Communion Of Dreams

Goodbye, Herr Gutenberg.

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

* * * * * * *

Because of the crazy weather we’ve had this spring, it seems like everything has been out of kilter in the garden. As a result, I’m just now getting around to doing the usual spring maintenance on the raised strawberry bed. Yesterday, as I was finishing up the weeding, having removed a couple bushel baskets worth of henbit and no small amount of rogue grass, I decided to see if I could get out the entire root of some large and nasty prickly thing.

To do this, I dug down into the surrounding soil with a weeding tool, then grasped the base of the plant with a large pair of old pliers. These plants are tenacious, and this is about the only way I have found to get most of their roots out of the ground without resorting to explosives. Anyway, I got a good grip on the root with the pliers, positioned myself, and pulled mightily.

The root started to come out. But then it snapped off suddenly. My right hand, grasping the pliers, flew free. For about 8 inches. Then it encountered the back edge of the concrete block used in construction of the raised bed. I knew I had broken the fourth metacarpal (the bone in the hand which goes from the wrist to your little finger) before I even raised my hand to look at it.

* * * * * * *

I met him by accident, and it changed my life. It’s a story I’ve told many times, but I don’t recall writing about it before.

I was a couple semesters into work on my MA in English Lit at the University of Iowa. I was looking to get a drop/add slip signed, and opened the wrong door.

See, there were these two doors, side by side. The one on the left went where I intended to go. The one on the right led into the Windhover Press, the fine letterpress at Iowa. But I didn’t notice the sign on the door, and didn’t realize my mistake until I was already a step or two inside.

A short, greying man wearing thick glasses was busy doing … something … behind a piece of machinery I didn’t recognize. He looked over the top rim of his glasses, and gruffly asked: “Can I help you?”

It should have been my cue to stammer out an apology for interrupting him, then turn and leave.

Instead, I stopped, looked around more. It started to sink in what it was I was looking at. “Wow, what *is* this place?”

My appreciation for tools and fine equipment must’ve shown on my face.  He smiled. Just a little. And stepped out from behind the Vandercook proof press he was working at, wiping his hands on the  (once) white apron he was wearing. “Like it says on the door, this is the Windhover Press. The fine letterpress. We make books here. By hand.”

“People still do that?” Well, I knew that they did. In the abstract. But being confronted with the no-nonsense reality of it had me a bit stunned.

“Yeah. Let me show you around.”

He did. I was fascinated. I did drop the class I was planning on dropping, but rather than some class on literary theory I added in a class on “The Hand Printed Book”.

* * * * * * *

‘He’ was Kim Merker. I spent two semesters taking his class. And I learned a lot about letterpress printing, about paper, about ink. And a bit about bookbinding. I also met one of my closest friends, Annie, who was Kim’s assistant at the press and who usually referred to him as “Herr Gutenberg”. Actually, it was Annie who taught me a lot of what I learned there.

Because Kim was gone a lot. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was busy putting together something new. Something which necessitated a lot of meetings, a lot of schmoozing, a lot of travel. That something was the embryonic Iowa Center for the Book.

So Kim and I never became particularly close. Oh, I got along with him just fine, and was always happy to see him in the press when I went there for one of my ‘classes’. And he did teach me a lot, himself.

But I found I was more interested in the simple bookbinding techniques I learned, and shifted my attention to doing more of that as time went on, moving on to taking other classes, learning from other artisans who had been brought together for this new and somewhat vague ‘program’ called the UICB.

Still, without him allowing his work to be interrupted and taking the time to show a gob-smacked grad student around, I never would have become a book conservator and book artist.

* * * * * * *

I felt the sharp pain that comes with a bone break. Dropping the pliers, I lifted my hand and looked at the back of it. There was already a knob there at the point of impact. I felt it. Flexed my fingers. Couldn’t feel any shifting of bone or fragments. And while it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, there was no additional pain from moving my fingers. Just a weakness in my grip in the little finger.

Yeah, I broke the metacarpal. I was certain of it. I finished up the last few bits of the weeding I hadn’t done, using my left hand, and then replaced the boxwire panels which protect the strawberry plants from birds and critters.

I came inside, washed my hands, and again did an assessment. Was there any reason to seek medical attention? Not really. I’ve broken enough bones and had enough other injuries to be able to tell when I should see a doctor or head to the ER. In fact, I’ve broken four metacarpals in my life, and this was actually the second break for this particular one. Only for the first one was a cast needed — because I had shattered the bone when I was 16. (That was the last time I hit anything in anger.)

As I explained to a friend: I prefer to lead a somewhat rough & tumble life rather than a completely safe one. Sure, there are more hurts that come along with that, but the risks are generally worth it.

* * * * * * *

My wife came through the kitchen, past the back door, and stepped into my bindery. I was in the process of gathering and folding the sections for the limited edition of Communion of Dreams. I paused, looked up.

“Did you see Annie’s email?” she asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, just a few moments ago.”

Kim Merker had passed away two weeks ago. Word was just now getting out beyond his family and those who knew him best.  There was a statement up on the UICB website.

I had looked at the dates of his life. And counted the years to when I first met him. I’m almost the same age as he was then.

“I’m going to want to try and attend the memorial service they have for him this fall,” I said.

My wife nodded. I went back to gathering and folding sheets.


Jim Downey

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