Editor’s note: Longtime Chronicle columnist Bill Moeller occasionally submits columns from his archives. This commentary was first published in 2014.
I was just thinking how important tactile impressions are to us, even in this day and age where machines seem to do most of the touching for us. This thought came to me as I sat down at my keyboard to wait for columnar inspiration to ooze its way into my frontal lobe.
There are so many advantages to composing on a computer, compared to the way we used to do it: correcting mistakes without using an eraser, making extra copies without smudging our fingers with carbon paper, cutting and pasting without resorting to scissors and a paste pot; the list goes on and on. Still there’s something missing that makes old nostalgia buffs such as me lean back and heave a sad sigh.
I’m referring to an experience that our grandchildren will never know: putting words onto paper through the use of an old square, cast-iron Underwood No. 5 typewriter. If you’ve never even seen one, try watching any old movie about newspaper reporters. The movie “Front Page” would give you a good idea. You can never experience what it was like to use one, though. Andy Rooney typed his TV comments on one up until almost the end of his career, but then he’s the sort of maverick who would.
When the Army decided that I should become a script writer at an Armed Forces Radio Station in Sapporo, Japan, that was the model on which I developed my four-finger claw typing technique. Come to think of it, that’s the method I still use today. Hey, it works for me.
The Underwood No. 5 was a more forgiving instrument than today’s keyboard. If you changed your mind in the middle of a keystroke, you merely had to halt your finger in mid-stroke and you’d stop the letter before it struck the page. Then there was that satisfied feeling you got when the key actually struck the hard rubber roller, the feedback through your fingertips letting you know that, yes, one more letter had been imprinted in whatever it was you were writing. Typing while angry was as therapeutic as kneading bread dough.
This whole piece is turning into another example of what I call “The Law of Something or Other,” namely that for each advancement in technology there’s invariably a corresponding loss in human experience as well.
I’ve said this before, but it needs to be repeated: Emails that are invariably lost forever cannot take the place of written correspondence that is saved, gathered together with similar examples and perhaps tied with a pretty ribbon.
Another advantage of typewriters over computer printers is that a new ribbon used to cost a heckuva lot less than a new ink cartridge, and it lasted a heckuva lot longer!
A pal from grade school and I still correspond the old-fashioned way. He uses a still-functioning old portable typewriter and I use one of those new-fangled electric ones. (That’s only because I haven’t located one of the old Underwood No. 5 models. Does anyone know where a workable specimen might be available?)
I used one of those when I found myself writing hometown newspaper releases in the Public Information Office in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1949 and 1950. My acknowledged shortcomings at that occupation is probably what caused me to be declared surplus and transferred to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team and introduced to the never-to-be-forgotten sound of Korean and Chinese bullets passing far too closely to my head for comfort.
That’s when I sure wished I’d learned to type better.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at email@example.com.