Gathering

One weekend last month, I attended an amazing gathering so ultra-nerdy that, according to someone living with me who will remain anonymous, “it makes the World Fantasy Convention look cool.” Hmm . . . Well, I’m talking, of course, about the Annual International Gathering of Typewriter Collectors. I don’t think anyone really knows what the proper name of it is. It’s commonly referred to simply as “Herman’s” — “Are you going to Herman’s this year?” — because Herman is our gracious host, the owner of the museum where it’s held each fall, where something like nine hundred (900) rare, vintage, and antique typewriters and related paraphernalia are on display. Nearly a hundred of us gathered this time — my first time, in fact — some from as far away as Italy, South America, Toronto, and the West Coast, as well as from points all across the U.S. And it is a GATHERING!

I am pictured here with a working Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, first manufactured by the Remington Arms Company and sold commercially beginning in 1874.

In the above photo, to the left of the Sholes & Glidden is a replica of the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, patented in 1870, a machine famously used by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Here’s a better look at the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer. Christopher Latham Sholes — or perhaps a close relative of his — created the QWERTY keyboard; it appears on this machine and is still the keyboard layout most common today.

It was a weekend filled with activity: lots of buying, selling, and trading . . . presentations on typewriter history . . . typewriter repairs and consultations . . . lively discussions . . . speed-typing contests . . . merry eating and drinking . . . a typewriter beauty contest . . . two screenings of the fantastic new documentary California Typewriter, starring typewriter enthusiast Tom Hanks . . . and best of all, the conversations, from early till quite late — the kindling and rekindling of friendships.

The Sholes & Glidden was mounted on the Remington sewing machine table; the foot treadle operated the carriage-return mechanism. With the Civil War over and the demand for firearms greatly decreased, Remington had to find something else to produce — and they found typewriters!

It was great to meet many friends I’d previously known only through correspondence.

One event was a silent auction, with typewriters to bid on lined up here. (No, I didn’t buy any . . . of these.)

Here’s a Hammond, the kind of typewriter that J. R. R. Tolkien particularly favored, perhaps because it doesn’t matter how hard or softly you tap the keys — you get a nice, uniform print:

Hammond: with its type shuttle (as opposed to typebars), it was a kind of forerunner of the much later IBM Selectric.

The museum goes on and on . . .

The Wall of Blickensderfers

And on and on . . .

Shelves and shelves of history

Some from Japan . . .

Azuma Type

Some pretty silly . . .

Fur-lined Smith-Corona portable

Some sillier still . . .

Is that ten-point type?

Some silver-plated . . .

When writers need to reflect

‘Twas a wonderful time had by all.

Anyway — I had to prove to my friend Mr. Brown Snowflake that typewriters don’t hinder blogging at all. Sometimes they provide grist. We had fun taking some into my wife’s classrooms, too, for students to use in creative writing assignments:

Typewriters in the college classroom — students loved them!

Then there were the poems-on-demand I typed for customers on the spot at the recent local BookFest:

Royal Model O, 1930s

I may not manage to post as often as in the old days, but I’m still here. The lights are on, and there’s coffee.

Type-In

A gray, rainy Saturday in late November . . . a small “creative space” with paintings on its walls and a plate-glass window looking out onto the main street of Bridgewater, Pennsylvania . . . a room filled with typewriters and typewriter enthusiasts, some clacking away on the machines, some browsing, some just talking shop: this was the scene on Saturday, November 19, when we had a very successful type-in/typewriter sale/beer swap.

Type-in at Sweet As Studios, Bridgewater, PA, November 19, 2016

Type-in at Sweet As Studios, Bridgewater, PA, November 19, 2016

Those who love and use typewriters today, sometimes called typospherians, hold type-ins all around the country. Many, many thanks to Lenny at Sweet As Studios for offering us the venue for this one.

Conversations, writing, and maintenance

Conversations, writing, and maintenance

Some brought their own typewriters and came to type on particular projects:

Writing at the type-in

Linda and Rachel, writing at the type-in — note the dictionary (happy sigh!) — typewriters don’t have automatic spell-checkers.

Val, the real organizer of the event, took the opportunity to “typecast” — that is, he typed a blog entry, which he later photographed and uploaded onto his blog.

Typecasting

Typecasting

I really liked the cable spools turned on their sides for rustic tables. We had about twenty of our typewriters for sale. Val and I each sold a couple machines. People arrived throughout the afternoon.

Typewriters galore

Typewriters galore

Val brought along his Crosley turntable, so we had event-appropriate music from vinyl throughout the afternoon: John Denver, Duke Ellington, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others . . . including an LP designed to teach touch typing: a soothing voice chanted, “A-S-D-F, space, A-S-D-F, space . . .”

Lots of lovely machines

Lots of lovely machines

See that beautiful old Royal in the foreground of the picture above? A highlight of the day for me was when Lynn brought that in — she’d had it in storage for years, and it was in great working order except that the ribbon was dried out. I had brought along my tools and a reel of bulk ribbon, so I offered to install a new ribbon for her. Lynn was delighted!

Me, having fun

Me, having fun (photo by Lynn Britton Radford)

I’m glad I brought the ribbon along!

Changing the ribbon

Changing the ribbon

Great time! I look forward to the next type-in.

Fold-over Corona 3 on the right

Fold-over Corona 3 on the right

 

fred-chang-ribbon-lynn-britton-radfords-royal-2

 

 

Where Hallowe’en Lives (2016)

It seems Hallowe’en is coming both late and early this year. The local parade is on schedule — it’s coming up this Wednesday, the best parade our town has all year. Julie and I have been so busy that we’ve yet to carve jack-o’-lanterns. We’ve resolved to do that tomorrow. I haven’t read many seasonal stories this fall. I hope the fact that I’ve been writing a lot is a good excuse. Julie is having her classes read “The Bone Man,” and I’ll be visiting the classes next week to chat with them about the story and about writing in general. So it’s happening as it should: Hallowe’en is coming.

