Malcolm Gibson, journalist and garlic lover

An ode to garlic and etaoin shrdlu

     This is a short biographical essay I wrote for the American Amateur Press Association in 2006.

Link to other Frank and Ernest cartoons

Good friend Leland Hawes, an oft-honored member of the American Amateur Press Association since 1942, the year before my birth, said I needed to write a short biography as a point of initiation. I begin, naturally, for me, with garlic.

Malcolm in the kitchen cooking, of course, with garlic.

     I came upon the “stinking rose” early in life. I may be the only kid ever to be sent home from third grade because of it. My teacher, Mrs. Childs, had me carry a note to my mother with this simple request: “Please do not feed Malcolm so much garlic.” It didn’t work. My favorite meal as a child was pork chops. My mother would make a dozen or so nicks in each chop and imbed a hefty sliver of garlic into each slit. In the roasting, the stands of garlic would swell, jutting from the landscape much like the monuments on Easter Island. I often invaded the platter early, extracting as many of the savory statues as possible from the chops before being caught. It was one such episode that prompted the plea from Mrs. Childs.

     That brings me to Etaoin Shrdlu. I’d long thought that Mr. Shrdlu was a person. When I was reading and delivering the Norfolk Ledger-Star as a kid in Virginia, I often found the name – in all lower case letters, to my dismay – at the beginning or ends of articles. I wondered who etaoin shrdlu was. Adding to my curiosity, that name followed me to New England, where etaoin shrdlu showed up in the Providence Journal, and, later, in my Army days, in The New York Times and Fayetteville Observer. (Once I began working at newspapers, I discovered that “etaoin shrdlu” was really a universal exercise of Linotype operators. Operators would run their fingers down the first two rows of keys – e-t-a-o-i-n and s-h-r-d-l-u – to ensure their machines were working properly. The bastard lines of type would sometimes find their way into print.)

     For me, the link between garlic and etaoin shrdlu is powerful. Each evokes memories, pungent and pleasant. Sizzling in a pan, olive oil popping, garlic emits a tantalizing aroma, emitting a warm blanket of smell that, for my wife, Joyce, and me, stirs the appetite to great anticipation, much as the bouquet of a good wine does for the wine connoisseur. We use garlic in everything possible, including our scrambled eggs. We believe in its powers to ward off colds. Not sure about vampires, but we’ve encountered none. For etaoin shrdlu, the mere mention floods my mind with memories equally tantalizing: the enticing aromas of hot lead, printer’s ink and fresh newsprint. Those smells, as with garlic, help define where I’ve been and who I am: printer, writer, journalist, Africanist and teacher.

     The printer in me started in print shop at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va. I fell in love with the bits of type in the California job case. Without looking, I could tell by the size, shape and weight if I’d selected the correct letter. I practiced to become the fastest typesetter. I reveled in running the platen press at top speed, the platen often licking my fingers as I pulled them from its snapping jaws. I still bear a scar on the back of my left hand from hot wax when setting the pins. I still have samples, simple in retrospect, of the work from those days. And, today, in my office sit two California job cases, with bits of type. When I sit close, the odor remains, evoking a longing of the joy – in touching, in smelling – the process to publication, something woefully absent today.

     The writer, journalist, Africanist and teacher parts of me all sprung from the printer in me: a natural progression to writer and, then, as journalist and to Africa and beyond. In 1996, after 34 years as a reporter and editor, I traded the newsroom for the classroom at the University of Kansas. And, four years ago, the worlds of my past merged with the present: I also became general manager and news adviser to The University Daily Kansan, the student-run daily. I now have the opportunity, again, to enjoy the smell of fresh newsprint and, when I make the journey to the printer, of printer’s ink and those memories of etaoin shrdlu.

     Alas, no hot lead or handset type, but, at home, at least the garlic awaits, as always.


Links to Malcolm's Web Sites
Wonderful World of Words
Adanced Reporting
Going Over Sixty (blog)
The Gibson Gazette (personal)

Updated Aug. 2, 2013