Friday, December 6, 2013

Pater: the typewriter...

Pater: the typewriter...  At right is a waterfall along the Big Sur coast that my dad and I enjoyed together in April 2006.
The typewriter...

One thing we could always depend on hearing in the evenings, or all day in the winters, was the sound of my dad typing away on his IBM Selectric typewriter, a prized possession of his.  My memories of it begin when I was quite young (maybe 10), but it was first sold in 1961, so my dad either bought a brand new one or one that hadn't been used very long.  Given the unusual care he took of that typewriter, I suspect he bought it new – something he rarely did with a piece of kit like that.  We kids weren't allowed to touch that typewriter, and when not in use he always had its dust cover in place.  Both of these were unusual habits for my dad; more indication of just how valuable that typewriter was to him.

My dad's typewriter looked exactly like the one in the photo at left (which is not my dad's).  My younger readers will have no idea what a Selectric typewriter was.  For its time, it was a revolutionary piece of machinery.  A skilled typist could type faster on a Selectric than on any other kind of typewriter.  The documents it produced were of very high quality, especially if you used one of the special “high resolution” ink ribbons (which my dad rarely did, as they were expensive).  The first thing, though, that any typist would notice about the Selectric is something it didn't have: a moveable “carriage” to position the paper under the type.  Instead, the Selectric moved a “type ball” across the paper.

Now, one might reasonably ask why a nurseryman who was struggling financially – a man at ease with tractors, shovels, and long days of back-breaking work – would want with a fancy, expensive typewriter.  The reasons why it made sense for him were a mixture of his personal history, his personality, and the times he lived in.

His history came into it because he had, for a male adult of the '60s, an unusual skill: he could type, and very well indeed.  Back in those days, typing was closely associated with secretaries – and secretaries were almost exclusively women.  In fact, becoming a secretary was a major career path for women, and our high schools had classes designed around that need: stenography, typing, transcription, etc.  My dad learned how to type while in the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII, where he operated classified intelligence teletype machines, much like the Model 28 pictured at right.  After doing very well in a stateside typing school, my dad spent many hundreds of hours typing on just such a machine, sending intelligence reports from the bases where he worked (in North Africa and Italy) to all over Europe and the U.S., using special radio systems to transmit the information.  Often what he was sending was encrypted, which meant he was sending endless columns of numbers, all of which had to be absolutely perfectly typed – a single error on a single digit could render the entire message unreadable.  These systems were very widely used by both sides in WWII; they were the closest thing they had to today's Internet.

My dad's personality came into it because he was an introvert (as am I), and much preferred written communications to verbal.  He'd make phone calls when he needed to, but if he had a choice, he'd write.  Back then, long before anything resembling the Internet, writing to someone meant actually putting your writing down onto a piece of paper (pen, pencil, or typewriter), then folding that paper up, putting it into an envelope, addressing it, and putting a stamp on it.  Days or weeks later, if you were lucky, you'd get a response.  My dad had an extensive correspondence with dozens of people all across the U.S., mainly nurserymen, botanists, horticulturists, customers, friends, and arboretums.    It wasn't at all unusual for him to post a dozen letters after an evening of writing, nor was it unusual for him to get a five or six letters in response on one day.  He and his fellow nurserymen or horticulturists had more time in the winter, and the rate of correspondence would go up then.  My dad could write far faster with a typewriter than in longhand, and he already knew how to type – so typing those letters made good sense.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I came to appreciate just how good my dad was at typing.  He made it look very easy – he could whip out a dense one-page letter in just a few minutes, with no mistakes at all.  The reason I discovered this in high school is because I signed up for a typing class (mainly because it was full of girls!), and I went into that expecting that I'd have no trouble excelling.  Hah!  The classroom taught us on manual typewriters, which are far harder to use than an electric model – and even harder than the Selectric.  But I can't blame the challenges on the typewriter, not really – typing 100% error free is really quite hard to do.  “Error-free” would be sort of nonsensical today, as we have that magic backspace key (my favorite key!) on all our keyboards.  Those typewriters had no such thing.  To correct an error was a laborious process involving erasers or “white out” paint – and the finished result with errors would never look as good as an error-free page.  So typing with zero errors was highly prized – and quite difficult to actually accomplish.

In addition to his correspondence, my dad also typed up lots of other things: extensive notes on his horticultural work, articles for magazines, and copy for our catalogs and booklets.  Years later he shifted this work onto a personal computer, where (quite predictably!) the only things he really learned how to use were word processing software (he knew Microsoft Word quite well) and the web (for his plant research).  One thing that always surprised me was that we really never could get him interested in email – given his interest in correspondence, that seemed like it should be a natural for him.  I saved every email I ever received from my dad - all seven of them.  By contrast, I have over 4,000 emails from my mom!

I've no idea what happened to that old Selectric.  I can still remember some details about it, such as the way certain keys (“e”, “t”, the space bar, etc.) had depressions worn into them from the countless times my dad's fingers impacted them.  Sometimes the key's label was no longer legible, though of course for a touch typist like my dad that didn't actually matter...

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