It came early for me in one unique and delightful way this year. I visited a store where the true spirit of Hallowe’en was alive and well. Pull your chair closer to the fire as it crackles and dances on this nicely warm October night, and let me tell you about it.

Julie and I went to a wedding in Belle Vernon this past weekend. It was a lovely time all the way around. We stayed down there Friday night after the rehearsal and dinner. Saturday morning, while Julie and the other girls were getting their hair done, I had time for going on an adventure. So of course, typewriter tracker that I am, I had looked up all the local antique stores I could find. The Internet suggested that there were three; following the trail, I discovered five and never made it to the sixth. The first one of the morning was by far the most atmospheric and original shop (of any kind) I’ve ever visited. It gets extra points for being open seven days a week and open at 9:00 a.m., two things that most antique stores don’t do. (Now, if only more of them would stay open at night — but Julie points out that I have unrealistic hopes for a demographic I’m not part of: most antique hunters don’t want to shop at night. I suppose she’s right.)

Anyway, Tim’s Secret Treasures is located in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, just across the Monongahela River from Belle Vernon. Tim welcomed me as soon as I came in. Like many antique dealers, he wanted to know if I’d been in before, and if there were anything in particular I was looking for. As for the latter question, often, I don’t want to tip my hand too soon, because I don’t want to hear, “Oh, no, we don’t have any typewriters.” Nor do I want to be taken right to the typewriter(s) in the store. I want to find them on my own, if they’re there. I have learned, though, that it’s good to talk with the storekeeper about my interest before leaving. Sometimes it prompts them to bring a typewriter out of the basement; sometimes it elicits the mention of another shop where there might be typewriters. Sometimes it leads simply to a pleasant conversation.

But I digress. Tim’s shop went on and on, a warren of rooms crammed with secret treasures, just as promised. Many antique stores provide that. What made Tim’s so unique was the presentation. First of all, there were giant animals standing outside, colorful statues of farm animals, indicating that this was a place worthy of attention, anything but ordinary. Inside, Tim had decked out every room in honor of Hallowe’en as only a true lover of Hallowe’en could. Everywhere I looked, everywhere I turned, there were life-sized figures in full costume — ghouls, ghosts, phantoms, monsters — many of which (triggered by motion detectors) spoke or thrashed or lunged. Spooky music played.

Tim was busy carrying in provisions for a Hallowe’en party that night, which he invited me to. Wherever he was at a given moment, I’m sure he could track my progress through the store by the sounds I was setting off.

As I climbed the squeaky steps, Tim warned me to watch out for the ghosts upstairs. At the top of the flight, a seemingly ordinary mirror burst into life with a ghastly face peering out and a tormented soul begging to be set free. “Let me out! It’s dark in here — so dark! Pleeease! Let me out!” Beyond an archway, a werewolf snarled at me, jaws wide. A condemned man thrashed, screaming, in a zapping, sizzling electric chair. A desiccated corpse played a piano. That’s what I admired about the mannequins Tim positioned in his store: they weren’t just added; they were integrated, interacting with the antiques as if a permanent part of the place.

The rooms went on and on, full of figurines and relics, tools, bottles, collectibles, furniture. Chairs and stools hung from pegs near the ceiling. In a small chamber dedicated to Native American-themed items, the face of a warrior was half the face of a wolf — a shape-shifter. In the presence of so many moaning, growling, staring, writhing, threatening figures, the antiques took on a sinister appearance. Some were clearly eerie anyway, beneath and unrelated to the Hallowe’en trappings. I didn’t want to touch the ceremonial dagger, the tribal mask. I didn’t want to peer too closely at the tiny ceramic face or into the dusty glass. When I left, I wanted to leave alone.

But Tim is as pleasant a shopkeeper as one could ask for, a man who loves the past and its objects, who is generous and welcoming. If we’d been around for the evening, I would have liked to attend his party: I could imagine the store filled with customers, wandering the rooms and floors to be thrilled by the lurking horrors.

“That’s an elevator, isn’t it?” I asked Tim, referring to the open-sided wooden platform I’d glimpsed in a shaft upstairs. He seemed happy that I’d noticed it. “This used to be a funeral home,” he explained. “They used the elevator for hoisting caskets up and down. I use it for furniture.” He knew a great deal about the building’s history, rattling off the precise years of various events. People had died here, he informed me, including an owner lady who passed away and not been found for a long time. I did not quite get around to asking him if he’d ever seen or heard or felt anything ghostly on the premises; I should have.

It was a better haunted house than many I’ve paid to go through, and I told him so. I’m just realizing now that what made it so effectively creepy was the ubiquity of real objects from the past — all the chairs and dolls, tools and boxes, tables and desks and bookends and lamps and mirrors . . . even the beat-up old Royal Empress typewriter squatting like a great pale toad in the gloom. All these things belonged to people once, people mostly dead now, some dead for a long time. People used and treasured these items, or else neglected them. Many hands touched them. The place is packed, cellar to attic, with whispers, with a vast ponderance of memory, aching and stagnant and observant. You, the living, walk there among things not yours, things sad and quiet and lost and hungry.

Various truths: I am delighted with a childlike glee that I went there, that I got to meet and chat with Tim, purveyor of Secret Treasures, host of parties, keeper of holidays; he is a nice guy. I am glad that I emerged again into the sunlight and fresh air. I am a little afraid of Tim’s store, and a little sad that I can’t visit it more often.

