As If By Chance: Part I

Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs

Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, 1948

Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.

Democritus, circa 400 BC

Necessity is blind only so long as it is not understood.

G. W. F. Hegel, 1817

The understanding that there is no element of chance around or in us, but that all things, both mind and matter, follow an ordered pattern, supports the argument that even the simplest blot or scribble cannot exist by pure chance or without significance, but rather that the viewer does not clearly recognize the causes, origins, and occasion of such a “drawing.”

Adrian Frutiger, 1989

It is notable that some inventions in the history of print technology are recorded as having been achieved by chance. In accounts written at the time of the inventions as well as in the historical reviews, major breakthroughs in printing are attributed to accidental events. Much in the same way school children are taught that the natural scientist Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation after an apple fell from a tree upon his head, significant inventions in the history of printing are said to be the result of lucky mistakes.

Perhaps the two most well-known examples of this phenomenon are found in accounts of the late eighteenth century invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder and the early twentieth century invention of offset printing by Ira Washington Rubel. In both cases, the technical advances made by the inventors are frequently explained as having been accidental. Here are two citations:

Lithography was invented around 1796 in Germany by an otherwise unknown Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder, who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink.

Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004

Offset printing, also called offset lithography, or litho-offset, in commercial printing, widely used printing technique in which the inked image on a printing plate is printed on a rubber cylinder and then transferred (i.e., offset) to paper or other material. The rubber cylinder gives great flexibility, permitting printing on wood, cloth, metal, leather, and rough paper. An American printer, Ira W. Rubel, of Nutley, N.J., accidentally discovered the process in 1904 and soon built a press to exploit it.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, July 1998

Readers of these passages would not be blamed for thinking that Senefelder of Bavaria, Germany in 1796 and Rubel of Nutley, New Jersey in 1904 were the beneficiaries of pure luck or that they fortuitously stumbled their way into print technology history. However, this would be an incorrect—or, at best, an incomplete—way of understanding the contributions of these two innovators.

Why does the word “accidentally” appear in the above accounts of historic inventions that took place more than one hundred years apart and which, together, established what is known as offset lithography, a technology that revolutionized the printing industry and remains today the dominant method of transferring ink to paper? Why is it that stories of accidental invention—even from authoritative sources like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Encyclopædia Britannica—persist for both men, in spite of ample evidence that Senefelder and Rubel were in pursuit of innovation and striving to improve the printing process through methods of ingenuity, experimentation and science that prevailed during their respective lifetimes?

Finding answers to these questions requires investigative journey. While it may be a fact of popular interest that Senefelder and Rubel are known as much—or even more—for the accidental way they arrived at their achievements than they are for the significance of the achievements themselves, it is also a fact that invention by happenstance has occurred in history more often than is generally known. Since the “accidental” attribution tends to overshadow and mystify the progress attained—in printing as well as other industries—it is instructive to examine these two inventions in their socio-economic context and to locate the place of Senefelder and Rubel within the whole history of printing. Such an examination shows that their accomplishments were absolutely necessary advancements.

To untangle the riddle of accidental invention in the specific cases of Senefelder and Rubel, it is necessary to: (1) investigate the historical record and review the facts of what is known about the men and how they invented lithography and offset printing; (2) look outside print technology and into the prevalence of “serendipity” more broadly in the history of scientific and technological discovery; (3) explore the source of the need for the legends of accidental discovery in human progress; (4) make a theoretical analysis of the two-sided and contradictory content of “accidents” in general; and, (5) return to Senefelder and Rubel and show how their inventions were manifestations of disruptive continuity in the history of printing.

The concept of disruptive continuity applies to the development of printing—as well as all human technical progress—because it acknowledges that each innovation owes its emergence to the accomplishments of others that came beforehand; that significant innovation could not take place without innumerable connections to the past. At the same time, disruptive continuity also recognizes that each new breakthrough represents a sharp departure from the past. It is a transition point forward that expresses the future in ways that were previously impossible and could not have been accomplished but for the spark of genius embedded in the new innovation.

As this introduction will go on to explain, it is at this nexus point of discontinuity from the prior gradual progression and the moment of a leap into the future that the phenomenon of accidental invention occurs. To understand how unanticipated events, which are rooted in antecedent accomplishments, can and do become transformed into significant innovations is to understand the mechanism by which the old era of technology is superseded by that of an entirely new era of progress.

Finally, by developing a socio-historical-technical analysis of nearly six centuries of print communications—based on the theory of disruptive innovation—significant conclusions can be drawn about the future of ink-on-paper media within the new environment dominated by online, mobile, social and streaming content delivery systems.

* * * * *

The investigative journey begins with an examination of the work of the two printing innovators who are frequently remembered as accidental inventors. It is fortunate that, in the case of Senefelder, an account written by the inventor himself is available and, in the case of Rubel, there exists two technical explanations, an anecdotal account and a posthumous tribute to the inventor written by a close business partner at the time of his death.

The invention of lithography

In 1817, at the urging of his colleagues, Alois Senefelder wrote down the story of his life along with a detailed description of how he invented lithography by experimental methods. He also provided a step-by-step technical guide for those wishing to learn and practice the art also known as “printing from a stone” or “stone printing.” Senefelder’s account was published one year later in the German volume entitled Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography). The work was translated into English by J.W. Muller and published by The Fuchs & Lang Manufacturing Company in New York in 1911 as The Invention of Lithography.

