Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, June 23, 2012

I'm the Type

Writer's Almanac informs me that today is the anniversary of the invention of the typewriter, patented this day in 1868 by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Typewriters have been in my world since I was born; I have one now, an electric that doesn't work very well and emerges from its home under my printer table only when I need to complete some kind of form, an activity much less frequent now that I'm (a) no longer teaching and (b) able to submit so much online.

My grandfather, G. Edwin Osborn, a seminary professor and preacher, had a manual typewriter in his study, a machine my grandmother also used, mostly for her family letters that came every week and which I now wish I'd saved.  (I do have some, but most have disappeared.)  Their typewriter had one of those old double ribbons, black and red, and Grandma would use the red for her letters so that she saved the black part of the ribbon for what she saw as her husband's more important work--his books, lessons, sermons, professional correspondence.  You had to flip a lever on the machine to move the ribbon from red to black.

Grandmother wrote to all the family once a week--but she wrote only one letter.  She rotated it so that each of her correspondents would get the original copy one week; others would get a carbon copy.  The next week, we would get the carbon; someone else, the original.  She would then write--in pen--some personal message on the family letter.  Grandma was good about that, the personal messages.

My parents had a couple of manual typewriters in the house too.  Mom did most of the typing--she was very quick and patient and precise.  Dad was none of the above.  He would write his sermons longhand in small brown spiral notebooks; she would type them.  Mom taught my older brother, Richard, to type, and he also became very fast and accurate on that old Underwood upright that looked something like the one at the left.  Richard was born to become the journalist he was.  My room was right next to his in Hiram, and when he was a student at Hiram College (living at home), I always knew the day a paper was due for one of his classes: He was up before dawn, pounding away on that Underwood, the keystrokes and the bell that announced the imminent end of a line waking me up, keeping me awake and enraged as I lay next door plotting the obliteration of both typewriter and typist.  Richard had the facility, even then, of writing a first draft that was also a final draft.  Typing his college papers cold, the morning they were due!  I was both deeply admiring and dangerously jealous.  (I'm a multiple-draft guy, even now--except in blogs, as you may have noticed.)

In high school, I took typing class--as did just about all of us.  It was a Life Skill.  And it is also the class from which I've retained the most.  I still remember those timed drills we would do--typing fixed passages to see how quickly and how perfectly we could type them.  The sound of keys struck, bells ringing, carriage returns ... returning.  You could tell by the sound of those carriage returns who was "winning" the timed portion.  I was very competitive then and did not like hearing someone else's bell bong before mine, another carriage return banging before mine.

That sort of scene made possible a moment from S. E. Hinton's YA novel Tex, whose eponymous hero pranks his high school typing class by replacing the ribbons with rolls of caps for toy pistols.  When the students typed that day, it sounded like the Alamo--well, not really.  But Tex got in trouble; young readers laughed.  And young readers today would have no clue what just happened.

Later, may parents gave me a little blue manual portable (can't remember the brand), on which I wrote my very undistinguished undergraduate papers--and even a couple of grad school ones.  The computer generation--the MS-Word generation--has no idea of the hassles of typing--especially when the typist erred.  When that happened: stop typing; advance paper a little; pick up typewriter eraser (they sucked); use the red part to "erase" (it never worked very well); use the little green brush to whisk away the eraser fragments; realign paper (it was always slightly off afterwards); type until next error; repeat process.

Later, paper companies produced a product they called "erasable bond"--paper whose words you could easily remove with a plain old pencil eraser.  But ... the paper had a greasy feel, and, of course, it was easy to smudge if you didn't handle it carefully and allow the words to dry.  The final "improvement" was white-out, which made pages with errors look as if a bird had used them for toilet-training.  Some of my grad school profs at KSU outlawed the erasable paper: They didn't like the "feel" of it as they were grading.

Joyce brought to our marriage another blue manual typewriter, a Smith-Corona, but, pretty soon, we bought our first IBM Selectric, which we both used for our dissertations.  We kept it in a neutral location so that we both could have access to it--and we negotiated the times of day it would be available.  We both typed so much that when the kindergarten teacher asked our little son, Steve, what his parents did, he replied, "Type."  The Selectrics had a correction tape in it, sticky white tape that could lift off your errors (usually)--a real time-saver.  I wrote my dissertation longhand (Joyce did the same with hers), then typed three separate drafts (it was 400 pages long--400 embarrassing, puerile pages), and by that time I was so sick of it that I paid a friend to type the final copy.

Soon, we knew we would need a second machine, and when we sold our Kent house and moved to Lake Forest, we plunked down $800 (major money in 1978) and became a two-Selectric family.  (We had one car, two Selectrics!)  And so we stayed until the computer era.  Our first machine?  A Kaypro II--with dot-matrix printer.  And soon we had two of them, as well.  (Harmony in the house has no price!)  We kept a Selectric around for a long time, until we could find no one to service it.  I loved those heavy old machines ...

Ever since, we've been a two- or three-computer family.  And, as I said, our last remaining typewriter lives under the computer table, like King Arthur in Avalon, waiting to be called forth once again to save and serve the world. Or fill out a form.

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