Happy Independence Day, everyone!
“What’s your name?”
I stared up at the man standing just inside the door of the print shop and took my cap off my head. “Gerald Hart, sir.”
“Well, where did you come from, and what do you want?” The words were brisk but not harsh, and I stepped forward.
“I come from up north, sir, from Boston.”
“What do you want?” repeated the man. “Speak up; I’m very busy.”
“I want to be an apprentice, sir,” I said quickly. I took one last step and was now almost inside the shop. “Will you take me, sir?”
The man stared at me, looking bewildered and annoyed. “You have no family, I assume?”
I gulped. “No sir. My pa died last summer, fighting with General Washington.”
The man nodded, looking at me sadly for a moment. “Any other relations?”
“No, sir. My ma died when I was little, and I have no brothers or sisters.”
Someone from inside the shop called the man, and he leaned away from me to reply. “I’ll be there in a minute, my love.”
I grabbed at a slim chance. “Are you needed, sir? I can tend the shop for you.”
The man narrowed his eyes at me and bent down so I looked him straight in the eyes. “Listen, young Gerald. Who is to assure me that you are not absolutely lying? What do I know but that no sooner is my back turned than you rob me blind and leave with half my shop tucked in your pockets?”
I could tell he was only half serious. Behind him, I saw a beautiful lady approaching, and I felt somehow calmed by her presence. “Why, I will assure you, sir. I am no thief, and merely seek to learn a trade. Please sir, take me on.”
The lady stepped up beside the man and smiled at me. “What a sweet boy, John!”
John turned to her. “Elizabeth, this young lad wishes for me to apprentice him.” Leaning closer, he whispered in his wife’s ear, and I knew he was listing to her all the objections he had against me. I watched her face, suddenly feeling as if my acceptance or dismissal rested on her.
The woman smiled again, and whispered in return to her husband. He looked at her for a long time, then sighed and turned back to me. “Gerald, how old are you?”
“If you can prove to me today your ability, your honesty, and your character as a whole, I will take you on. Mind, though, that I hold the right to dismiss you and turn you over to the magistrate if ever I am displeased with you or made to doubt your honesty.”
I felt very nervous by the stern words, but I nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He held out his hand, and I shook it, feeling a mix of elation and apprehension. “I shall do my best to serve you, sir.”
Stepping backwards into the shop, the man straightened. “My name is John Dunlap, Gerald. This is my wife, Elizabeth.”
I bowed to her. “Madam, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
She smiled again and dipped the tiniest curtsey. “The pleasure is mine, Master Gerald.”
Mr. Dunlap led me through the print room to the back wall, where a fireplace stood. “Gerald, as my youngest apprentice, your job will be collect soot from the fireplace.”
I had two questions. “Do you have other apprentices, sir?”
“Yes, I have one other lad, Harvey, of fourteen years of age. He has a broken arm, however. It should mend soon, and he will get back to his full duties.”
“Why do you need soot, sir?”
“We use it to make the ink,” Mr. Dunlap said, scraping some from the bottom of the chimney wall into his hand. “Mixed with other components, of course.”
“Will I be allowed to use the printing press, sir?” I asked eagerly, looking at the large press standing against the wall on our right.
“No, not for many years,” Mr. Dunlap said, wiping his hands on his apron. “Now, you will work from sunrise to sunset, and sleep in the attic with Harvey. You will take your meals after Mrs. Dunlap and myself have eaten. Any other questions?”
I shook my head. “No sir, thank you.”
He shook my hand again and turned to Mrs. Dunlap. “Are you ready, Elizabeth?”
She smiled. “I will join you in a moment, John.”
As Mr. Dunlap left the room, Mrs. Dunlap turned to me. She was very beautiful, with soft golden hair and blue eyes that reminded me of puddles. “I am very pleased to have you in our shop, Gerald.”
I swallowed, feeling shy. “Thank you, ma’am. I... it was kind of your husband to take me on.”
“His business has been quite successful. I can imagine it will be useful to have extra help,” she replied, then nodded and turned away. I watched her leave through the same wooden door Mr. Dunlap had used.
By myself in the print shop, I looked around, then walked over to the press. It was slightly taller than I was, with a frame of wood and a thick lever sticking out to one side. A panel holding the typeset was sticking out from under the pressing mechanism itself, and off the top of the panel opened the board with slots for the paper to be held in place. I looked over the whole thing, trying to imagine what it would look and sound like when running.
Turning, I suddenly saw a young man watching me from a ladder leading up to what I assumed was the attic. He had brown hair and was considerably taller than I was. His arm was tucked in a sling.
“Master Dunlap is brisk,” the young man said, coming clumsily down the ladder towards me. “A little too brisk, I think. Have you ever worked in a press before?”
I shook my head, feeling a little intimidated. “No.”
He looked at me for a moment. “Then it’s a good thing you won't be allowed to use the press yet. What’s your name?”
“Gerald Hart. Yours?”
I smiled. “Peach?”
He laughed a little and shrugged. “Aye. ‘Tisn’t my fault I have a name like that.”
I nodded. “Of course not.” There was a pause, and then I looked around the shop again. “Mrs. Dunlap said her husband does a good business?”
“He does very well,” Harvey said, heading back towards the ladder. “I hope my arm will heal quickly so he’ll not get behind in his orders.” He paused, then said, “Call me when they've finished their meal, will you, lad?”
I nodded. When Harvey had disappeared into the attic, I sat down on the floor and thought, feeling a mixture of unsurety, doubt, and excitement. Despite the briskness of my new employer and his apprentice, I had found a good job, helping to do what seemed to me to be the most noble profession in the world.
“What might you want to be when you are a man, Gerald?” my pa had asked me one time, years ago.
“To be a printer,” I had replied. “I want to help change the world through words.”
“Why not be a writer?” pa had asked, scooping me onto his lap.
I had shaken my head. “No. I can’t write well, papa.”
“You could learn, Gerald. A young boy of six cannot be expected to write like the great Shakespeare or Locke.”
“You could learn, Gerald. A young boy of six cannot be expected to write like the great Shakespeare or Locke.”
“I know. But I may never get any better. If I was a printer, I could take the great words of other men and let the whole world know what they are saying.”
My pa had looked at me for a long moment. “Then become a printer, Gerald. I believe, if God is willing, that one day you will indeed change the world through words.”
As I sat remembering, I felt tears fill my eyes for my pa, now dead and buried far away near Breed’s Hill, back in Massachusetts. If only I could still be with him.
Behind me, I heard Mr. Dunlap opening the parlor door. I clambered to my feet. “You may go in and eat now,” Mr. Dunlap said, and withdrew to go back to his wife.
I called to Harvey and followed him into the kitchen where our dinner was laid out. Sitting down, I looked at my fellow apprentice.
“Harvey, what kinds of customers does Mr. Dunlap receive?” I asked.
Harvey looked at me sharply. “Why?”
“I was curious.”
Harvey looked stuck-up for a moment. “Lots of important men order him to print things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Important papers. You probably wouldn’t understand the details.”
These mysterious and truly vague words only helped to make me more curious, but I finished my meal without another question.
Harvey never did tell me what kinds of things they printed for those important people. However, I soon gathered from bits of conversations I overheard between Harvey and Mr. Dunlap that whatever they were printing would not please the British. I began to realize that Mr. Dunlap was involved in Patriot work of some kind, but since I was not allowed to help print, and could barely see what was on the sheets that hung to dry from the ceiling, I was left in the dark as to specifics.
It was five weeks after I began working for Mr. Dunlap that perhaps the most important day in my life occurred. I finished my breakfast hastily and ran in to get started on my day. Harvey was sweeping, one of the few things he could manage with a still healing arm.
“Gerald, start mixing that ink; we’ll need a deal of it before the day is gone,” Mr. Dunlap said as soon as I had put on my apron. “I had more orders than usual yesterday.”
“Yes, sir.” I grabbed a bottle of walnut oil from the shelf and began mixing it with soot I had collected from the chimney the day before.
As I mixed, I watched as Mr. Dunlap worked methodically, as if he himself was a machine; placing paper, rolling in the drawer of the press... His arms worked back and forth smoothly, and sheet after sheet of paper was hung up on the line strung near the ceiling so the ink could dry.