The relevant passages from the 1911 English text are found in the first chapter, “Section I: History of Stone Printing, Part I: From 1796 to 1800.”

As mentioned in the above quote from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the young Alois Senefelder was an aspiring playwright and was motivated to start a printing firm so that he could publish his own works. Senefelder wrote that he was familiar with the procedures of the letterpress printing process of his day, “I had spent many a day in the establishments,” and that “it would not be hard for me to learn.” Senefelder also had a “desire to own a small printing establishment myself” because—having studied both public finance and law for three years at the University of Ingolstadt—he wanted to “earn a decent living” and “become an independent man” by going into business.

However, it was economic reality—a lack of the financial resources required to become a printer—that drove Senefelder down the path of innovation. As he wrote, “If I had possessed the necessary money, I would have bought types, a press and paper, and printing on stone probably would not have been invented so soon. The lack of funds, however, forced me to other expedients.”

Senefelder gave details of three different approaches he took in an effort to replicate the letterpress method without the ability to purchase the technologies that were readily available to others with the requisite capital resources. These were:

  1. To etch letters in steel and then “impressing them on pear wood, in which the letters would show in relief, somewhat like the cast type of the book printers, and they could have been printed like a wood-cut.” He abandoned the approach, “I had to give up the whole thing through lack of implements and sufficient skill in engraving.”
  2. To purchase “enough types to set one column or folio” and transfer the letters “to a board covered with soft sealing-wax, and reproduce the relief plate thus obtained in stereotype form.” Although this method was a technical success—especially after he began “mixing finely powdered gypsum with the sealing-wax” and “made the latter harder than the ordinary type composition”—Senefelder was unable to move forward because, “even this exceeded my financial power.” He gave up on this plan, “especially as I had conceived a new one during my experiments.”
  3. To learn “to write out ordinary type letters exactly, but reversed” with “an elastic steel pen on a copper plate covered in ordinary manner with etching surface” and these plates would be given to copper-plate printers for the press work. Here, Senefelder had difficulties because, though he learned quickly the skill of writing in reverse, “I could not correct the errors made during writing” because the “accessories of copper-plate engravers, especially the so-called cover varnish, were quite unknown to me.”

Senefelder then “labored desperately to overcome the difficulty” and tried three sub-methods within this “elastic steel pen” approach:

(a) Having “attained much chemical knowledge” during his days as a student, Senefelder began working with “spirits of wine and various resinous forms” and “oil of turpentine and wax” as methods for making corrections on the copper plate. However, he abandoned these materials because the chemical solution frequently became heavily diluted and “caused it to flow too much and dissolve the etching surface, at which time several well-done parts of the engraving were ruined.”

(b) Still determined to work with copper plate, Senefelder experimented with a wax and soap mixture as a material that could be used for correcting mistakes. He used, “a mixture of three parts of wax with one part of common tallow soap, melted over the fire, mixed with some fine lampblack, and then dissolved in rainwater, gave me a sort of black ink with which I could correct faulty spots most easily.” But this path “presented a new difficulty” in that he had only a “single little copper plate,” and, after he “pulled proofs at the house of a friend who possessed a copper-plate press,” he had to spend “hours again laboriously grinding and polishing the plate, a process which also wore away the copper fast.”

(c) To get around the limited copper plate resources, Senefelder transitioned to experimentation with “an old zinc plate of my mother’s,” that was “easier to scrape and polish.” However, “the results were very unsatisfactory,” because the “zinc probably was mixed with lead,” and he did not have a “more powerful acid” that could penetrate it.

Finally, Senefelder moved on to transferring a printed image to paper based on “a handsome piece of Kellheimer stone.” He explained, “The experiments succeeded, and though I had not thought originally that the stone itself might be used for printing (the samples I had seen hitherto of this Kellheim limestone were too thin to withstand the pressure exerted in printing), I soon began to believe that it was possible. It was much easier to do good work on the stone than on the copper.”

He began working “in order to use the stone just like copper” and trying “all possible kinds of polishing and grinding without attaining my purpose completely.” Senefelder wrote that moving from copper or zinc plate to printing from a limestone did not immediately result in the invention of lithography, “I had invented little that was new, but simply had applied the copper-plate etching method to stone.” And furthermore, “I was not the first discoverer of stone-etching, nor of stone-printing; and only after I made this new discovery which I will describe now, which led me from the engraved to the relief process, with my new ink, might I call myself the inventor of an art.”

In the midst of his detailed survey, Senefelder made it clear that he decided to write his account in 1817 in order to set the record straight, “I have told all of these things fully in order to prove to the reader that I did not invent stone-printing through lucky accident, but that I arrived at it by a way pointed out by industrious thought.”

However, he went on to say that his experiments with etched, i.e., mechanical and relief and not yet chemical, processes on stone “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery. Until now I had invented little that was new, but simply had applied the copper-plate etching method to stone. But this new discovery founded an entirely new form of printing, which basically became the foundation of all succeeding methods.” [Emphasis added]

Senefelder then recounted his well-known story of accidental invention:

I had just ground a stone plate smooth in order to treat it with etching fluid and to pursue on it my practice in reverse writing, when my mother asked me to write a laundry list for her. The laundress was waiting, but we could find no paper. My own supply had been used up by pulling proofs. Even the writing-ink was dried up. Without bothering to look for writing materials, I wrote the list hastily on the clean stone, with my prepared stone ink of wax, soap, and lampblack, intending to copy it as soon as paper was supplied.

As I was preparing afterward to wash the writing from the stone, I became curious to see what would happen with writing made thus of prepared ink …

My further experiments with this relief plate succeeded far better than my previous ones with etched letters. The inking in was much easier, and hardly one quarter of the force was necessary for making impressions. Thus the stones were not so liable to crack, and, what was the most important for me, this method of printing was entirely new, and I might hope to obtain a franchise and even financial aid.

It would take further experimentation with the stone by Senefelder to finally arrive at the invention of lithography, “Even this method, new in 1796, still was purely mechanical in its purpose, whereas the present printing method, which I began in 1799, may be called purely chemical.”

The following can drawn from the above summary of Senefelder’s own account of his invention: (1) Senefelder began in 1796 by experimenting and practicing with multiple materials and chemicals as he sought to develop an affordable mechanical printing process that was less capital intensive than the letterpress method; (2) he insisted that he did not invent lithography “through a lucky accident” but by way of “industrious thought”; (3) he stated that his efforts to come up with an alternative mechanical method to letterpress “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery”; (4) he told the story of how, while working with a limestone as a mechanical image transfer base, he wrote a laundry list upon the stone and from here new possibilities then occurred to him; (5) it would take three more years of further experimentation with the limestone before the “purely chemical” printing method was discovered in 1799 that become known as lithography.

It is highly significant that in his own account Senefelder presented two different and internally contradictory explanations for how he made his breakthrough. In one sentence, he wrote that he did not invent lithography by “lucky accident” but by “industrious thought” and, in another sentence, he said his experiments with mechanical methods on limestone “were entirely checked by a new, accidental discovery” that subsequently led to his invention of the “art” of the purely chemical method of printing.

This shows that Senefelder was perplexed in his attempt to explain the two opposing determinations that both appeared to him as true. Since he could not have expressed the genuine relationship between accident and necessity in the invention of lithography in a clear and scientific manner, Senefelder instead gave two separate and mutually conflicting explanations for how it happened.

It becomes plain from this that it is Senefelder himself who is responsible for two different stories: one stating that he invented lithography by an “accidental discovery” and another that he arrived at stone-printing not “through lucky accident” but by deliberately experimental methods. While this explanation appears to confound rather than clarify matters, Senefelder’s contradictory elaboration provides an important clue to solving the riddle of why stories of chance discovery have come to predominate.

Football lessons from the ‘71 Point Boro Dust Bowl

The 1971 Point Pleasant Borough High School Varsity Football team

When I was a little kid, I learned about the game of football from my father, Loren Donley. Among my earliest memories are watching NFL games with him on a black and white TV with rabbit ears in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in the mid-1960s. We watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game on January 1, 1967. Then, two weeks later, we watched the Packers win the AFL-NFL World Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. This was before that game became known as the Super Bowl. 

I also watched The Ohio State University Buckeyes on Saturdays with my dad. He taught me about Coach Woody Hayes and what it meant to be a Buckeye like he was. This is something that kind of gets into your veins and doesn’t ever come out. Even though I graduated from Rutgers and have lived in Detroit for almost 40 years now—and attended my share of games at the Big House in Ann Arbor—I will always be a Scarlet and Gray Buckeye.

However, there was nothing like the thrill of going with my dad to the Point Boro high school football games on Saturdays as a little kid. Although I didn’t really understand all the rules, I knew when I heard the Panther marching band play “Hail to the Varsity” the Boro had scored another touchdown. As I recall, this happened seven or eight times a game every week in the 1960s.

By the time I was eight years old I was wearing the Black and Gold in my home town. I still recall the smell of those warm autumn afternoons during football season and what it felt like to drive home with my dad after another Point Boro win.

Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I was proud to be associated with a high school football program that went three complete seasons in a row without losing a single game. And, also like them, I was disappointed when the Panthers lost to Manasquan in 1970 and ended their winning streak at 34-0. We learned that being “undefeated,” like everything else in life, must eventually come to an end. 

Naturally, when I was old enough, I wanted to play competitive tackle football. I wanted to put on shoulder pads, pants, cleats and a helmet more than anything, so I practiced as much as I could. I played touch football in the street in front of my house with the other kids from the neighborhood. My dad would throw the ball with me and the other boys in the back yard. I wanted to be a running back like Cleveland’s #32 Jim Brown or the Packer’s #23 Travis Williams. Most of all, I dreamt of one day carrying the ball for the Panthers. 

In the summer of 1971, at age eleven—between the fifth and sixth grades—I tried out for the Point Pleasant Golden Elks Pop Warner Pee Wee football team. The program had two squads: 10-12 year old Pee Wees and 12-14 year old Midgets. The Golden Elks included kids from Point Beach and Point Boro and, since the number of players trying out exceeded the number of available spaces, the coaches had to make cuts.

