The sound of my father's writing

It sounded like thunder, the percussive strokes of my father's fingers on his Royal manual typewriter. It is my earliest emblem of written language and a persistent mnemonic for Dad's verbal gifts. His typewriter was a word engine: a gleaming black mechanism, an industrial factory of printing, hammering letters directly onto paper winding down below its shiny hood where the levers, rods, connecting pulleys, and metal type lurked. It had a hood like a '55 Buick and the innards of a knitting machine or a diesel-power plant.

As Dad wrote newspaper stories or worked on his books at night, the gooseneck lamp arching over the keyboard, soft light seemed to pool around his concentration. I recall the poise of his hands above the home keys, attending the next flurry of prose. As I listened from my bed, the sound of those keys striking paper wafted upstairs to my room. The cadence of his certain thoughts punctuated summer twilights. It melded with the sprinklers and cicadas outside, every 10 or 15 words the typewriter's little bell sending its carriage zippering back to drag a new line across the page.

A four-bar rest - the nonsounds of pondering - then a few phrases murmured under his breath as he tested the cadence of the next passage. More thunder, then another pause to backspace and X out a phrase that didn't work. This was typing, not word processing, and typing was music.

Keys hit paper, telegraphing letters down into the very floorboards through the metal legs of the typewriter table. The old Royal had sharps and flats, bass and treble: a staccato space bar; the timpani capital-letter shift; the triangle of the pinky making a question mark. It had 16th notes of familiar patterns and convenient phrasing: "the," "is," "without," words that alternated hands, allowing greater speed or swinging rhythm to accompany a jaunty thought. Boom, clatter-clatter-clatter, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-Boom. Ting!

Explaining with the Royal

Typewriting broke the silence of the house at bedtime. Stopping and starting, back and forth, the song of text proceeding out of silence. Writing, Dad was explaining with the Royal, was something you worked at, tried and retried. It charged my fourth-grade storytelling with the effort to be correct, clear, stylish. And I wanted to type - fast. Stories written on a typewriter had authority because they looked real.

His 40-year newspaper career bridged the evolution from lead type to computer layout, and downsizing from broadsheet to tabloid. Efficiency. A visit to Dad's desk in the newsroom might include a walk down the hall to pick up lead-type banner headlines left over from the prior day's edition, awaiting smelting and a return to the Linotype machine as fresh ingots. This was alchemy: base metal turned to stories on paper by men who typed for a living. I filled my pockets with leaden words.

My father introduced me to men in the composing room, typists with eye shades, fingers flashing above a keyboard appended to a machine the size of our furnace and just as hot. I watched in amazement as lead slugs were pounded out and sluiced into place, letters aligning themselves in reverse order line by line, paragraph by paragraph until a whole broadsheet of type had been assembled and sent to the press. On a good day, after deadline, I might be awarded a slug with my own name in 14-point type and return to school with a primal artifact of publishing.

My own children have never used a standard typewriter, much less the classic Royal. As they peck their way through book reports, watching their words flicker on the computer monitor, writing is television. No heft. This laptop of mine replaces a whole newsroom and composing room as it lays the illusion of publishing at my fingertips without weighing more than a few paragraphs of the old lead type. Hundreds of fonts reside in its circuitry; any size type; bold, italic, underlined and shadow; even color; justified margins. It is the apotheosis of Gutenberg's revolution. But it has changed the rhetoric of invention. This paragraph has no history, no record of its deletions or verbal heritage, only a current avatar. Writing and editing are sleight of hand, magical disappearing acts, as letters and words simply evanesce. Without music.

No diesel, no percussion

This is a synthesizer to the Royal's piano, a sterile clicking that transmits words, phrases, and sentences in identical timbre. The reverberant aural power of words, mechanically hammered onto the page with emphatic variations in speed and pressure, is missing. The laptop has no apparent moving parts - all circuitry, all plastic. No inky ribbon; no fingerprints. No Buick hood. No diesel. No percussion. No thunder. To my children, this is typing; this is writing. But I remember the sound of real writing: the engine of my father's words.

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