The fountain pen set

MY image of high school in a small Carolina town almost 30 years ago is defined by a yearbook picture of my wife as a teen-ager in saddle shoes, ankle-length skirt, and Peter Pan collar, standing primly among the Future Teachers of America. But as a friend and I were sitting at the kitchen table the other night poring over my wife's yearbooks, I was struck by something I hadn't noticed before. All of the signatures, notes, and ``love ya, always'' messages were written in ink -- not ball point or Magic Marker, but honest-to-goodness real ink.

As someone whose fountain pen is an object of wonderment to young bank tellers, it never occurred to me that Franklin Delano Suggs and Ruby Lee Prince also used ink. Could Junior Maynard or Jessie Ruth Broadwell know the joys of composing love letters or signing checks with textured inky serifs?

My wife remarked that judging people by their writing implements was a recent affectation, reminding me that there weren't any ball points in 1954. Besides, only one boy in her graduating class went to college. The rest became tobacco farmers or workers in the local cosmetics factory. None of them retired to their back-country demesnes to carry on Swiftian correspondence in an artful script.

Presumably, my wife's classmates now use ball points when putting pen to paper, as do our children. (Pens of any kind don't last long in our house. There is a handsome stoneware jar on the kitchen table which we try to keep stocked with pencils and markers to do homework, make grocery lists, or take telephone messages. But the jar is often empty.) Only our six-year-old daughter uses ink for literary expression; owing to her heavy hand, the medium italic nib of my expensive German pen has been transforme d into a broad non-point that produces a line an eighth-of-an-inch thick.

This particular writing instrument was purchased almost two decades ago, and I am rather fond of it. Once, at a country house weekend in Shropshire, a lady of noble birth borrowed it and used it, I later found out, to pry open the lock of an antique desk. The resulting eagle's-beak shape of the point is part of the pen's personality, character that is difficult to imagine in a 69-cent plastic tube with a rotating ball at its tip.

I am often forced to borrow a ball point, as when faced with the ubiquitous multi-carbon forms that render a fountain pen useless. But I am no longer embarrassed, no longer an outsider. I am reassured, knowing that untold numbers of high school students in the days of rock-and-roll bore the stigmata of ink stains on their writing hands. In one Piedmont town alone, there must be scores of fountain pens, abandoned in countless drawers in frame houses along unsidewalked streets, just waiting for an infusio n of colored liquid to bring them to life again.

Ed. note: We take the liberty of reproducing the author's signature, presumably written with his medium italic German nib.

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