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  • Writer's pictureArnie Bernstein

An Ode to My Typewriters or "Thank you, Miss Begley" or ASDF JKL;

People are surprised that I use a manual typewriter to create my first drafts, but I don’t think anyone would be more astonished than Miss Annabelle Begley, my typing teacher at Niles West High School in Skokie, IL. We crossed paths the first semester of my sophomore year. Miss Begley’s voice was tinged with a slight Southern accent, and she bore more than a passing resemblance to Cloris Leachman’s character of Frau Blucher from the movie Young Frankenstein.

Though I may have been just another 15-year-old kid to her, Miss Begley’s Basic Typing class was a godsend for me. Some kids could hardly wait until they took drivers ed, but my goal was fixated on learning how work a typewriter like the many authors and screenwriters I so admired.

A typical high school typing class, circa 1950s. Precedes my high school years but the ambiance is the same.

In the Beginning

As we sat in front of heavy-duty Royal Upright typewriters, Miss Begley’s voice cracked like a drill sergeant wailing on new recruits. “Fingers on home row! ASDF JKL; !” The clatter of thirty typewriters filled the room. I obeyed her every command, determined to build the muscle memory so vital to touch-typing.

Miss Begley’s snappy directives were exactly what I needed. Over the course of just a few weeks, I knew exactly where to send my fingers on the typewriter keys. Home row, the basic foundation for touch-typing, was my center and ASDF JKL; my mantra. I was delighted with my growing dexterity as my fingers became more nimble. I felt like Chico Marx at his piano.

In no time at all, I became an expert typist. I could even change a typewriter ribbon, taking pride in my inky fingertips. My typing speed improved, upwards of eighty to one hundred words per minute, with few typographical errors. My brain and fingers synched up with the keys, providing me with the right combination I needed to spew out my fury of ideas. Since my handwriting was barely legible (and still is), learning to touch type paid off. People could now read what I wrote.

I Went to the Woods Because....

For high school graduation, my parents gave me a portable manual typewriter, make and model I have alas forgotten. Regardless, it served me well, particularly in that it was portable. During my freshman year at university, I would go a wooded area on campus, set up a workspace on a picnic table, and pound away on my writing machine. I wrote term papers, short stories, and journal entries. Though I might have looked like a latter-day Thoreau, there was a practical reason I took my typewriter to the woods: my roommate and his girlfriend were a pair of Neanderthals. They spent hour upon hour in our dorm room, podgering away like rabid weasels. The quiet of the outdoors, underscored by the sound of clacking keys, was a respite from their coital screams.

My parents continued the graduation tradition, giving me an electric typewriter when I finished college. Again, the make and model lost to memory. But typing on an electric machine was different. Type heads hitting the paper had that familiar rat-a-tat-tat sound, but the experience changed exponentially. For one thing, I didn’t have to push my fingers so hard on the keys, a strange adjustment. A button on the right-hand side near the shift key replaced the lever on the upper left-hand side, requiring only the touch of my pinky finger to make a full carriage return.

In another massive leap of technological evolution, I no longer hand to use the lowercase “L” (l) to also serve as the numeral “1" (l). Exclamation points required only one keystroke, replacing the old process of hitting the apostrophe key, go back one space, and then type a period beneath the apostrophe. It was an electronic miracle!

O Brave New World

But what really made this typewriter different was that instead of a standard nylon ribbon all inked up and rolling back and forth between two spools, the electric machine used two cartridges that snapped into a side slot. The first cartridge was filmed ink. The second cartridge was whiteout tape for covering typographical errors. No more using a tiny paintbrush to glob out mistakes with smelly Liquid Paper, then waiting for the mess to dry. I was good to go with a simple snap in and snap out. In my mind this was almost like having a new machine on the horizon: something called a “word processor.”

Yes, personal computers were coming. I was curious, yet still slightly scared over this brave new world. The first desktop computer I saw was a massive thing. The chassis looked as big as a television housing. The greenish figures on screen were broken dots that formed letters. The printer—no slug heads slamming paper now—sounded like another old-fashioned technology, a 1920s ticker tape machine.

An early desktop computer, circa late 1970s/early 1980s.

Over time the computer screens got bigger, the chassis got smaller, the fonts better defined, and the printers cleaner, quieter, and more efficient. The terms “desktop” and “laptop” became everyday vernacular. We could toss a computer into a bag for easy transport to and from work, a classroom, the library, or coffee shop. Along came something called "the internet." The computer was now worlds ahead of a typewriter. It was more than just a writing machine: it could be used to connect people with a communications tool known as “email;” search for information using something called WebCrawler (google it); and eventually both join us and alienate all of society through the social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The computer was a miraculous tool that could do anything. Watch movies. Listen to music. Create art for both business and pleasure. Typewriters went the way of the Edsel. Big, clunky, and obsolete.