Such is the true spirit of Hallowe’en. Wouldn’t you agree?

 

The Shaping of Things

First: We are nearly through the Netflix series Stranger Things. Loyal kid friends on bicycles in the eighties, romance, a monster, mysterious nights in the Midwest, references to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, not one but TWO typewriters and a D&D session in the first episode — what’s not to love?!

Feeling Vintage -- The dream of the forties is alive at the Durbins'.

Feeling Vintage — The dream of the forties is alive at the Durbins’.

Okay — home movies: who remembers ’em? Eight millimeter cameras . . . fifty-foot reels that had to be flipped over in the middle, in as dark a place as you could find. Let’s go on a journey into memory . . .

A week or so after the county fair one year, my mom bought hot dogs on sale and had a wiener roast for the cousins on Dad’s side of the family, who’d asked if they could come and watch home movies. It was something they wanted to do every few years; Dad had always been the chronicler of events—the one who brought along a camera to every gathering. He’d long since switched to video, then digital; but the movies that held the deepest fascination were the old ones, those from the era of silent eight millimeter film.

At full dark, the movies began in the living room. I was the projectionist now, Dad having turned over all the equipment to me. But Dad still governed the proceedings, ensconced in his recliner.

This is Aunt Ruth's 1937 L. C. Smith typewriter that has been in our family since it was new. It's a 79-year-old machine that, after a serious cleaning up, works as well now as it ever did. Do we have any other machines in our houses like that? Anyone? :-)

This is Aunt Ruth’s 1937 L. C. Smith typewriter that has been in our family since it was new. It’s a 79-year-old machine that, after a serious cleaning up, works as well now as it ever did. Do we have any other machines in our houses like that? Anyone? 🙂

It was like traveling into the past in more ways than one. TVs, no matter how big they got, could never match the ambience of a darkened room, the whir of celluloid and sprockets, the hot smell of the projector bulb, and the bright, flickering images on the tall tripod screen. Dad’s movies distilled the sunlight of long-past days, the green of vanished summers, the faces of relatives now old or gone.

The reel most in demand was a compilation of fifty-foot movies shot over many years, spliced together in no particular order, one section even having gotten put in upside-down and backwards, with horses galloping in reverse, consuming their dust clouds like living vacuum cleaners. Scenes of Mom and Dad’s courting blended with family baseball games—lots of swings-and-misses, and then a long, panoramic shot of a dozen guys searching for the ball in high weeds, their dark forms spread out along the horizon as if in some epic scene from a western. That one solid hit—that single moment of baseball glory—had never been filmed, so it was now claimed by every person left alive who had played that day.

I liked Julie's answer on Facebook when a friend asked of these photos, "Does Fred really do that?" She replied, "Pose for goofy photos? Check. Use antique typewriters all the time? That, too. Sit around in a fedora and tie? Not so much."

I liked Julie’s answer on Facebook when a friend asked of these photos, “Does Fred really do that?” She replied, “Pose for goofy photos? Check. Use antique typewriters all the time? That, too. Sit around in a fedora and tie? Not so much.”

Dad looked like a movie star in the films, young and straight, with a full head of black hair. Mom resembled a young Audrey Hepburn.

Toward the film’s halfway point, there was a silver dot high in the sky, passing behind a transformer and power lines. This was Dad’s famous U.F.O. shot, and those old enough to know the ritual obliged him with speculation on just what it could be. The dot was so tiny it had to be pointed out to the younger kids. Always Dad nodded gravely in his chair, his gaze intent on the screen until the scene changed to the digging of the lake, which Dad had helped to survey.

“We saw more snakes than you’d believe,” Dad would say. “It was all bottomland then. I bet we saw a snake every twenty steps. Once we were all sitting on the ground in a circle, eating lunch, and a snake slithered away from right in the middle of us.”

Dad was used to being in rooms full of active little kids, so he had a habitual way of holding his cigarette like a hypodermic needle, its filter end resting on his thumb, its shaft between his first and second fingers, its hot end pointed at the ceiling, his elbow resting on the arm of his chair. If kids tumbled into him, they wouldn’t get burned.

Dad told stories about the images on the screen the same way every time, and the audience’s questions themselves followed a time-honored litany. There was very little variation of the unwritten script. That, too, was a part of the fascination of old silent eight. No music, no audio required the discipline of being quiet—not that any soundtrack could have competed with the cousins all together in one room. The audio was supplied anew by the audience each time, viewers interacting with glimpses of the past.

There were shots of dogs and of the wild fox cub Dad had found and cared for until it had grown big enough to return to the wild. Not knowing whether it was a boy or a girl, he’d called it “Jackie.” The cub was so accustomed to Dad that it would come when he called. But a domestic life is no life for a fox; the dogs would have agreed. The time came when Dad had to make Jackie go back into the woods. I’m sure it hurt them both.

Here's a "before" shot of Aunt Ruth's typewriter, so you can see just how far it came in the restoration process.

Here’s a “before” shot of Aunt Ruth’s typewriter, so you can see just how far it came in the restoration process.

Then came a full four minutes of nothing but cigarette smoke in a sunbeam at the little house, where Mom and Dad had first lived when they were married—just cigarette smoke filling the frame, curling and swirling above an ash tray. “Now wait,” Dad would always say. “Now watch. There’s a place when the smoke looks just like the Devil’s face.” A solemnity would settle over the group, and for a few minutes the summer night would take on a suggestion of chill. This was the only point on which the traditional comments varied. For sometimes Dad himself would miss the face, and would mutter, as the footage went on to other things, that somewhere in there the Devil’s face was as clear as day; and at other viewings Dad would shout “There!” in triumph, pointing. The kids in the audience would see only smoke, because they weren’t sure what they were supposed to see, or how smoke could make a picture; a few of the cousins might give a start and cry “I saw it!” and rub at the goosebumps on their arms. Some wanted to see it but didn’t. Some, perhaps, wished they hadn’t seen it. Whether Dad or anyone else saw or didn’t see the Devil in the smoke, if anyone suggested rewinding and re-watching, Dad would say, “Oh, let’s go on. It’s getting late.” And even the most curious were secretly grateful, because the drifting smoke was more than a little sinister.