Harvey moved past me with the broom, and I could see the longing in his eyes. He wanted to be back at work.
Just then Mr. Dunlap looked up. “Harvey, let’s see how well you can help with one hand. I’ll get behind if I don't have your assistance.”
The look of joy that took over Harvey’s face was indescribable. He tossed the broom to me and leapt across the room to help Mr. Dunlap. “Yes sir! Thank you!”
Grinning, I was about to finish the ink when the bell of the door tinkled and a man strode into the shop. “I require a dozen prints of this,” he demanded, handing Mr. Dunlap a piece of paper filled with script. I disliked the lordly way he looked at me, as if he knew and relished the fact that I was at the bottom of the working ladder, and he at the top.
“Of course, Mr. Hancer,” Mr. Dunlap said, taking the sheet. “I shall get them done immediately, most likely later this morning.” I saw him sneak a look at Harvey, who artistically placed himself in front of the drying sheets hanging on the line, forcing Mr. Hancer to move back towards the door.
“Can we help you with anything else?” Mr. Dunlap asked, looking with impatience at his customer, who continued to stand by the door.
“Yes, I want you to have one of your lads deliver the papers to me when they’ve finished. I will need them as soon as possible, and am entirely too busy this afternoon to make another trip to your shop.”
Mr. Dunlap looked over at me. “My apprentice Gerald can take them over, sir.”
Mr. Hancer wrinkled his nose. “These are very important papers, my good man. I can’t have a youngster who knows nothing of caution or haste bring them. For all I know he might lose them along the way, or decide to join in a game while on the road. I want your older boy.”
Mr. Dunlap took a deep breath. “I’m sure Gerald will be careful.”
“Nonsense, you can never trust boys that young.”
I felt insulted, particularly because Mr. Hancer had never met me before, and therefore had no reason to dislike me so much.
Mr. Dunlap stared at the floor. I could hear him grinding his teeth.
“Besides,” Mr. Hancer added, “your other apprentice has a damaged arm. He can hardly be of use to you managing the press.”
Harvey’s head shot up and I saw anger and hurt in his eyes. Now all three of us were upset.
Mr. Dunlap stepped forward with a gleam in his eyes and a growl in his voice. “Very well. Harvey will deliver your invitations.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Hancer said, bowed, and left, taking with him the pretentious air that had been stifling me the whole time he was in the room. I was shocked that Mr. Dunlap had allowed the man to order Harvey away from the busy shop merely to deliver some invitations.
Mr. Dunlap turned to Harvey. “Mr. Hancer is a very important man in Philadelphia, after all. Let’s stay in as many men’s good graces as possible to keep the business going, shall we?”
Harvey sighed, then nodded and got back to work. I felt for him, and went back to my ink mixing, still feeling indignant. I could very easily and responsibly have delivered those invitations. I never got to do anything important. Not, of course, that this particular delivery was very important... but still.
When the invitations were printed and dried, Mr. Dunlaps collected them, wrapped them, and handed them to Harvey. “Go quickly, lad. Even so, you’ll most likely not be back before morning.”
I was surprised. “How far away does Mr. Hancer live, sir?”
“On the other side of the city, but he has a reputation of not only forcing my apprentices to deliver his orders, but then do other work for him. In this case, Harvey, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he tells to to deliver these invitations to his guests, and stay on hand to help at his party.”
Harvey’s head was low. “I know, sir. I’ll see tomorrow as early as possible, sir.”
“Good boy,” Mr. Dunlap said, clapping Harvey’s shoulder. “Be careful on the road.”
“Yes, sir.” Harvey turned quickly to me before he left. “I suppose this may not be too bad,” he whispered. “After all, Mr. Hancer has a grand house.”
“Think of it as an adventure,” I whispered back encouragingly. “Imagine you’re on a mission for General Washington!”
Harvey laughed. “You have an imagination, Gerald. Well, goodbye for now.”