A Love Rekindled

And yet I could still hear Anabelle Begley’s voice in my head every time I typed. ASDF JKL; . The familiar QWERTY keyboards of typewriters—originally laid out by typewriter inventors so that the arms wouldn’t smash into each other as worked the machine—is still the standard for computers and even your smartphone texting keyboard.

For all the fancy bells and whistles of the computer age, something was just not the same. I missed the sound and feel of a typewriter. I tried software that mimicked the sounds of a typewriter clacking. Yet my touch-typing skills were both superpower and Kryptonite: my fingers moved so fast that these programs crashed or screens froze up in mid-word. I gave up. The typewriter was dead, now a rusted-over and forgotten hulk.

Or not. In Chicago, where I live, we are fortunate when it comes to museums. We have one of the world’s finest art museums, a sprawling natural history museum, a planetarium, and a museum of surgical science housed in a former mansion. The latter is a gruesome and fascinating place that would be welcome to both Drs. Salk and Frankenstein.

We also have a one-of-a-kind institution, the American Writers Museum which opened in 2017. I love the place. It's a cultural mecca devoted to centuries of the written word and its practitioners.

One section of the museum, an exhibition called Tools of the Trade, has a bank of typewriters, from the most basic of manuals to highly sophisticated electrics. I was thunderstruck. Anchoring the exhibit was an old Royal Upright, the same model on which I learned to type. A boy never forgets his first love.

The typing bank of the American Writers Museum

I sat in front of the typewriter and hit the keys. My fingers flew. Once again Miss Begley’s voice echoed in my head: ASDF JKL;

Back to the Future

It was inevitable. I had to go back to a manual typewriter. The clatter of the keys and the sharp ding! of the bell as you neared the end of a line. The feel of the carriage return lever. Putting a fresh of sheet of paper onto the roll of the platen (again, google it). Best of all, that pas de deux between fingers and brain as the words danced across the page. I fell hard. The romance began anew.

And so began my quest. I haunted antique stores and eBay in quest of a new manual typewriter—or rather, I should say, an old typewriter. I joined typewriter fan groups on Facebook. It turned out there were multitudes like me, united in our adoration for the original keyboard technology.

My Olympia SM-9, a standard office typewriter circa 1960s. Built to last.

To make this long love story short, I settled on two machines that I use in steady rotation. My first is an Olympia SM-9, a German-made typewriter circa mid 1960s. It’s a hearty desktop office machine built to take a beating. The second is a portable Smith-Corona Skyriter, the typewriter I’m using to write this piece. The name Skyriter comes from its purpose: it is smaller, lighter, and designed for travel. Business executives of the 1950s used it on the road; so did journalists on assignment or war correspondents in the field. I use my Skyriter for writing in the backyard, at coffee shops, or in the library. Sometimes people will ask me about it, while others leave me alone. There’s nothing like old tech to either entrance onlookers or scare them away.

I’m as happy as can be, a born-again manual typewriter user. Given my speed and talent for getting down my ideas fast and dirty, the Olympia and the Smith-Corona are perfect for writing first drafts. The resulting stack of paper is easy to turn into a Microsoft Word document. Simply scan the sheets into a PDF, load the file up to Google Docs, reformat the fonts, tabs, and paragraphing, download the results, and you are good to go. I write all my first drafts on typewriters, when I can think and move fast, then edit second drafts on computer files, which is a more deliberative process. It’s my version of the Ernest Hemingway dictum: write drunk, edit sober.

“Where do you buy ribbons and other accessories?” you ask. That, I can answer in one word: eBay. Plus, tinkerers with a gift for typewriter restoration, tune-ups, and repairs are easy to find. So are spare parts.

Remembrance of Things Past

The semester after I finished Miss Begley’s class, I spent hours in the school’s typing room, drafting stories, scripts, and whatever else came to mind. Besides, I was flunking algebra. It was clear that my future was destined for words, not numbers. Why waste time in a useless math class, when I could sit at a typewriter and create?

One day Miss Begley walked into the typing room, where I was pounding away on a Royal Upright, brimming with joy. She was surprised to see me there. “I thought you took my class as a blowoff,” she said. “No,” I told her. “I type every day.” Miss Begley said nothing, perhaps stunned into silence, and went into her office in the back of the typing room.

Now, decades after the fact, here I sit in another typing room that formerly served as, well, a typing room. It’s a tiny space at the public library containing a desk with holes that once held the rubber feet of typewriters, and now used for snaking computer cords through to electrical outlets The space has been repurposed as a solo study room where you can take your laptop, or, in my case, the Skyriter. My keys clack away, the space bar makes its tapping noise, and the platen sounds like a fingernail on a comb. I am a happy writer, working on a machine designed solely for the craft.

My Smith-Corona Skyriter, circa mid 1950s. Also built to last.

Within this room, amidst the joy of my typewriter cacophony, one singular sound floats around me: the rhythmic and ethereal tone of Miss Begley’s voice: ASDF JKL; ASDF JKL; ASDF JKL;

Copyright 2022 Arnie Bernstein


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