Restoration complete, including a newly re-covered rubber platen (roller) from J. J. Short Associates, Inc., located a stone's throw from Julie's alma mater in New York.

Restoration complete, including a newly re-covered rubber platen (roller) from J. J. Short Associates, Inc., located a stone’s throw from Julie’s alma mater in New York.

Years ago, Dad had introduced the trick of running the film backwards in a certain part to the wild amusement of the audience. It was a scene of the cousins as kids, the oldest no more than ten, swimming in a plastic backyard pool. The audience would point, laughing at their own skinniness or braces or antics. “Is that you, Mom?” a little cousin would ask, standing up in front of the screen and reaching out a hand to touch the past—but blocking the very part of the image that held the most interest. The child would blend with the picture, the glowing colors projected on hair and skin and T-shirt back, swallowed up in the warping of light and image in a way that would have made our legendary construct of Tesla himself proud, until everyone cried “Sit down!”

The highlight came when Uncle Paul dashed across the yard in his swimsuit, the pool empty now of kids. Uncle Paul, all berry-brown, a scrawny Tarzan, dove into the pool, displacing a prodigious amount of water. At that point, my dad—and now I, the new projectionist—would switch the projector into reverse. The tidal wave would return from the lawn to the pool; Uncle Paul would fly out backwards, land on his feet, miraculously dry, and sprint away across the grass, receding into the distance. It was a delight that never grew old, when the whole group would shriek with laughter. This was what the cousins came to see year after year, bringing new spouses, new girlfriends and boyfriends, new babies. In fact, the film had its identity in this scene: the request was always for “the movie where Dad (Uncle Paul) jumps out of the pool,” as if it had been recorded that way.

It led me to wonder about the past, and still does. What actually happens does so only once, in one moment, and then is gone. But what people make of the past—what they select and believe and how they choose to describe it—that all lives on for as long as there are people to talk about it. Once it’s occurred, it belongs to us, for our re-shaping. Decades later, Uncle Paul’s jumping out of the pool was far more real to everyone than his jumping in.

What intrigued me were the images of the home and buildings I knew, appearing on the screen as their earlier selves—lines sharper, paint fresher, their stories not as long. Each time I watched it all, I was living through it, all the sweetness and the mystery and the brilliant agony of moments there and gone—life like a skyrocket.

L. C. Smith, 1937

L. C. Smith, 1937

Isn’t that interesting? As a writer, I’ve long since embraced it: we recreate the past. We live and act informed by our remembered past — some of what really was, but mostly how we remember that it was. As long as we’re alive, that remembered past is the more important one. The real one can no longer touch us if we’re here, if we’ve come through it. But the one we remember — that colors everything: who we are, what we do, the stories we tell.

Here’s your assignment, dear reader: go and look through your old photos, those in the albums, those in the shoeboxes tucked away high on the closet shelf. Or close your eyes and go back into your memories of the person you were and the world you lived in when you were small. And then tell us a story, no matter how brief. Tell it the way you remember it.

P1090164

A Series of Unfortunate Choices

The book Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser (one of my favorites) is set on a night just like this one: a late-summer night under an almost-full moon. It’s a perfect book for nights like these!

Anyway, here’s a guest blog post by Julie about one of our adventures this summer:

http://allmanack.blogspot.com/2016/08/a-series-of-unfortunate-choices.html

Does anyone have a story you’d like to tell here about your own series of unfortunate choices, whether things turned out badly or well? — or a story about a trip you took this summer? (Just a key moment from such a trip can make the best kind of story: a scene you saw, an epiphany that came to you, the impact a certain place or person or situation had on you this summer. There’s a key to good writing in that: usually, the more specific you get, the more universal your scene becomes. Include those real details, take us into your moment, and you will take us into a moment of our own.) We’re all ears!

July Nights

Dear old friends of the blog have been after me to write more here. I’m writing a whole lot in real life, by grace — wrapping up the edits to the second book in my series, which hopefully will find a home with a publisher soon. Julie and I both are quite excited about that. But the blog is here, too. We can dare to hope that perhaps some new readers are seeking it out — are you there, new readers? — if they’ve run into A Green and Ancient Light and come looking to find out, “Who is this Frederic S. Durbin guy?” If you’re here, new readers, welcome! Pull up a chair and stay! Or at least drop in often, whenever you’re in the neighborhood. We’ve had a lot of fun on this blog, and I think we can again, talking about stories and writing, art and numinous nature and life. And for any old friends here, welcome back! As the old song goes, “Make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver and the other gold.” Let us hear your voices! I can’t do this alone, not when I have Facebook to compete with.

So it’s a hot night in July, the most magical of times. (Are you reading your Millhauser, Enchanted Night? Are you reading your H. P. Lovecraft? ‘Tis the season!) I think it’s time to share with you a passage from my most summery of unpublished short stories. This one almost made it into Cicada, but it was a bit too controversial. After several requests for rewrites, the editor (whom I still admire and respect profoundly) simply stopped communicating with me about this story. I think that was the gentlest of all ways to say, “I love you as a writer, but this story just isn’t going to work for this magazine for teens.” I won’t get into the controversial part. I’ll leave that to your summer imaginations, for what is more summery than a bit of scandal?