Playing football as a youngster teaches you many things. For one, you get to figure out how tough you are and see quickly if you really have what it takes to play the game. Sure, you need athletic skills like speed, quickness and vision. You also need ball skills like throwing and catching a spiral. If you have size and strength, these are a big plus. But more than any of these other things, if you have heart and can handle the contact, you can compete. This is a quality that you cannot fake. You don’t get to make excuses; you can either take and make the hits or you can’t, period.

Anyway, on the final day of Pee Wee tryouts, my name was not called among those who made the Golden Elks team and I was completely crushed. It was a long drive home that evening in mid-July from the Point Beach Antrim School practice field, staring out the car window with tears running down my cheeks.

My dad understood my disappointment, especially since his parents did not let him play football when he was a kid growing up in Ohio. Just like many parents today, my grandparents were worried that my dad might get hurt. They didn’t want him to end up like his older brother Dale who broke his arm so badly playing high school football that he could no longer straighten it out … for the rest of his life. 

My dad Loren Donley and Coach Al Saner in 1971-72.

‘71 Panthers manager

So, my dad—who was the vocal music teacher at Point Boro High School—had a conversation with Panther head football coach Al Saner about my situation. Somehow, between the two of them, they hatched this idea that I should be a manager (a.k.a. water boy) for the Panther varsity squad in the upcoming season.

Well, that’s how I ended up, from early August to late October 1971, with Coach Saner and his staff—Mr. Spincola, Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Vancardo, Mr. Russell, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Leibfried—and became part of another Panther championship season. For me, this turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.

I remember those three months like they took place yesterday. I learned so many things—mostly to do with football that I can talk about and some other life stuff that I can’t really bring up because, well, they’re not PG—that have stayed with me to this day. It all took place in the team meetings, at the preseason scrimmages, in the locker room and equipment room and during the home and away games, including the bus rides to and from the other schools and especially on the practice field at Memorial School known as the Dust Bowl.

The players I remember most were the ’71 Panther seniors (front row, left to right in the team photo above): Butch Gordon (33), Ron Stone (46), Michael Swigon (32), Paul Ridge (86), Ken Stahlin (44), Jim Williams (14), Rich Leibfried (18), Tony DiVanno (95), Frank Bomenblit (61), Craig Bessinger (51), Geoff Lee (94) and Tom Chadwick (64). While there were many other players on the team that I got to know, these guys really took a liking to me.

Since nearly everyone on the team had a nickname, on the first day of summer practice they gave me one too: they started calling me “Harry.” This was because my last name was very similar to that of Harry Donnelly, the former Point Boro offensive coach who had left the district after the previous season. I’m not certain who gave me that name, but it stuck. They would say, “Hey Harry, go get me the ball bag” or “Harry, I need a mouthpiece” or “Harry, can you fix my chin strap?”

In addition to being at their side for every practice and running water bottles out to the field during game time-outs, I carried equipment kits, I fixed helmets and shoulder pads, I moved blocking and tackling dummies and other practice equipment and I made sure the water hose was running and available on the practice field (when they were allowed to drink from it).

Most of the senior backs and receivers had their own locker room up front next to coaches locker room. Although Coach Saner didn’t want me hanging around there—mainly because he thought I might hear some stuff that wasn’t meant for the ears of an eleven-year-old kid—I’d go in there anyway and listen to the conversations taking place. 

Sometimes there were rivalries like when Ron Stone and Paul Ridge debated who had more receiving TDs on the season. Other times, they talked about injuries like the time QB Rich Leibfried got knocked out with a rib injury in the dog-fight-of-a-game against Wall Township. And, of course, they also talked about their high school sweethearts.

Other times they would tell jokes. I remember a couple of these—although I can’t say who told them or how they went exactly—other than to recall that one was about a lady football player who got knocked out during a game and the other had to do with a field inspection of British Commandos. 

Anyway, when summer practice began, the first team meetings took place in the gym. The players all sat in one section of bleachers as the coaches introduced themselves. There was a chalk board where things were sketched out and gone over in detail.

When he took attendance, Coach Saner sometimes had a hard time with last names, especially those of the new JV players, and there were some laughs when he botched them up pretty good. While there were quite a few funny moments here and there, those meetings were dead serious, all about football and all about getting ready for the ‘71 season.

Three yards and a cloud of dust

There were also squad meetings in different classrooms in the high school to teach the offensive and defensive schemes and plays. Anyone familiar with those early Point Boro football teams knows that Coach Saner had a preference for the run game. My dad referred to it as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The offense was not complicated and was based on grind-it-out strength and power strategy. Coach Saner was not a big fan of passing the ball and he was known to say, “When you throw the football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad.”

On most plays, the Panthers used the I-Formation with a wing back off the tight end and with one wide receiver on the opposite side of the power. The playbook consisted mostly of running off-tackle or between the guard and tackle with the fullback as a lead blocker. The QB would hand the ball off to the half-back who followed the fullback through the hole.

On the ’71 team, the fullback blocking responsibility was assigned to Ken Stahlin. He was probably the fiercest football player I had ever seen. I remember seeing him regularly take out linebackers left and right to clear the path for halfback Mike Swigon. Plus, when he got the chance to carry the ball, he did not try to go around would-be tacklers. Wham! 

