My Type of Machine

The clackety-clack of communication

By Bill Fields

An acquaintance took his family to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., recently. He reported that when one of his children saw a typewriter on display, the machine might as well have been an artifact from an ancient pyramid. The child had never seen a typewriter. Ribbons were for hair and home keys were for locks.

About the time I heard this story earlier this year, I read that Laura Cagle, one of the teachers in the business department at Pinecrest when I was a student there, had passed away. It got me thinking about my own typing history.

“My fingers are too big for the keys,” I would complain to my mother as I approached high school, wary about enrolling in a typing class. An old manual on our bookshelf, 20th Century Typewriting, a leftover from someone’s typing education, was intimidating with its commands about “reach-stroke practice” and “control of the tabulator and carriage return.” And “timed writings” sounded about as much fun as having to go on the pommel horse during gym.

But my fingers weren’t too big after all, and I did learn to type. If you wanted to be a reporter, you had to acquire this skill whether by the book or trial and error. Speedy hunt-and-peck artists seemed to be of another planet, so rapidly did their index fingers depress the keys, so I figured that learning to use all my digits was the way to go.

When I managed not to choke on the end-of-semester timed writing junior year, I even got an A. My mother was proud and I was pleased. I might not have known how to put all the words in order yet, but I knew how to type the words. It wasn’t long before we were on the road to Fayetteville to buy a typewriter to take to college. I settled on a portable electric in a faux leather zippered case for $129.95.

I was surprised how many arriving freshmen got to Carolina and didn’t know how to type. Over the course of my first year I more than covered the cost of my first machine by typing papers for classmates, not to mention handling my own assignments in English, political science or history.

My harvest gold Smith-Corona made it through my UNC days, although it balked during a marathon of term papers for several classes over Thanksgiving weekend senior year when a case of major league procrastination resulted in a couple of all-nighters and more than 40 pages total.

By then I had augmented the Smith-Corona with an Underwood manual portable with a clamshell cover for sports writing road trips for The Daily Tar Heel — a purchase that truly made me feel part of the fraternity. At the DTH offices, we typed on sturdy desk model Royals and Remingtons on paper that had one margin for pica type and another for elite, the sound of keys on platen loud and comforting regardless of font size.

Compared to the first wave of portable computers — finicky and unreliable — for which journalists were guinea pigs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, typewriters did their tasks well. They might not have had spell check or word count, but they didn’t give you the spinning wheel of freeze-up frustration either.

“There is something I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling in that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing, and it does it perfectly,” actor, filmmaker and typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks told NPR last year. “And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper.”  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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