But anyway, here’s a passage from the story “Glory Day,” that two of my friends always remind me about. They like it. The scene is a county fair. In my hometown, which is the county seat, the county fair happens at about this time each summer. It’s probably going on now. Here we are:

*     *     *     *     *

With a roar and huff of diesel fumes, the Ferris wheel hoisted its cargo to the night sky. Girls squealed; lanky boys rocked the cars although beside the entrance ramp, the hand-lettered sign said “Do NOT rock the car’s!”—which prompted John to cup his hand toward Emily’s ear and murmur: “Do not rock the car’s what?”

Emily didn’t smile. She hardly ever smiled these days, even though it was summer, and the horror of high school was finally behind them. She’d only shrugged when John had suggested the Ferris wheel. The ride’s driver, bleary-eyed and pot-bellied, had only one arm, covered with tattoos. As he took your ticket, he growled something unintelligible, then slammed a bar across your lap and stuck a chained pin through the lock. When he revved the engine, you lurched backward, the footrest suddenly free of the metal deck. Your chair teetered whether or not you encouraged it. The green-black, trampled grass fell away with its nests of electrical cables. Above the multicolored lights, the striped tent roofs, and the sea of people, you were rising, rising into the cool sky where only the stars and the wind lived. But if the girl beside you didn’t wriggle closer and want you to protect her from the dark and the height, what good was it?

“When do you think we can get together again?” John asked as they stopped, halfway up, the driver letting more people on.

Emily scowled, playing with her sleeve, seeming not quite sure whether to roll it up or down. “I don’t like always worrying about next time,” she said. “When we’re together, that’s what we talk about—‘next time.’”

“You’re right,” John answered quickly. “Let’s enjoy being together.”

“Hon, I’m tired.” She rubbed her eyes.

He was grateful she’d called him “Hon”—any romantic talk from her these days was like water in a parched land—but he didn’t like the sound of “tired.” Did she want to go home already? Experimentally, he bounced his knee sideways against hers.

She didn’t return the playful bump. “I don’t like lying to my mom,” she said. “I don’t like myself when I do.”

“You shouldn’t have to lie.” He gnawed his lip. They’d been down this road often, and it never led anywhere. Without a certain degree of truth-bending, they’d never see each other outside of school. And now school was over.

Coming over the top of the Ferris wheel was like cresting a wave. Then the car plunged down again, down toward the hats and balloons and stuffed animals, down toward the twelve-year-olds trying desperately to look nineteen, and a few fifty-year-olds trying to look twenty-five. The crowd wore the summer fashions of a Midwestern town: T-shirts, tank tops, jeans . . . a few cowboy hats (though this was Illinois) . . . spaghetti straps and too much makeup; cans of snuff bulging like hockey pucks in hip pockets; bill caps advertising seed, fertilizer, and farm machinery . . . flip-flops and high heels impractical in the midway’s mud. Guys clung possessively to girls’ hands or waists. Younger teens stood in tight, sulky circles, eyeing passersby and forming their judgments while one or two girls did all the talking, the rest breaking their pouts to bray with laughter at the right times.

John wondered when the county fair had stopped being magical. He’d come every year—the fair was a fixture of summer, a time when school was as far off in either direction as the poles of the Earth. But it was so much smaller now than it had been when he was six or ten. Had there always been so little of it, spread out between the grandstand and the ranks of parked cars?

The Ferris wheel seat swooped backwards over the ramp again, past the stoic driver, and up at full speed. John reached for Emily’s hand. She laced her fingers between his but didn’t scoot any closer.

For John, life would be perfectly simple and good if only he could go through it with this girl beside him, if only he could hold her at the end of each day and put his face in her fragrant dark hair. Everything else was a triviality: college, career, money, a house. . . . John had found everything he really wanted at the beginning of their junior year. That “everything” was Emily—but she didn’t see it that way. Maybe girls in general didn’t see things in such simple terms.

John wanted her to look at the fair’s lights, nestled in their bright array among the endless dark fields. He imagined it as an oasis, a glowing kingdom of enchantment that only appeared for a week in the deep summer and then was gone. But when he said things like that, at the best of times, Emily would push her palm against his chest and gently say, “You’re silly.” At the worst of times, she’d shift her eyes impatiently and her knee would begin its nervous jumping, a subtle vibration powered by her ankle, up-down-up-down like a little jackhammer.

Emily was driven, and John knew he was no more than a convenience. There’d never been a doubt in Emily’s mind or her parents’ that she’d be a doctor like her father. Toward that end, she wasn’t allowed to date. John couldn’t call her; he’d never had dinner with her family, or she with his. According to the laws of Emily’s house, he did not officially exist. He represented only potential derailment. He accepted all that gladly, as long as Emily exchanged letters with him nearly every day at school, hers folded into neat little triangles taped or paper clipped shut, decorated with smiley faces—as long as they could steal moments like this, when she was out with a group of girl friends. He could accept whatever he had to do, because during Homecoming of junior year, Emily had whispered to him “I love you.”

The treasure of those words had gotten him through chemistry, physics, trigonometry, and calculus—abominations that existed solely to make life harder for people who had words and feelings, not numbers, in their heads.

John was a way for Emily to have a boyfriend despite her uncompromising parents. He doubted any other guy would put up with a mostly inaccessible girlfriend; but John looked at the big picture. Time would pass—things would change. It was Emily he wanted, and someday she would be free.

But in his heart, John had begun to realize the truth. He read it between the lines of her notes; he heard it in the way she criticized his clothes (“You could look so much nicer if you tried”). He saw it in her eyes now. She wasn’t just looking out at the winking lights of distant towns—she was looking at the future, and her knee was jumping. It was a future in which John had no part.

