I must be getting old. Every Saturday morning when I take our garbage to the local dump, I always take one last look around the house and ask myself, “What else can I throw away or give away this week?” I have officially ended the accumulation phase of my life and begun the distribution phase.
For example, within the last year or so, my wife, Barbara, and I have redistributed all of the following: we sold some of our music albums and donated the rest; we donated some of our VHS tapes and recycled the rest; and we have gradually thinned out our book collection, again through either donations or recycling. And just last week, I realized it was time to get rid of our old typewriter.
For you youngsters out there, the typewriter was the first printing press intended for individual use, either at work or at home. Like a modern computer, of course, a typewriter has a keyboard, but users have to feed the paper in one sheet at a time or use special “carbon” paper to make a copy. And the machines I learned to type on did not even have electricity or a battery to simplify the writing process.
When I was growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, these machines were so popular that my Uncle Joe supported his family with a small business that sold and repaired typewriters, and I think he gave our family one of his older, manual models, a model very similar to the one I learned on in 12th-grade. To actually type on these hardy monsters, we always had to reach to the ceiling first, so we could generate enough physical force with our fingers to hit the keys and place some ink on the page. Then, as we approached the end of each line of type, we listened for a tiny bell to ring. At that point, like Pavlov’s dogs, we mindlessly moved the carriage back to the left, so we could start again. In the process of learning to type, I actually got up to 35 words per minute without looking at the keys, and I also doubled my arm strength. Typing back then was tougher than some of the exercise machines I use today at Planet Fitness. Seriously.
Okay, not seriously. I’m exaggerating a bit. And I’m exaggerating because I love those old machines. I see them as old friends. In fact, whenever I see a typewriter in an old house or a museum, I always ask Barbara to take a picture of me sitting at the machine to remind me of the good old days.
One old friend lived with me in college. When I arrived on campus in 1969, I did not own a typewriter, and my plan was to type on one of the four machines available for student use in the library. Fortunately, my roommate, Ed, brought a typewriter to school with him, and he said I could use it at any time. As a biology major, Ed didn’t need it as often as I did as an English major, and since some of my classmates didn’t even know how to type, I actually made money typing their papers for them. I was charging fifty cents per page, big money in those days, believe me.
After college and in the early days of my teaching and writing career, I used the machine Uncle Joe had given our family way back when, and I continued to use that fine gift for roughly a decade until I got married in 1984. No, I did not marry Barbara solely because she owned an electric typewriter, but that fact did make her that much more attractive. I could not believe how easy it was to write with that Smith-Corona. When I initially plugged it in and turned it on, the machine came to life. The sound was captivating, and the writing process was so smooth, I felt like I was cheating somehow.
For the next five years or so, I used that electric machine exclusively until somehow, we inherited a hand-me-down computer and a printer, and our typewriter gradually retreated into the shadows. At first, I kept him nearby just in case the computer and/or printer died. Then, I started to pile paperwork on top of him until he began to groan, and he asked for a new location. Now, I’m ashamed to admit that I moved him out of sight, first to the basement and later to the attic.
And that’s where I found my old buddy last week prior to my trip to the dump. Before we parted ways, though, I nostalgically plugged in old “Smitty” for one last memo. Not surprisingly, he refused to cooperate, angry, no doubt, for the way I had sentenced him to the summer heat and the winter cold in the attic. His keys jumped on command and actually delivered some faint ink, but his carriage refused to move. The letters on the page all piled up on top of one another, just as I had piled my paperwork on top of him so many years earlier.
So now, my old electric typewriter sits in a recycling bin at the dump and awaits his next assignment. For his sake, I hope that he eventually becomes part of another communication device, one that will share the owner’s ideas with the world just as this machine did all those many years ago.