An ode to the typewriter

Last August, Victoria’s last surviving typewriter-repair shop closed its doors. That set me to thinking of long ago when, as a pubescent teen, I resolved to be a writer. And to be a writer I needed that Holy Grail of a real author, a typewriter. Need I say that even a used machine was well beyond my piggy bank?

So I laboured with pen and paper until the day I was invited to my chum Bill West’s home after school. Almost immediately, my eye fell upon an old, large black typewriter, likely of the famous Underwood brand, in the Wests’ rumpus room.

I was hooked. I couldn’t think of anything else. There it was, within reach, a typewriter! What I could do with that beauty! During that first visit, Bill graciously let me plunk away for the duration of my stay. By the third visit, however, he’d lost patience with my forsaking his company for another turn at the typewriter. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the invitations to his home, indeed our friendship, ceased; but obsessions have a way of blinding us.

So it was back to pen and paper, until the magical day that my father was elected secretary of his union. With the job came a portable Royal typewriter! Need I say more? I now had almost unlimited access and began to pump out my prose, one key at a time.

Now, I shouldn’t have to explain to readers that punching a keyboard with greater speed and accuracy than the so-called hunt-and-peck method is an acquired skill that applies to both the typewriter of old and today’s computer. What those who haven’t ever used a typewriter likely won’t realize is that, unlike your computer, which allows you to correct, cut and paste to your heart’s content, when you made a mistake on your typewriter you had to start over on a fresh sheet of paper. Or physically erase the error and type over it, or "white" it out with an opaque liquid to type in the correction. All my allowance went into buying paper.

It was not only tedious but maddening. You consumed reams (everyone who has ever typed has torn a sheet from the machine and balled it up, often repeatedly and in rising rage).

So it was with me and, by high school, I’d vowed to learn to type properly. But enrolling in Typing 101 came at a cost; as the only boy in the class, my manhood was a popular subject of discussion until the novelty wore off. But I endured and, unlike my other classes, I excelled. Soon I was up to 60-80 words a minute with fewer and fewer mistakes. I could really type. I was on my way!

Came my first job and my first pay cheque. No, I didn’t buy a typewriter, I bought a portable transistor radio which took several installments to pay for. That done, however, it was down to business and a used Underwood with a wide carriage that I purchased through a mail order firm.

They made things to work and to last in those days and she served me faithfully until the day I saw a Royal Majestic electric portable in Eaton’s.

Unlike the dull grey Underwood, it had lots of gleaming chrome and metallic blue paint; feckless youth that I was, it was off to storage for the Underwood. Over succeeding years, I wore out two Majestics which, obviously, weren’t meant to do heavy-duty for which the Underwood was renowned.

I well remember the day that I broke my left hand. It still hurt and was in a cast when the deadline for my weekly two-page feature in the Islander came due. We’re talking 10 pages times 26 lines of double-spaced type which I had to peck one letter at a time with one hand. It took me half a day but I met my deadline. Obviously, it was a while before I typed with both hands again.

For all that, when, in the ’80s, word processors (a hybrid of an electric typewriter, video screen and printer) came into being, despite friends’ glowing endorsement of their more operatorfriendly abilities, I remained true to my typewriter. Finally, I did see the light and my work day has never been the same since I bought my first computer and printer.

I still have three typewriters – as antiques. But, for all of my love of nostalgia, I wouldn’t go back to using one even at gunpoint.

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