I watched him leave, trying not to feel envious of his position. However boring his delivery and ensuing help might be, at least it was a change ois pace. Besides, it had gotten hot in the print shop, and I wished I could go with him and catch a breeze. Sighing, I set the newly made ink aside, picked up Harvey’s discarded broom, and got to work.
Later that afternoon, I was up the chimney, scraping soot off the bricks and trying not to stress about my cramped position when the bell tinkled and I heard a someone enter the shop.
“Mr. Dunlap,” a man’s voice came, muted, to my ears. “Might I have a word in private?”
“Of course, Mr. Hancock,” Mr. Dunlap replied, a note of respect in his voice. I heard the two men leave the shop and close the door to the adjoining parlor. I was interested at once; Mr. Dunlap did not usually conduct business in his home. Scraping a bit more soot into my pail, I scooched down the chimney and popped onto the hearth stone. I wanted badly to eavesdrop, but knew I would be severely punished if caught doing so. I washed myself hastily, glancing at the closed door every one in awhile.
It was some time later that Mr. Dunlap opened the door and he and his visitor stepped back into the shop.
Mr. Dunlap shook hands with Mr. Hancock. “I’ll have the broadsides printed as fast as possible, sir. However, my apprentice was called out earlier this afternoon, and my work will go slower than normal.”
Mr. Hancock sighed. “Well, as fast as you can, then, Dunlap. Good evening.” He bowed and went out the door.
I looked at Mr. Dunlap. He was standing with a large piece of paper in his hand, staring at it. His lips moved as he read the words.
I cleared my throat. “I finished gathering the soot, sir.”
Mr. Dunlap glanced at me. “Very well, then start preparing ink.” He turned away and began setting type, his fingers moving with haste but with extreme care.
The minutes ticked by. Mr. Dunlap’s tension showed in his movements, and in his frequent sighs. “How am I to make over two hundred of these quickly enough?” I heard him mutter to himself. He turned towards the back room, and somehow, in his hasty movement, knocked the case holding the type. The small black pieces jostled out of place, some falling to the floor.
Mr. Dunlap groaned, bent, and started picking up the pieces on the floor.
I watched, then took a step forward. “Mr. Dunlap, sir?” I ventured hesitantly.
He looked up impatiently. “Yes, Gerald?”
“Since... since Harvey isn’t here, sir, and you require speed for Mr. Hancock’s order, maybe I could help you. I know how to set type. I’ve watched you do it quite frequently.”
Mr. Dunlap looked at the press, then came over to me and crouched down so he was at my eye level. “Gerald, listen to me very carefully. Mr. Hancock has given my a very special order. We are to print copies of this document for the Continental Congress, for whom I have been printing for some time. This document is extremely important, and it is fully necessary that we do not mess up even a single word. If I allow you to help me print these broadsides, can you promise me that you will do the job right?”
My heart thudded. This was something bigger than I had imagined. Whatever was on that paper was supremely special. “I will try, sir.”
He looked at me for one more moment, then rose to his feet and handed me the type he had picked up from the floor. “Redo the words at the top of the broadside, according to what is on the sheet, and make sure everything is in order. I must go get more paper.” He looked at me carefully, then hurried into the back room.
Enormously excited, I picked up the paper for reference and began to replace the type. I. N. C. O. N. G... Carefully I put each letter into place and straightened the crooked pieces that had merely shifted out of place. When I was done, I compared the type set to the paper. Everything was correct.
Taking a deep breath, I closed the lid holding the paper in it, slid the whole drawer into the press, and pulled the devil’s tail, the long lever used to make the press push down on the drawer. It was hard to pull it all the way over, but I finally managed it. I rested my arms for the space of just a moment, then pushed the lever back in the opposite direction. Pulling the drawer back out, I opened it and carefully picked up the printed broadside.
A feeling of delight spread over me. Black, inky letters spread across the page, and I had helped to put them there. Grinning, I clambered onto a chair, ready to hang up the finished sheet. Then I paused once more to read over the words I had printed.
“In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...”
I carefully hung the sheet up on the line, but still did not get down from my chair. My eyes drifted down the page and landed on these words: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The words struck a chill within me as I climbed down from the chair. These words were special. They were important. And I had a feeling that one day, the whole world would know what they said.