|LEARNING TO TYPE AT OLD CALHOUN HIGH|
By Sidney Underwood 2014
It was the summer of 1958 and I was preparing for my junior year in high school. My mother had been insistent that I sign up for typing class that fall. She had stated many times that typing skills would last a lifetime and that if I chose to go to college, my term papers would look much neater in a typed format.
That was easy for her to say because she had obtained a degree in Commercial Arts in 1935 from Salem College and was skilled in typing and shorthand. Reluctantly, I agreed that what she said might have some merit.
My first day of typing class that fall was in third period just before lunch. Our instructor was Denzil Huff, a young teacher, fresh out of Glenville State College.
Mr. Huff gave us a short lecture on the origin of the typewriter and mentioned inventors from Germany, Briton and Italy who had built one of a kind “mechanical writing machines” as far back as 1714. The first modern mass produced typewriter with a standardized keyboard, he said, dated back to the 1860’s and was the product of two Pennsylvanians.
A computer search indicates that these men were named Christopher Sholes and Carlos Glidden. Their “typing machine” was licensed in 1867 to Remington & Sons of Ilion, NY. who were noted gun makers. This typewriter was known as the Remington No. 1 and was a commercial success.
When Mr. Huff told us to remove the covers that first day, we saw those large commercial Remington and Royals sitting there in front of us and to me they looked complicated with all those levers and tabs. We were instructed on how to insert the paper and set margins and he explained finger placement. He said not to worry, that typing was basically “finger memory”.
I thought that he must be kidding us as that would be impossible. When the bell rang at the end of class, I knew that I was in way over my head and signing up for this class had been a mistake.
I planned to tell my mother that evening that I wanted to withdraw and take another class. Besides, I had big clumsy fingers and it seemed unmanly to sit there with all those girls who already were comfortable with the typewriters.
That evening my mother sat quietly and listened to all my excuses for dropping the class. I thought that I had made a pretty good case for myself. When I had finished, she looked at me and said that I would remain in the class.
She said that she would tutor me at home. I pointed out that we did not have a typewriter. She responded by saying that she had already borrowed one from a neighbor. It was clear to me that all my avenues of escape had been blocked and my mother just didn’t understand the situation.
A dreaded routine was established for me to come home each day after class and I would type again for my mother everything I had done that day in Mr. Huff’s class. She would stand there behind me and would offer advice and suggestions and watch me type.
She would encourage me to sit up straight and not look at the keys. In fact, she would tap my head with a ruler when she suspected that I was peeking at the keyboard.
After two weeks in class, we had our first timed typing test. I had started to come around and feel comfortable in class except I still had a tendency to look at the keys. I remember that I tested at 18 words per minute with more mistakes that I care to remember.
I still felt pretty good about it until I noticed Erma Williams sitting across from me who had typed 50 words per minute with virtually no mistakes.
On the other side of me sat Carolyn Stone also had more than 50 words. I realized that I was in fast company and had a long way to go.
I still remember the sentence that we practiced every day as a warm-up exercise. “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” Even today, I can still type that sentence like a machine gun firing on full auto. The finger memory thing really worked, although my best timed test never got above 35 words per minute without mistakes.
One day my Dad happened to see Mr. Huff in the hallway at school and inquired about my progress. Mr. Huff said that I would pass his class and might earn a ”B” with a little luck, but would never become a skilled typist.
That evening at home, Dad laughed and told Mother that she should not expect her son to get an “A” in typing class because he had it on good authority that that would never happen. Mother replied that she would be content if I would concentrate on learning the keyboard and make a passing grade.
There were several boys in that third period typing class, including Chuck Kirby and Carroll Knotts. Chuck and Carroll seemed to do better than me and consistently scored higher words per minute on the tests. In fact, Chuck was almost as fast as the girls.
I remember one incident when we were taking a timed skill test. As luck would have it, my ribbon spindles had run their length and failed to reverse resulting in my keys not printing the paper legibly. So, I just stopped typing.
I sat there uninvolved and detached and looked around the room and listened for the very first time to what was happening. I listened as 27 pairs of hands thundered along, I heard carriages being thrown and bells ringing.
It was all so surreal with all that energy vibrating around and through me. And the faces that I saw. Everyone seemed to be in a trance-like state with jaws clinched and glazed over unblinking eyes as their fingers danced on the keyboards.
They looked like they were experiencing great pain. As I continued to look around the room amid all that racket and noise, I began to laugh. I don’t know why, but these people seemed like strangers to me, almost like zombies, and going about a deadly serious business and I was the only one in the room who could see and feel and hear what was really happening.
I passed Mr. Huff’s typing class and I did earn a “B.”
My mother was as proud of that “B” as I was. I know that I never could have achieved it without her help. My mother pushed and shoved me in the right direction many times over the years when I needed it. This was just one example of that.
When I enrolled in college, she presented me with a Royal Safari portable typewriter and I used it countless times over the years to type term papers and required reports. I kept that typewriter for a long time and regrettably donated it to Goodwill several years ago.
If one finds an old typewriter today in an antique store or at a flea market, it is usually in a deplorable condition with stuck keys and worn or missing parts.
Upon closer inspection, it will be noted that it was built to close tolerances at a time when skilled craftsmen took pride in their work. The typewriter was a valued mechanical tool designed to last for years with minimal care and maintenance.
Also, I think we must pay tribute to the typists of a prior time who used these machines on a daily basis and efficiently constructed the business letters of industry, finance and manufacturing.
Compare the required skill of that era, if you will, to today’s computer keyboard. If we make a mistake, we just backspace, correct the spelling or whatever, and move on.
How much skill does that require? Not much.
We are lucky that we no longer resort to erasers and whiteout for corrections.
Recently, my wife’s cousin, who lives in New York State, was moving to a new home and was cleaning out a room and found an old typewriter under her son’s bed. He had apparently discarded it years ago.
Having no use for it, she brought it with her when she visited her mother at Ripley, WV. She gave the typewriter to my wife and told her to give it to me.
When Judy arrived home, she asked me to get the thing out of her car as it was heavy. When I opened the trunk, I knew instantly that this item would one day be part of my estate. What had been given me was an old typewriter with a patient date of 1913 that was in excellent condition but needed a new ribbon.
Appropriately enough, it was an open frame UNDERWOOD No. 5 standard typewriter. I like to think that we are two old UNDERWOODS finally together after too many years apart.