Already the driver was starting to unload the cars, the short ride nearing its end, like summer, like life. John had the sudden sense that he was hurtling through hyperspace, the stars like lines around him as he rocketed toward old age without having drawn more than a single breath of youth. Graduate, marry, work, raise kids, retire, die.

John and Emily were parked momentarily at the wheel’s top, high above the illumination and the calliope music and the crowds, under the breathtaking canopy of stars. The scene was the stuff of which dreams are made. Feeling a wave of sad desperation, John took Emily tenderly by the shoulders and kissed her long and slowly.

Here in this airy car, suspended in the holy summer darkness, it should have been a kiss to remember for a lifetime; but Emily’s heart wasn’t in it. A kiss unmeant was nothing but suction, a jarring of tooth on tooth.

When she pulled away, John sat back with a terrible knot of grief in his throat.

*     *     *     *     *

I’m back. Yes, it’s a little sad, but isn’t summer a little sad in its extreme brevity, and because of the memories it evokes?

Do you have memories of the fair, or a summer carnival? Let us hear them! Whether I was with a girl or with a family member, I’ll always have clear in my mind that amazing view from atop the Ferris wheel, that endless warm, dark land, with the glows of towns here and there; the stars above, dazzling; and that musical, pungent, noisy spectacle of the fair, so small, really, in the perspective of things.

What are your memories? Les Calvert sold “Indian Bread” from his secret recipe — the food of Heaven! Lemon Shake-ups. Corn dogs. The demolition derby. The Miss Christian County pageant. One strange, awkward, teenage summer night, my friend R. and I had the honor of escorting the new-crowned Queen herself — I can’t for the life of me remember her name, though she was blonde as the sun — across a patch of mud after the pageant. She asked us for help. She was the Queen, but she was alone (no family, no entourage), and she was glad for two ordinary guys offering arms, so that she could keep her shimmering dress out of the mud as she tottered on her heels. We walked her all the way to the safety of her car. I wonder if R. remembers that.

Some kid got electrocuted once, stepping on one of those high-voltage cords that snake through the mud at county fairs, in the shadows between the calliope and the funhouse. Death at the fair.

When I was really little, My mom loved to play the game where you put down a coin as a bet on a color, and a ball came down a net-chute onto a spinning color wheel. Doing that, she won me a large purple teddy bear that we always called “Fair Bear.” My dad was a good sport, taking me into the haunted house on the back of a trailer. I loved the haunted house, with its shrieks and latex horrors.

What are your memories of the fair?

 

More Clickity-Clacking and SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK

Did you know that Tom Hanks is an avid typewriter enthusiast? Yes, Tom Hanks the movie star — he introduced the highly popular Hanx Writer app, a touchscreen typewriter that apparently comes in three varieties. But beyond helping us approach the typewriter through our digital devices, Mr. Hanks loves the old machines themselves. I give you his words, as quoted by Richard Polt in The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century:

“Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap like ones you hear in a Starbucks — work may be getting done but it sounds cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK.— Tom Hanks

I won't say "museum," because these machines work around here, as they were built to do. They're in their prime!

I won’t say “museum,” because these machines work around here, as they were built to do. They’re in their prime! Here are my three “Great Old Ones” — Underwood, Smith, and Royal.

I’m finding that I have no trouble switching back and forth between computer keyboarding and typewriter typing. Mrs. Bowman’s class in high school still serves me well! I even adjust the spaces after periods without any trouble — two spaces on a typewriter, one on a computer.

Snappy little Underwood Universal portable, made in 1947 -- a joy to type on, and the only carriage-shifting machine I have.

Snappy little Underwood Universal portable, made in 1947 — a joy to type on, and the only carriage-shifting machine I have.

I’ve discovered the joys of portables. I’ve also discovered the joys of antique stores. Whenever I have an errand in one of the towns anywhere nearby, I now make it a point to seek out the shops that sell antiques. In my experience so far, they’re always run by nice people who love well-built old things and enjoy talking about them. Some group their typewriters all together, and some like to leave them scattered throughout the store, which is like a treasure hunt. No, I usually can’t buy any, now that I have nine. There are one or two kinds I’d like to add to my collection someday. But I am blessed with a good working “fleet.” Still, I really enjoy seeing what’s out there and cheering on those who have rescued them from attics and estate sales.

For anyone who's wondering, carriage shifters are typewriters in which the carriage rises up when you depress the shift key. Most of my typewriters are segment shifters, in which the basket rises -- the arc of type bars. The segment is lighter than the carriage, so segment-shifted typewriters require less strength in the pinkies.

For anyone who’s wondering, carriage shifters are typewriters in which the carriage rises up when you depress the shift key. Most of my typewriters are segment shifters, in which the basket rises — the arc of type bars. The segment is lighter than the carriage, so segment-shifted typewriters require less strength in the pinkies. But the carriage on this Underwood is pretty light!

Awhile back I introduced you to my Olympia, a West German typewriter. Here’s our other immigrant:

Hermes 3000, made in Switzerland, 1963. Some collectors aren't wild about this famous "sea-foam green." I like it, because it's very sixties, and it sets the Hermes apart from the crowd.

Hermes 3000, made in Switzerland, 1963. Some collectors aren’t wild about this famous “sea-foam green.” I like it, because it’s very sixties, and it sets the Hermes apart from the crowd.

Hermes 3000. I can hear a certain classics professor of ours reminding us, “Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous.” (I wonder if the Romans call this typewriter the Mercury MMM . . .)

The smooth, "buttery" action of the Hermes is a delight! When I was cleaning this typer up, I found a small, dry, red leaf deep inside it. I wonder if its previous owner also liked to write in parks. Maybe it's written fantasy novels, too.

