“Anything else to send-off to surplus?” the employee from the Facilities & Maintenance Department asked me as he rolled an old filing cabinet out of my office. I looked around and noticed the typewriter sitting on a metal stand in the corner.
“You can take this typewriter and stand, too,” I said.
“Wow! I’m surprised you still have one of these,” he exclaimed.
“Yeah. Well, I don’t need it anymore, so you can take it,” I said.
As I watched him roll it from the room, I thought of the first typewriter I ever saw. My grandmother worked in a shoe store in our local mall. Upstairs, in the stockroom, an old typewriter sat on a table in the middle of the room. While my mother would visit with my grandmother downstairs, I would disappear upstairs and roll a piece of paper into the old machine and start typing stories, pretend business letters, and nonsensical things. I don’t remember the brand of the typewriter, but it was black, tall, and heavy. The keys were round with each one mounted on its own metal bar. When I pressed down on a key, the metal bar moved another metal bar that lifted a little, metal letter and struck it against the paper with a satisfying click and thump. There was no electric motor to assist the process. The force of my finger on the key caused the letter to strike the paper on the platen and print the image in ink.
I’ve seen the movie, Up in the Air, and there’s a scene on an airplane where George Clooney is seated across the aisle from his eager, young assistant, played by Anna Kendrick. As soon as the plane is airborne, she places her laptop on the tray table and starts typing. The keys make a clicking sound that can be heard over the white-noise hum of the plane. George stares at her as she punches the keys and then asks if she’s mad at her computer. “I type with purpose,” she informs him.
And that was the thing I liked about that old typewriter. When I pushed down on the key, I was committing to that letter printing on the page. The resounding clickety-clackety-thump of the process produced words on the page that could not be removed by a backspace key. A mistake on the typed page required the use of a typewriter eraser which was a fat, pencil-like item with an eraser on one end and a stiff brush on the other to sweep away the debris. As you used-up the eraser, you peeled off the paper wrapped around the shaft to expose more eraser. But a mistake could never be completely removed. You and everyone else could always see the indention of the errant letter and the scuffed fibers of the paper beneath the correction. Liquid Paper offered an alternative to the eraser, but the white, painted blob on the page always exposed that a mistake had been made.
As I type now on my computer, I am amazed at how I, or anyone else, ever composed anything on a typewriter. But now that I think about it, I didn’t. I had an electric typewriter when I was in high school, and first I would write my papers by hand on notebook paper and then type them. My machine had cartridges that you could swap in and out – black and correction. The clear, correction tape lifted the ink from a mistake, but still, the impression of it remained in the paper. When I typed to the right margin, a beep alerted me to the fact that I had to press the carriage return before I ran words off the page. The beep was not a feature on that old typewriter in the stockroom. I had to keep my eye on the page and decide where to hyphenate a word, if necessary, before hitting the carriage-return lever with my right hand which would sling the platen back to the far left for another line to be typed.
I know that’s an antiquated concept to many people alive today. My son, Davis, watched the movie, All the President’s Men, with me recently. He wanted to learn about Watergate and Nixon, but in the process he learned something else. While watching Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford hash-out their stories in the newsroom, he exclaimed, “They’re using typewriters! How long ago was this?”
“The break-in was in 1972,” I answered.
And so I told him of carbon paper used for making copies. And the hassle of adding footnotes to a paper. He was appalled. And I pointed out how there was no electronic “Saved Copy” of a document. The paper version was all we had. I told him of how one time Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Hadley, placed all of his manuscripts and the carbon copies in a valise and carried them with her on a train when she went to meet him. When she was away from her seat, the valise was stolen. “And he had to type everything again?” Davis asked, incredulously.
“He had to write everything again,” I replied; “compose everything from memory.”
“That’s rough,” my son noted.
“Yes, it was,” I agreed.
Then I reminded him of my electric typewriter. When Davis was six years-old, he discovered it when we were unpacking from a move. He loved it. He would type for hours, making up stories as he went. He was allowed to use my computer, too, but he preferred typing on the typewriter. With no spell-check to alert him, his spelling was less than-perfect, but the stories spun from his imagination were perfection. I bound them all into a book that we keep on a shelf in his room today. The stories exist, fully, only on those printed pages; with snippets pressed into my memory and my son’s.
I remember, too, a day when Davis sat on the floor with his golden-blonde head bent over the typewriter. He raised his head. His big, blue eyes met mine, and he sweetly asked, “When you die, will you leave this typewriter to me in your will?” I was startled that he would want to make sure that machine didn’t go to someone else, even as he was, hopefully, grieving the passing of his dear Mama. Still, I managed to answer, “Yes, if you want it.” Then I realized that his six-year-old mind didn’t grasp the fact that I would have to die for that will to be executed.
Next month, I’m taking my son to college to begin his freshman year. He’s going to school in another state, three states away from me. Amidst the multitudinous things to do, to remember, and to buy, I have moments when I think about my little boy and how he won’t be in his room across the hall from mine at night. And he’ll take a laptop with him, not a typewriter. He’ll compose papers, watch videos, play games, Google, post, chat, listen to music, and so on, and so forth, on it. And, most definitely, Skype with his Mama.
My old typewriter at work is sent off to the basement, never to be seen again. I’m not shedding a tear over it. I send my son off to college; he’ll be back. But I’ll cry over that. My electric typewriter sits in the top of my closet. He can have it whenever he wants it - even before my funeral. Perhaps he can sell it on eBay as a vintage item. I see other typewriters for sale there; ones like I typed on in that stockroom as a child. I wonder what happened to that one? I’ll ponder that and not think about the send-off that is going to make me cry.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton