A Career Accompanied By the Clatter of Keys

My friend Sherna in California has sent me a beautiful letter today, three pages of handwritten, scriptlike penmanship that is a pleasure to read. It must have taken her some time to write. It is a communication, an art form, and a true act of friendship. It reminded me that this past week was a historic one for me as well. It was the week I finally said goodbye to one of my best friends.

I learned to type in Miss Hemman's summer-school typing class at Beverly Hills High School, so we're talking about a lot of years with what was then my new friend. I was proud of my skill at 13 going on 14, and no class meant as much to me then as typing, which allowed me to start high school with the best grade in my class.

Being able to type became one of the two or three mechanical skills that arrived uninvited in my young years and stayed with me all the years that followed. I rank it up there in the top 10 secrets to my success, which include chewing with my mouth closed, a sense of wild colors in arranging cut flowers in a vase, and a rare skill in fixing vacuum cleaners.

That last one may seem minor, but if you knew how few mechanical skills I have conquered, you'd stop snickering. I fixed my first vacuum cleaner when I was 16. Family guests were arriving, and my job was to run our old Hoover over the living-room carpets.

Well, this ancient beast of burden just quit on me. I was alone in the house. So I pulled out the plug and saw that one of those copper things was not wrapped around its screw. I trimmed it down with a kitchen knife and wrapped it back into place. It started right up again. I felt such a sense of power and wisdom.

This sense of repair power came to my aid years later aboard the USNS Gen. Harry N. Taylor, a converted tank-carrier that was ferrying 2,999 soldiers and me from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany, for our overseas Army assignment. The ship had been luxuriously refurbished to accommodate troops in the mid-1950s, which was accomplished by tying canvas hammocks (they were the length of the normal four-foot man) to iron pipes in the hold. Each morning we were roused up on deck while they cleaned out the hold.

Now let's suppose that you are a soldier aboard that ship as it makes its way across the North Atlantic in January. And imagine that you are experiencing what a weather consultant today would call "some turbulence," but what we called a doozy of a storm. Waves reached over the highest mast on the ship as we dipped and rose.

I held on for dear life to anything I could to avoid being washed overboard as the ship cut through the huge storm-generated waves. So when our commanding officer asked us in formation one morning if anyone could fix typewriters, I remembered both my love of typing and my skill in fixing vacuum cleaners. Both ideas came together in an instant, and I raised a hand.

I was taken below to a nice, warm office and shown a typewriter that wasn't working. I studied it carefully, looking through its innards like a real repair pro, until I was left alone. Then I sat down. I hadn't a clue as to how to fix it. At that very moment, the ship hit an especially big wave, and I had to grab hold of a door. My arm accidentally hit the typewriter, and it fell to the hard, metal floor. Uh-oh, I thought. Now I've done it. I picked it up and set it back on the repair counter. Of course, it now worked perfectly.

MY reputation spread throughout the ship. Boy, if you need a typewriter fixed, see the Pfc. down in the repair shop in the hold.

The next two were surprisingly easy to fix. I didn't know what I was doing, but when I was through fiddling with them, they worked.

Then the ship's captain sent down his pride and joy, a Smith-Corona older than Charles Lindbergh. It arrived with a warning: I'd better not do anything to harm it. We were docking the next day, so I said (this was Sparky, the typewriter-repair pro speaking) that I'd "take care of it" as soon as possible.

Naturally, I couldn't fix it to save myself, but I hit upon a unique solution: I took a couple of parts off the machine and placed them in envelopes with clear instructions that, upon docking, replacement parts should be obtained. By then I had tried about everything - including, yes, dropping it - but it was very stubborn. It wouldn't work.

So now it was time for me to go back on deck quietly. So much for North Atlantic warmth at any price.

But typing stayed with me, getting me through studies, law-school exams, term papers, position papers in business, letters, memos, and all of my personal correspondence for many years.

Then one day not so long ago a friend saw I was typing on a typewriter and asked why I didn't have a word processor.

I was insulted, and shot back with clear facts proving that typing on a machine was infinitely superior to using one of those little black boxes he was pushing on me, things the size of a scarf's gift box from Saks Fifth Avenue. My friend looked at me carefully then, and said something to the effect that I was arguing for the horse rather than the automobile.

That stung. He sent me a used word processor as a Christmas gift, and I glared at it for about two weeks. An employee, smug in youth's wisdom, came by and showed me how to use it. I started slowly. At first I found it just - well, hateful. It wasn't as nice as my old friend, the IBM electric sitting on my desk in its proper place of honor.

I kept forgetting how to operate that little black box and thought several times about throwing it out a window. (I'd seen Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman, the great American writer, do just that in the movie "Julia.") The idea had great attraction for me, but when I remembered it had been a gift from a kind friend, I saw I needed either to master it or send it back.

Thus challenged, I mastered it.

I started turning to it more and more for writing. I had to admit that it was faster - well, and easier, too. One morning when no one could see me, I put my typewriter on a shelf next to the desk and moved the word processor and printer to my typewriter table. No one would notice, I thought. Reduced circumstances for the electric, yes, but it was still in a position of seniority.

Until this past week.

I started to type a letter on my typewriter and got two lines down before I realized I'd forgotten how to erase a typo. That was it. Why was I using it at all? Moving swiftly to stifle any sobs of regret, I carried the typewriter to a storage closet and shut the door. I finished my letter on my word processor.

Now I did feel like a rat, an ingrate, deserting my old friend that way. And I promised myself I'd keep the old machine with me forever.

Maybe - and this is only a thought - I might be able to use it in a flower arrangement.

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