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A tribute to the venerable Underwood no. 5.


In the 1930s when the college boys started coming into journalism with their ability to touch-type, newspapering began to change.

But when I entered journalism there was no school or anyone else to to teach me to touch-type. So today I still hunt-and-peck on my Underwood No. 5 model typewriter manufactured in 1928.

My late friend, Michael Henry Fidelis Mahoney, who was Bing Crosby's press agent, and also the first press agent for the Del Mar race track, never learned to touch-type. He went through a career writing sports for the Boston Globe, New York Sun, and Dallas Morning News before taking up public relations. And he did okay.

Another was my friend William Strand of the Chicago Tribune, who in the later days of his career became editor of the Fairbanks (Alaska) News-Miner. He was a great war correspondent in Europe during World War II, and his stint as a Washington correspondent was legendary.

Mahoney and Strand wrote marvelous prose on Underwood No. 5's, as did Dennis Warner of Melbourne, Australia, who was for many years the Far East correspondent for the London Express and the Melbourne Herald. He wrote 15 books on a No. 5--also without knowing how to touch-type.

Oh, did I mention that I'm writing this article on an Underwood No. 5, which I have had now for the greater part of 50 years?

Then there was Joe Stone, a legend in Kansas and California journalism. He and I wrote each other daily on our No. 5s for 30-plus years. He not only wrote stories for newspapers and columns on his No. 5, he also wrote television screenplays.

His brother, Milburn, played the role of "Doc" in the long-running TV show "Gunsmoke." One of Joe's scripts won his brother an Emmy.

I have sometimes considered that Joe might never have become such a successful wordsmith if he had not had a No. 5 to give him what I call his "rhythm of prose."

When it became more expensive to repair a No. 5 than to buy a serviceable used one, I bought Joe Stone a replacement No. 5. He was still using it when he died at the age of 90 in 2003. Soft desert breezes float today over his ashes in the Borrego desert in southeast California.

A machine to care for

As to the cost of having an Underwood No. 5, it is becoming more and more expensive. It has become difficult to find someone who is actually qualified to repair one. The average repair shop, even if it has a qualified technician, charges about $150 to to clean, adjust and generally service a No. 5. Unfortunately, some repair shops aren't up to the task of doing right by the machine.

In spite of this attachment by many for the No. 5, there are those who don't have an appreciation of that bond. In 1963, when I was a reporter for the old San Diego Union, someone decided to do me a favor and replace my No. 5 with a new Remington.

So one day I came into the city room and there at my desk sat this new Remington. Without regard for decorum, I exploded. I was probably heard in Hawaii!

And who had been assigned to commit such a high crime and misdemeanor? None other than my longtime friend Ken Zumwalt, the newspaper's feature editor. (Ken and I had known each other in Germany when he was editor of the European Stars and Stripes and I was commanding officer of the Army's Schweinfurt Sub-Area in Northern Bavaria.)

Better judgment prevailed, but not without difficulty, and my No. 5 was returned. It caused some embarrassment. You see, my typewriter had been given to Goodwill Industries by the newspaper. Now, someone had to ask the Goodwill folks to give back the typewriter. They did, and in return Goodwill received a brand new Remington as a replacement.

So, those who believe there can be no romance and adventure in a typewriter are mistaken. There are a very few who think I should have never been permitted to come near a typewriter of any kind. They include some who have read what I've written and consider it less than literature.

In recent years, No. 5s have become quite valuable because of collectors and those who want to replace their worn-out machines. This development has brought out fortune's fools from their dark corners. A case in point:

Jerry Goodrum, a distinguished writer of an endless number of superb magazine and newspaper travel articles, took his No. 5 into a shop to have it serviced. A couple of days later he was called by the shop and told it had been dropped and broken into an endless number of pieces. They said it couldn't be repaired, so the shop would replace it with a new typewriter.

Jerry suspected he was being lied to and that his No. 5 had been stolen and sold to someone for a high price. But there was no way he could prove it. So my friend Jerry, a splendid and brilliant writer, lost his incomparable typewriter. He continued to believe it affected the quality of his writing.

In my own case, after all these years, I've produced books, magazine and newspaper articles, speeches and letters to editors on my No. 5.

Will my creative well some day dry up? I don't think so, as long as that mystic current flows from my mind through these keys and onto a sheet of paper.

Let me continue to pound this Underwood No. 5 until the great pincher closes around my heart and chokes off life. When that happens, nature will have told me conclusively it's time to quit.

But what will happen to my Underwood No. 5?

My other typewriter

In 1965 when I decided to circle the world on assignment for the Copley News Service, I had to leave my Underwood No. 5 at home and replace it with a portable Hermes 3000.

It turned out to be a good decision. During the next six months, the Hermes typed out stories on the cleanliness of Singapore, the civil war in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the squalor of Calcutta, the heat and insurgency in Aden, the mystery and romance of Cairo, the oppression in Hungary, and the sights to see in Vienna. Its ribbon lasted the entire trip.

My great fear was that my Hermes might be stolen. But it wasn't. I kept it within my sight except when it was secure in a hotel room, a ship's stateroom or under the watchful eye of attendants I employed to protect it.

The Hermes never failed me. I had no need to have it serviced or to replace any keys or fix problems having to do with with matters such as key tension. And although that around-the-world trip was 44 years ago, I still have that Hermes typewriter. It's only used these days when my Underwood No. 5 goes into the shop for servicing.

Now then, I ask you, how could I forsake my Underwood No. 5 and my Hermes 3000 for a mere computer keyboard?

Editor's Note:

The Hermes is an example of Swiss manufacturing quality. It was first introduced in 1936 but modified as model 3000 in 1958. It is lightweight and durable and comes in a range of colors; Hal Steward's is grey. Original models cost around $50; Steward paid $140 in 1958 and today's models go for $450 and up. Antique dealers pay a good sum for an older Hermes in good condition. Steward's is not for sale.

Hal Steward, of San Diego, says he's semi-retired at age 91. He was born in East St. Louis and started his writing career as editor of his high school newspaper. In World War II he was an army combat correspondent and a major on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He retired as a lieutenant colonel. He has worked on a number of newspapers, has written numerous magazine articles and books, and has been a subscriber to SJR.
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Author:Steward, Hal
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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