The smooth, “buttery” action of the Hermes is a delight! When I was cleaning this typer up, I found a small, dry, red leaf deep inside it. I wonder if its previous owner also liked to write in parks. And where was that park? Maybe this little green wonder has written fantasy novels before.

I didn’t properly introduce the third member of our august buffet board:

Royal standard with beveled glass panels, 1933

Royal standard with beveled glass panels, 1933

Boy, did I have fun cleaning up this beautiful old Royal and its neighbor on the left, the L. C. Smith 8 11 from 1935. I used rubbing compound, then polishing compound — heavy-duty metal cleansers. I went through rag after rag, taking off the decades of cigarette smoke and grime (perhaps dust and oil). I would work forever on one tiny spot, and STILL the rag was coming away dark brown. Finally, when the grime was off, I applied liquid Turtle Wax and buffed them like crazy. Now they look more like they were meant to — like they looked in those days of yore when Indiana Jones was obtaining rare antiquities, Tolkien was happily stacking up pages about silmarils, and darkness was spreading over Europe.

Left to right: Underwood, 1951; L. C. Smith 8 11, 1935; and Royal standard, 1933

Left to right: Underwood, 1951; L. C. Smith 8 11, 1935; and Royal standard, 1933

Speaking of Tolkien, I read an article yesterday about how he also had a fondness for typewriters. He had a Hammond Varitype, which used a type shuttle instead of typeslugs like most typewriters use; the shuttle moved around much like the typing ball in the IBM Selectric of later years, and a hammer struck the paper from behind, forcing it against the ink and the rubber shuttle. (The shuttle could be replaced, and Tolkien liked using the italics version for the songs in his books.) In his own words: “I like typewriters; and my dream is of suddenly finding myself rich enough to have an electric typewriter built to my specifications, to type the Feanorian script.”

Now here’s my labor of love:

L. C. Smith 8 12, 1930: the oldest typewriter in my collection

L. C. Smith 8 12, 1930: the oldest typewriter in my collection

It’s a work-in-progress, a fixer-upper. Today I treated the platen with brake fluid to soften up its outer layer. The first night I worked on this venerable relic, I learned that PB B’laster, wonderful though it is, is an outdoor product.

My next step is removing the carriage. Something is wrong with the escapement on this one. The carriage sticks, which could mean there's something blocking it. The main spring is functional, which is a good sign.

My next step is removing the carriage. Something is wrong with the escapement on this one. The carriage sticks, which could mean there’s something blocking it. The main spring is functional, which is a good sign. Who knows? I may be one screw-twist away from triggering a message summoning Obi-wan Kenobi for help! He may be our only hope . . .

Will this Smith type again? I can’t say for sure, but I’m learning all I can and not giving up yet!

As Matsuo Basho might well have written: "Typewriter yo-- Aa, typewriter yo-- Typewriter yo!"

As Matsuo Basho might well have written:
“Typewriter ya–
Aa, typewriter ya–
Typewriter ya!”

 

Painting the Royal

So here’s the new paint job:

The Royal, with the new paint job

The Royal, newly painted

When I got it, the Royal was a dingy gray with decades of discoloration that wouldn’t scrub off:

Before

Before

I decided to leave the side access panels and the front facing their original color.

Royal, newly repainted

Royal, newly repainted

This typewriter is a joy to type on. It’s an elite pitch with a very light touch control. I explored the possibility of taking it all apart for painting, which led to a good interior cleaning. After messing around with it for awhile, I decided I’d better not try to take it apart. I had the audacity to brush-paint this marvelous old device!

Maybe it's easier to see the side panels here.

Maybe it’s easier to see the side panels here.

Since the keys are a deep forest green, at Julie’s suggestion I went with a Rustoleum paint called “Gloss Leather Brown.” I like it!

I resisted the temptation to touch up the old logo on the back, though I gave it an ornamental border.

I resisted the temptation to touch up the old logo on the back, though I gave it an ornamental border.

Royal! Splendid typing machine!

 

Cleaning the “Silent 8”: History, Imagination, and Inspiration

Little by little, in breaks from checking galley proofs, I’ve had the joy of cleaning up this beautiful octogenarian typewriter, which brings our “fleet” up to five:

L C Smith #8

L C Smith #8

This was a miraculous find on eBay, being sold by a nice couple in Gibsonia who acquired it at an estate auction. I was stunned to find this machine in good condition so close to home and at the price they were asking!

The L C Smith #8 11, a glorious survivor of the past

The L C Smith #8 11, a glorious survivor of the past

According to the Typewriter Database, this particular machine was built in 1935, a mere ten years after the Smith-Corona merger. When this wonder came out of the factory, my Aunt Ruth was nine.

The keys in February light

The keys in February light

Although it was in remarkable shape for its age, it required a lot of cleaning up, which I greatly enjoyed! If only one could make a career of it in this day and age, I would love to learn the trade of typewriter repair! This model is sensibly built with side and back panels that unscrew, allowing access to the insides . . . and it was like going into a shadowy, grand old building, locked up for perhaps eighty-one years, its parts grimed with the dust and cigarette smoke of the decades (for pretty much all offices of the past were filled with clouds of cigarette smoke). I had my hands full with the cleaning, so alas, I didn’t get pictures of the process, but here are my tools:

Rags, rubbing alcohol, long-handled paintbrushes, and a brush from Trader Horn designed for golf equipment: wire bristles on one side, fiber bristles on the other.

Rags, rubbing alcohol, long-handled paintbrushes, and a brush from Trader Horn designed for golf equipment: wire bristles on one side, fiber bristles on the other.

