Extolling a Pencil's Finer Points

The ballpoint pen had not yet been invented when I was in elementary school, and children rarely used fountain pens because they were too messy and too sharp. As children, we wrote with pencils.

Every fall, for the first day of school, my parents gave me a colorful new pencil box with a picture on top and compartments of various sizes inside. Some of them had clever little sliding covers over "secret" compartments, and some had built-in pencil sharpeners.

Typically, each box contained a six-inch wooden ruler, a large soft-gum eraser, a box of eight crayons, a small pair of blunt scissors, and pencils: yellow, red, blue, and green, with the brand name and the lead number stamped in black. They had fresh rose-tan erasers fastened to their tops by gold or silver crimped-metal bands.

One by one, I'd stick my brand-new pencils into the sharpener mounted on the wall and vigorously crank the handle. Then, sniffing each one for the pleasurable scent of fresh wood and lead, I'd line them up neatly like a miniature picket fence on my desk. In the days that followed, I'd gradually wear them down, moving the lead across the paper, erasing, rewriting, sharpening and re-sharpening until they were short, familiar stubs that barely extended beyond my finger joint.

I liked using erasers, too. It felt good to rub the paper vigorously, wiping out whatever did not please me at the moment. If the space I cleared was too short for what I wanted to add, I'd turn my pencil to the skinny side of the lead and squeeze in the words. If I had more space than I needed, I'd fill it out with fat words from the thick side of the lead. Often, the eraser was used up before the pencil was, and I'd have a wedge-shaped spare that fit over the top of the pencil like a little rose-colored hat.

Not all my pencils came with the pencil box; sometimes I was treated to a new pencil decorated with bright watercolor swirls or my name lettered in gold. Now and then, there would be free pencils given away by area businesses: the fuel oil company, the hardware store, the grain elevator. These often had pictures or a little local history on them, or advertising with clever puns, like the one from a roofing firm that showed a man scribbling on the beak of a huge woodpecker over the caption, "Let Us Figure On Your Bill."

THAT was many years ago; cheap ballpoint pens are everywhere now, and very few eyebrows would even be raised if I chose to write with a fountain pen. But my affection for pencils has never waned. Pencil wood is friendly to the touch. It gives a little under the pressure of my fingers, cooperating with my effort to write. In fact, pencils do much more than cooperate.

As I transform the lead into words on a page, the writing gets longer and the pencils get shorter - a compliant sacrifice to my accomplishment. So, here I am, in the age of computers, beginning each writing project by sharpening my pencils, sniffing the wood and the lead, lining them up neatly - no longer so much a miniature picket fence, but more a rank of faithful minions, poised to serve.

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