Anyway, the Point Boro offense also had the occasional pitch to the halfback from the Wing-T. In those days, there was no shotgun, and the QB was always under center. On very rare occasions, the wing back would take an inside reverse hand-off with a pulling guard making a trap block or the wide receiver would come around on a reverse. This wide receiver reverse worked very well for the ’71 Panthers with Ron Stone taking the ball and sprinting down the sideline like lightning. Wow!

On every play, the QB Rich Leibfried always faked a bootleg after the handoff and, every once in a while, he would fake the handoff to the half back and bootleg around the right or left edge, usually for a long gain, since no one was expecting it. This could be tried once or twice per game because the defense always adjusted and started looking for it.

As I mentioned, football is a very hard game. The practices in those days were nothing short of agonizing, especially for the linemen. I remember how, after what seemed like hours of blocking drills in the Dust Bowl over by the trees next to Memorial School, the white practice uniforms of the linemen would be covered from top to bottom in dirt, blood and mud.

Those line drills were run by Coach Vincent Spincola. I think you could say Coach Spincola was a Jersey Shore Italian, but not the fake kind that was later made popular by reality TV. No, he was a real New Jersey Italian with a noticeable North Jersey accent and a vocabulary to go with it. He had slicked back dark hair with an M-shaped receding hairline. He smoked and his voice was really gruff and harsh.

Coach Spincola had this laugh that could be very embarrassing for a player who might be the object of his humor. He would drop his jaw wide open and a little bit to the side and release a deep and massive “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” from his diaphragm, kind of like the way Ray Liotta laughs in the movie “Good Fellas.”

Anyway, those linemen drills were probably the most grueling and violent thing I had ever witnessed. Coach Spincola was relentless. He saw his job as making a lineman tough or making him cry. Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct today the way he coached those boys back then. On the other hand, he coached some of the greatest offensive and defensive lines to ever play Jersey Shore high school football.

I found myself staying over there with the linemen quite a bit because that’s where I was needed the most in terms of busted equipment and first aid gear. Plus, I got to learn some new words hanging around Coach Spincola. For example, I found out what “gonads” were. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out this is a completely legitimate biological term. Coach Spincola illustrated the concept by placing his hands in a “V” shape in front of his groin area and explaining that this is where a lineman is supposed to put his face when properly making a block or a tackle.

“Hail, hail”

During those drills, Coach Spincola had this cadence he would call out that is something I will never forget. I am sure that those players will never forget it either. Coach Spincola used it to signal the linemen that it was time to come off the ball and make contact with each other in the drills. It was a two-word, rapid-fire thing with no space in between.

You might normally think of it as “hut one, hut two,” but instead with Coach Spincola it went something like this: “hail, hail.” Come to think of it, I’m not really sure if he was saying “hail” or “hell.” Either way, it was absolutely terrifying because immediately after this verbal command, all you could hear was the crashing of helmets and shoulder pads and some grunting noises.

Coach Spincola was extremely hard on those players. I heard him say many things during those sessions that I really can’t repeat. However, I also know in my heart and believe to this day that he really loved those boys like they were his own sons. He was always the first to congratulate them when they got their job done on the field during the games. In those situations, you were “perfecto” in Coach Spincola’s eyes. That is, of course, as long as you weren’t out there crouching around on your hands and knees at the line of scrimmage like you were “picking up quarters.”

One day—after the linemen had carved a pit on their side of the Dust Bowl from the one-on-ones, two-on-ones and three-on-twos for what seemed like hours—Coach Spincola gave these guys a breather. This break consisted of being allowed to remove their hats (he always referred to helmets as “hats”) and take one knee. Then, after a whistle blow from Coach Saner on the other side of the Dust Bowl, I remember how everyone looked up and saw the offensive backs and receivers come jogging by to take a lap. Seeing not even a single grass stain on their pristine practice uniforms, Coach Spincola shook his head and said, “There go the white knights!”

Although I was eleven and the Boro players looked like men to me, they were teenage boys who were often pushed to physical and emotional extremes during those practice sessions. Back then, there was no such thing as “hydration” and the manager staff didn’t have any Gatorade. Water was a luxury and a reward. If a player even asked for a drink before the approved water breaks as a group—usually from the end of a sprinkler hose—they were considered weak or worse.

In 1971, there was also no such thing as what we know today as an athletic trainer. If a player was hurt during practice, it was the job of the manager staff to provide instant ice-packs, tape, gauze, butterfly band-aids or whatever. We also had ammonia capsules to wake players up after they had their “bell rung,” we had salt tablets for guys who were suffering from dehydration. We had Atomic Balm for bruises and contusions. Meanwhile, we prepared ice baths and hot tubs in the locker room for players to soak in, especially after the games.

I saw enough blood, black and blue wounds, cuts and gashes for a lifetime during those few months. I witnessed more broken noses, shoulder and neck injuries, gouges that required stitches, severe bruises and limb joint and finger dislocations than I care to remember. I can still hear Coach Saner hollering out “manager” in a loud Tarzan-kind-of-way when one of the players needed attention from the staff. To the best of my ability, I was always right on it.

The first scrimmage of the season was held on one of the practice fields at the high school. I think it was on a Saturday. The players from Point Boro and the other team—I can’t remember who it was—wore their practice uniforms with no numbers on them. One side always wore colored bibs so you could tell which players were on what team.

