold the Can of Squirms also distributed textbooks, play booklets and work books, all printed. They still do, for print isn't going away anytime soon.

They also sold filmstrips. Remember those? I think the visual products were also available in slide carousels. That was a hightech format back then. Audio recordings came mostly on cassette tapes, which were also pretty high tech, having recently supplanted the 8-track for personal use.

I take no risk when I declare that someday very soon the now familiar CD will go the way of the SyQuest, the Bernoulli, the 8-inch floppy disk and the optical drive. Slides, filmstrips and cassette tapes are a different story. Although much older than the above, all are readable today.

Filmstrips and slides are basically just film transparencies. You might have a hard time finding a slide viewer or filmstrip projector, but you can easily slap your film down on a light table and view it with a loupe. The colors will have faded, but you'll be able to make out the pictures and read all of the text.

As for tapes, finding a cassette player isn't all that difficult yet. A 30-year-old cassette will sound a bit fuzzy, since static has partially degaussed the magnetic information over the years. The pitch of the voices will also sound unnatural, since the tape will have stretched, but you will probably be able to retrieve all of the pertinent information.

Formats change, print endures

Today's digital media is a black hole for archiving. To 22nd Century people, your flash drives and memory sticks will be hockey pucks.

Those filmstrips and cassettes might be one step better, in that they are obsolete but still readable. The problem isn't that they can't be read, but that no one cares to read them.

I found no filmstrips, slides or cassettes on the shelf at the church. Some of these products might have been ordered along with the Squirms game in 1978, but surely some fastidious volunteer long ago discarded them.

These media formats have gone the way of my mother's avocado-green bathtub from the same era. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but tastes have changed.

The printed game, like all print, is timeless. Not only is it still usable, but it is still being used for the exact purpose originally intended when I first put the ink on the paper in the previous century.


Johnson's World has garnered an APEX 2010 “Award of Excellence” for writing in the “Regular Departments and Columns” category.