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Recalling the days of the typewriter.

When I was a rookie reporter at the Associated Press, I found myself in front of a Royal typewriter, a machine as fast as today's wonder horse, Cigar.

I was so addicted to its boxed keys that my colleagues would swipe it when I went to the water cooler or retired to the restroom.

On one occasion, with a bit of fanfare, I rolled the Royal to the bathroom with me.

I now have 15 assorted typewriters perched in important places in my city apartment, in various states of use.

There is a shiny 1920s portable Corona sitting in my hallway, a couple of 1930s bulky" Oliver standards from Chicago, and various others that I love to look at.

I oil them, poke at them, and sometimes type something to remind myself of what it used to be like to pound my thoughts on paper.

Now, of course, I am a journalistic processor, sending this graph over there, bringing that one back here. Still, I want to believe that better prose was produced at typewriters.

It also seemed to me that the louder you hammered at the keys, the more active the verb.

In fact, every time I write a story, my wife figures l'm going to bust up my computer, as I desperately try to recreate my days at my AP Royal.

I get like Forrest Gump every time I read an article about the days when every newsroom on deadline sounded like a car factory.

My latest round of remisniscing began last year when word spread that Smith Corona, a historic name in typewriter journalism, had gone bankrupt. it was like losing a childhood friend.

Reporters, which is what journalists used to call themselves 20 years ago when stories were more important than the people who wrote them, shared memories of smoke-filled newsrooms. Even though no one had any desire to return to them.

Al Ashforth, a novelist who worked at the New York Times during the sixties, said it took an organized mind to knock out precise prose on deadline.

"We used Underwoods," he recalled. "We'd write everything in triple space, and the copy boys would grab it after every graph. There was no going back. It was a quick way to get a heart attack."

Darryl Rehr, a television producer who publishes Etcetera, the magazine of the Early Typewriter Collectors Association, says typewriters are great for one's psyche.

"Writing on a typewriter is intellectual and physical at the same time," Rehr said from his home in Los Angeles.

He has a house full of antique typewriters, but uses them only to write down ideas and notes to himself.

"As much affection as I have for them, I have to use my, computer to write television scripts and publish my magazine," he laughed. But the one thing you can say about typewriters is that you didn't need to keep a pile of reference books next to you to use them."

There is a theory, in the land, of course, that anyone who has spent a lifetime at a typewriter will never be able to nudge his way onto the new Information Highway.

"That's just a bunch of bunk," laughed Mardo Williams, a 91-year-old writer who taught himself the computer when he was 87 so he could write a book about his 110-year-old mother.

Williams, who once was a columnist at the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, turns out more copy in a day than he used to in a week.

"It takes but a minute to change my work now," he informed me, acting like a newborn nerd.

"I can knock out a new piece in no time at all. When I was a reporter, it wasn't this easy at all."

There is a danger, of course, I warned him, about those newfangled, gazillionbyte contraptions. They trick you into believing that everything you write is perfect. All you need to do is press a few buttons. He didn't care.

When we all used typewriters, you couldn't hide your mistakes from your self. Your typos were right there on the page. Especially on deadline. There was nothing you could do but X it out and go on. If things got too tense, you'd pencil in the correct spelling over the X's.

Then the copy editor, a gnarled person with an encyclopedic mind, would look over his/her bifocals across the newsroom and point a crooked finger at you and save your life.

Now, everyone's prose looks great. No matter how badly you write it. The copy people have to force themselves to be more alert. There are no scribbled warnings on paper.

I miss the relationship I had with my AP Royal. It was always there for me, even when the ribbon chocked on some of my best work.

But my words didn't disappear once they were delivered to their appointed destination. There was no need to Control Save everything. There were no carpal syndromes to worry about. It was a safer time.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Shop Talk at Thirty
Author:Wolper, Allan
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Nov 30, 1996
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