One thing that really sticks out in my mind from that hot summer day, was the first offensive series by the Panthers. I was standing on the sideline with the coaches and the play was a handoff up the middle to Mike Swigon. He made it past the linebackers and broke to the outside along the sideline where I was standing and came running past me with a defender on his tail.

I saw the look on Swigon’s face up close and the look on the defenders face too. I could hear both of them breathing heavily out of their mouths and noses. There was this cloud of dust being kicked up behind them as they ran down the sideline. Swigon beat that other guy all the way to the end zone and everyone on the Panther sideline was really thrilled.

It was in that one moment, all at once, that I understood for the first time what football was really about; I realized that the players were basically fighting—like their life depended on it—with every ounce of energy and determination in their souls. To be a football player, you had to give everything you had on every play and this is what it took to be a winner.

Pregame speeches

Once the season started, I looked forward to the pregame talks from Coach Saner. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me in the locker room because the speech he was about to make was meant for the team only. To my memory, Coach Saner had this way of addressing and connecting with the players at the deepest level.

His talks were always genuine and straight to the point. He would start off quietly and slowly and his intensity would build. He would periodically pause to let things sink in. And, on occasion, when you thought he might be finished—sometimes he even turned away like he was getting ready to walk out of the locker room—when, all of a sudden, he’d swing around and start right back up again. 

Even though Coach Saner earned a reputation for malapropisms and mixed metaphors, he always made a connection between football and life in general. His speeches were exceptionally inspirational and he got the players—and anyone else around there who heard him—fired up to the point where they would go out on the field and give everything they had regardless of who the opponent was.

Coach Saner was genuine and did not have a pretentious bone in his body. Somehow—even though you knew how important it was to him that the team win the game—you also knew that Coach Saner always had the bigger picture of life beyond football in mind during his talks. 

I also remember several speeches given by team captains in the locker room before the games and at halftime. In one instance, I recall Craig Bessinger’s talk before a home game (I believe it was the Manasquan game). He was unable to play due to a neck injury and he talked to his teammates about how important it was to him that they fight to the last. This was a game that he had been preparing for all season and he wasn’t able to participate. This was very emotional and inspirational; I learned first-hand about what it takes to be a leader in the face of challenges and disappointments.

During the home games, one of the Point Boro ambulance squads was always on hand in the event of a major injury that required hospital attention. We also always had the presence of Dr. Duwlett who would examine players after an injury with a peculiar kind of dispassion. His evaluations would almost always end with an agreement that the injured player was OK to go back into the game. There was no “concussion protocol” in those days and players regularly returned to the field even though they more than likely shouldn’t have. 

I remember the first game of the ‘71 season. It was a home game against Keansburg and it was a very hot day. There were a couple of kids around my age who showed up in the locker room that Saturday morning expecting to jump in front of me as water boys because they had done it before. However, Coach Saner knew that I had been there since day one of summer practice and he made sure I was first in line. It was a real thrill for me to walk out behind the team onto the field and hear the band playing and crowd cheering. Point Boro won that game 60-0.

The second game of the season against Central Regional was a different story. The Class D Panthers were routed by the Class C Golden Eagles by a score of 36-0. This was a shock and the team had to bounce back. The Boro won the subsequent three games 50-0 (Keyport), 60-8 (Point Beach) and 16-15 (Marlboro).

The biggest game of the season was, of course, against Manasquan. This was the opportunity for Point Boro to avenge the loss from the previous season that ended the Panthers 34-game winning streak. It was time for pay-back and the Panthers came out ready to play. However—due to some lousy calls on the field, in my opinion—we came up short and lost the game 14-12. The Boro finished out the season with three more wins against Wall (8-6), Tom’s River North (18-7) and Jackson (30-16) and were the undisputed Shore Class D champions with a record of 7-0 in the conference.

When the 1971 football season came to an end, as the weather got colder as fall turned to winter, I became a 12 year-old and moved on to the other things that kids in middle school do. I started spending time with my friends riding bikes, playing with HO cars and chasing after the beautiful young ladies in the sixth grade with my heart in my hand.

The next summer I tried out again for the Golden Elks Pee Wee squad. I made the team this time. I became a running back and got to wear #32 just like Jim Brown. I played one more season as a Golden Elks Midget the next year and, shortly thereafter, my football days also came to an end. Eventually, when I got to high school, I did get to wear the Black and Gold … as a member of the Panther marching band.

As I look back today on those months from August to October 1971, I realize now that my time with the Point Boro Panthers really turned out to be something of a coming of age experience for me. I have my father and Coach Al Saner to thank for making it possible.

Also, as I think back upon the experience, I realize that the summer of ’71 was something of a turning point in the world beyond high school football and the Dust Bowl in Point Pleasant. As the 1970s rolled on, somehow, it seemed like things started turning upside down everywhere and it was becoming clear that life would never go back to the way it was in the 1960s.

While football continued to be an important part of my relationship with my father over the decades, especially as my own boys played the game, I can’t help think that the lessons I learned during those few months in 1971 actually helped to prepared me for some of the harsh realities of life that I would face later on. Among these are: the necessity of hard work to achieve success, the importance of nurturing your natural gifts and talents, the life-long desire for self-improvement, the ability to always get back up when you are knocked down and the ultimate significance of being a team player. Hail, hail my friends!