See that dirt on the rags? It’s all from this typewriter — the gunk of old oil and dust, and the brown of cigarette fumes. I also used various screwdrivers and Q-tips, and Endust to polish up the outside surfaces when I had it all cleaned and put back together.

Key bars

Key bars and the platen

Look at that nice, clean “smile”! The key bars were all dingy brown. I cleaned them all one by one with the alcohol and rags — the letter slugs and the entire lengths of the bars, everywhere I could reach. Now they’re bright metal-color again!

Unsticking the keys

Unsticking the keys

When I acquired the typewriter, the X key was sticky. It would go up but wouldn’t come back down without a nudge. It simply needed some cleaning from the machine’s underbelly. I had a moment of worry after I’d cleaned everything with the alcohol, because suddenly more of the keys were beginning to stick! But I figured out the problem: I’d cleaned away the old grease, so now clean metal was rubbing clean metal. Small amounts of sewing machine oil, applied with a Q-tip, soon had all the keys moving with lovely smoothness. For the mechanically-minded, I’m sure this is no big deal, but I was very proud of myself. I got this amazing old writer’s friend gleaming and working well again!

The "Silent 8"

The “Silent 8”

It seems the LC Smith #8 was known as “the Silent 8.” I’m not sure why. It sounds like a typewriter — a most pleasant sound, but chattery. But perhaps I can’t hear the silence because my ears are so attuned to the purr of computer keys. It would be interesting to hear other typewriters of the thirties. Were they noisier?

Rubbing alcohol does a fine job on cleaning a platen, too. Like new!

Rubbing alcohol does a fine job on cleaning a platen, too. Like new!

My only misstep was losing one of the tiny, tiny screws from a back plate somewhere inside the machine. Try as I might, I never did recover it. It doesn’t seem to be interfering with any of the workings.

Face-to-face with history

Face-to-face with history

That top row of keys is a decimal tabulator.

L C Smith #8 11, 1935

L C Smith #8 11, 1935

I wonder what work has been done on this machine over the years. What letters were written? Did it serve in a business office? Was it used in a home? Has it belonged to other writers? I wonder if it’s written any stories in its 81 years . . .

"The old that is strong does not wither, / Deep roots are not reached by the frost."

“The old that is strong does not wither, / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

At any rate, it’s fascinating how the lines of existence intersect. This machine has been somewhere for the half-century of my life. It was a mere 31 years old when I was born. Was it in regular use then, or already in a closet, on a shelf? What was it doing when I took my first steps, when I graduated from high school, when I was immersed in Koine Greek . . . when I went to Japan? What was it doing when I got my first computer, sold my first book, packed up my parents’ forty years of shared belongings? Or when my life intersected Julie’s? And where will it go when I am walking the streets of glory?

Back view: it occurs to me now how typewriters of this sort, with their shape and color, influenced my grimalkin ships in THE FIRES OF THE DEEP.

Back view: it occurs to me now how typewriters of this sort, with their shape and color, influenced my grimalkin ships in THE FIRES OF THE DEEP.

Did this typewriter labor toward economic recovery after the Depression? Did it send letters to soldiers who fought in World War II or Korea or Vietnam? Did it giddily report that men had walked on the moon? Did it mostly (like most of us) just put in its honest and humble days filling out forms, doing nonprofit work, enrolling students, registering patients, doing taxes, preparing for meetings, making it possible for people to do things? Now the L C Smith has come to live here, in a home where it’s respected and cherished. And yes, it will have work to do again, along with its four companions!

My first model of a grimalkin ship, built in about 1992-3.

My first model of a grimalkin ship, built in about 1992-3.

Am I right? My grimalkins are pretty much flying typewriters!

Typewriter

Typewriter

This L C Smith #8 is very close to the model we had at home when I was growing up (Aunt Ruth’s first typewriter), so it was part of my world, handling it, always seeing it in the warm shadows of our house, among the books.

My second model of the grimalkin APOLLYON, made mostly of balsa wood (and to scale with the ship as it appears in the book)

My second model of the grimalkin APOLLYON, made mostly of balsa wood (and to scale with the ship as it appears in the book) — this is a view of the stern. Note the crew members on the war deck (manning the catapults) and the aft deck.

Why should it not morph, in my imagination, into a balloon-ship, cruising through the deep-earth passages of the Hurlim world?

Smith again

Smith again: see? Endust! Even with its battle scars, this machine is lookin’ good!

I guess I haven’t changed much. In that summer of 1992 or 1993, I had to build two models of the Apollyon before I could get down to the actual work of writing that book. Now, in 2016, cleaning up this dear old machine seems an essential task before I can finish my galley proofs and line-edits. Writing is a chord, not a single line of notes. All these things must be done, even those that would seem idle time-wasting to some.

The first APOLLYON model: this was made partly out of some fancy old furniture from the basement.

The first APOLLYON model: this was made partly out of some fancy old furniture from the basement.

In the photo above, that arch of the aft deck is reminiscent of the typewriter’s arc of key arms. Never realized it until now!

The typewriter's knowing grin

The typewriter’s knowing grin

To quote Norman Maclean: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

First APOLLYON

First APOLLYON

So it is. The past is the present, and the order of things is ultimately meaningless. The real things, the best things, are not bound by time.

The "Silent 8"

The “Silent 8”

Here’s my mom, writing in “Old Oak Road”:

Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time — /. . ./

From the places where they played — /. . ./

Children living by my side

Read the messages they found

From the half-forgotten times . . .

Second APOLLYON

Second APOLLYON

Use the gifts. Tell and enjoy the stories. Love the people. Treat creation well. Clean old treasures up, and you may learn the most unexpected things.

Okay — back to the galley proofs, so that — Lord willing — you can read A Green and Ancient Light in June!