Busboy lessons from Point Pleasant

Like a lot of kids from Point Pleasant, all of my early employment experiences were with jobs in the restaurant industry. Since we lived on the Jersey Shore, there were many summer jobs available on the floor as a server or in the kitchen doing food prep, dish washing or pot washing. If you were lucky enough to work in a restaurant that was busy all-year-round and you were on the service side of the business, you could make some decent money as a teenager. 

I got my first job at age fourteen working as a busboy in the restaurant and banquet facility at Kings Grant Inn on the corner of Route 70 and River Road in Point Pleasant. It was a physically tough job since you had to stay on your feet all afternoon and evening clearing tables, doing the setups and pouring glasses of water for the guests. I started the KGI job working part-time on the weekends in the spring of 1974 and then worked full-time hours that summer during the busy season.

I still remember the distinct odor of my clothes while working there. That’s something you can’t forget. It was an awful combination stench of grease, vegetables, cigarette butts and human BO that you wouldn’t ever want to smell like if you weren’t at work. We had to wear a sort-of uniform of black pants, black shoes and white collared, button-down short sleeve shirts. These clothes had to be washed after each shift and, no matter what, you couldn’t get rid of that stink. 

Anyway, one of the first things I had to learn was all about the different kinds of drinking glasses in the restaurant, most of which had to do with booze. As a fourteen-year-old I wasn’t permitted to serve drinks to the patrons. However, I was expected to know all the kinds of glasses because I often had to help stock up the bar or go find one or another glass for a waitress or bartender.

I learned the difference between a water goblet, a rock glass, a highball, a shot glass, a cosmo or margarita glass, a martini glass, a cognac snifter and the common beer glasses: pint and Pilsner. I also learned the different wine glasses—red, white, rose and port—as well as the champagne glass and the all-important Irish coffee mug. Fortunately for me, I was never a teenage drinker. I suppose I’d seen a lifetime’s share of drunks and inebriated stoops during those restaurant years and that helped steer me clear from alcohol until much later in life. 

There was one particular experience with excessive drinking that I remember vividly. It involved the decision by restaurant management to hire a man as Captain. The captain’s job was to work with the hostess at the front of the house to make sure that the customers were seated properly and all of their needs were being met.

Well, unfortunately, this young man—who was quite the handsome gent and started off doing really well with both the staff and customers—had a serious drinking problem. After about a week, we started noticing he was gathering all of the partially empty wine bottles and cocktail glasses in the back of the restaurant and was polishing them off one by one. By the end of the night, he was staggering around the place and babbling incoherently to anyone within earshot. I certainly didn’t see it as my responsibility to report the guy and I don’t think any of the other busboys did either. As a naive teenager, I thought it was kind of funny. After a few days, we heard that he’d been fired. 

Another thing that I learned was how to properly arrange a place setting and what the different plates and silverware were called. This is another thing that you never forget. Napkin in the center, forks on the left (dinner fork on the outside, salad fork on the inside), butter plate above the forks, knife and spoons to the right (knife first with blade facing toward the center, followed by the table spoon and the tea spoon). The water goblet is placed above the knife and spoons. If there is dessert ware, the fork (on top) and spoon go above the center in opposite directions, spoon facing left and fork facing right. 

Among the more physically challenging parts of the job was carrying trays full of dirty dishes and other table stuff that had to be returned to the kitchen. There was a knack to getting one of those fully-loaded oval aluminum trays up on your shoulder and balanced with one hand twisted back flat underneath it. You always had to have the other hand free so you could make your way through the restaurant floor and push the door open into the kitchen that swung both ways.

The best busboy never, ever dropped his tray. His skill was about getting that heavy tray up and completely balanced on his shoulder so that, even if things started to slide around on there, he did not lose it all to the floor in a huge crash. Unfortunately, this did happen to me on a couple of occasions because I had been hasty in loading up the tray or was moving too fast into the kitchen. 

Losing the contents of a busboy tray typically didn’t involve actually dropping the tray itself. It’s just that everything on the tray tips over to the floor and you are standing there stuck-on-stupid with the tray dangling vertically from one hand while everyone is looking at you before you dropped your head and walked swiftly toward the broom closet. Fortunately, when this happened, the other staff would always step in quickly to help you with the cleanup.

The experience of losing a busboy tray is similar to what happens in school when a kid drops the contents of his or her lunch tray. The crash of plates and glasses is followed by a half-second of dead silence from the otherwise noisy din of voice chatter and conversation. The one important difference between the restaurant and school lunchroom mishap, however, is that the restaurant crash isn’t followed by enthusiastic applause, cheers and laughter from the assembled diners. No, everyone in the restaurant just picks up where they left off on whatever they were talking about as though nothing ever happened. 

Pretty much throughout my restaurant working years—until I left Point Pleasant in 1979—I made something like $2.20 an hour in wages paid by the employer in a weekly paycheck. The rest of the money was approximately 15% of the tips that the waitresses collected from the customers during each shift.

We usually made more than $8 an hour with the tips we pulled in. One of the obligations of the newbs on the busboy staff was that you got your tip money in the smallest denominations from the nightly take. Of course, this was long before the widespread use of credit and debit cards, so the waitresses would turn over their 15% to the head busboy in cash and he would count it all up and divvy it out evenly to the number of busboys on duty.

The head busboy would always keep the biggest bills for himself and then on down the line in seniority until he got to me. If I was lucky, I got some singles and the rest in a bunch of loose change. More often than not, I went home with only coins. So, in that first year on the job, I would leave KGI after every shift with a big sack of change that filled both my front pants pockets. But I didn’t mind it at all. I just remember the feeling of accomplishment I had when I got off at 11 or 12 at night and got on my bike to make the 2 mile ride home.

It was so quiet riding down River Road toward Pearce Street at night in the dark. But you could hear me coming from a mile away with that load of coins jingling in my pockets. By the time I hit the top of Summit Drive, I could darn near coast all the way home coming down that hill with that heavy load of change in my pockets. 

Kings Grant Inn had a marina behind it on the Manasquan River. There were lots of people who loved yachting and boating and docked their watercraft there. Some of these folks were regulars at the restaurant and one of them, a shoulder-length blond-haired dude by the name of Clay, lived on his sailboat in the marina and worked at the restaurant as a busboy too. Clay was a late 20s-something beach bum with a fantastic golden tan. He had this sort of hippy way of talking that I had never heard before. I got to know him pretty well and he talked a lot about his sail boat and his girlfriend who lived on the boat with him. 

And speaking of being fourteen and girls, there was this young lady who was hired as the hostess during that summer that literally stands out for me. I remember hearing the other busboys talking about her and how she was, let’s say, front loaded. She would come to work with these tight tops on and I would find myself drifting over that way and standing there, staring at her without a word coming out of my mouth. 

Like on any job, there was certainly a pecking order among the busboys at KGI and, if you weren’t tough and ready to stand your ground, you might get hazed right off the job in your first week. The guys I worked with were all older than me, some by more than a couple of years. Some were local guys who I knew from school and others were some really worldly types that came down from north Jersey for the summer. There were definitely some pretty rough and lonely nights for me during my first few weeks there (I won’t go into the details).

I’ll just say that these guys were all really hard workers and they taught me how to do my job the right way. They were both testing me to see what I was made of and, most of all, they wanted me to know right out of the shoot that they weren’t going to put up with someone who wasn’t pulling their weight during those busy summer nights. It took me a little while, but I eventually made some really good friendships with my co-busboys at KGI and I learned many, many things from them both on and off the job. 

I also met some really great working people from the other departments at KGI. Since I was just a pimply-faced kid, there were many people—and some of them quite hardened by their experiences—who wanted to teach me all about the ways of the world. Back in those days, practically everyone was a smoker and you could smoke just about anywhere in the restaurant. I remember how some of the waitresses would light up a cigarette in the kitchen, put it down on an ash tray, run a customer order on a tray out to their table and then come back into the kitchen for another puff.

Anytime the staff had a break, they would light up and start talking to me in a very friendly manner while they blew smoke off to the side and made this face with one eye closed and their mouth only partially opened. The waitresses were some really tough ladies who went out of their way to keep me out of trouble. There were a few of them who took a liking to me and wanted to make sure I was on task and where I was supposed to be. They did not want me to have any run-ins with the KGI maitre d‘ named Fritz, who actually was the person who hired me. 

Fritz was an immigrant from Germany or Austria and he had a very thick accent. He would get explosively angry and give you an expletive-laden tongue lashing if you weren’t taking care of things. He was very tall, had a long hooked nose, slightly balding dark hair that was combed straight back, and a paunch that protruded from his cummerbund. Fritz was a task master and rightly so to keep the dining experience up to par for the customers.

He would swear at you in broken English with the F-word if you didn’t do precisely what he told you to do, even if you did not understand a word of what he asked you to do in the first place. There were a couple of busboys who could do a dead-nuts impersonation of Fritz that would make you laugh so hard you couldn’t stand up straight. 

Anyway, the others on the restaurant staff who were great people were the dishwashers, pot washers, the maintenance people and, of course, the chefs and other cooks in the kitchen. These folks all worked very hard all the time to keep things moving along for the customers even though it was always super hot in the kitchen.

Despite the fact that everyone who worked in there was completely drenched in perspiration, they had the most pleasant way of talking to a young kid like me. They would always ask me if I needed anything or if I was hungry. Because of them, I probably ate some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life during those few years at KGI like steak, lobster and, of course, chocolate mousse.

When we got a few minutes to talk about things other than work, especially on smoke breaks, the kitchen staff would always ask me about school and if I planned on going to college after high school graduation. They wanted more than anything to pass along the message that a life working in the restaurant business was very hard and that I needed to try and make something of myself.

I finished my career at KGI after two years and I have to say I was ready to move on to some other summer restaurant jobs at the Steak Shanty on Routes 35 and 88 in Point Beach and as a short order cook in the snack bar and later, again as a busboy, in the restaurant at the Bay Head Yacht Club. I even worked my senior year of high school at McDonald’s on Route 88 in Point. 

I truly believe that my first summer working experience at KGI taught me many important lessons: do your job and work hard and people will respect you, count your money and make sure you get your fair share, don’t smoke and don’t drink to excess, stay in school and go to college if you are able to and, for God’s sake, wash your clothes after every shift and never stare at anyone with your mouth open.