Saturday, December 27, 2014

Just My Type

The very first time I saw an IBM Selectric typewriter was in the front office of West Rome High School in late 1965. I had grown up around typewriters, both manual and electric, since Dad was a newspaperman, so I knew what typewriters sounded like. I had gone to the office for some routine errand (I was at West Rome Junior High that year, which was located on the south end of the same building that housed the high school), and while I was waiting, I heard an unfamiliar machine-gun sound. I thought that it might be the sound of the fastest typist in the world, so I looked in the direction of the sound and saw something I'd never seen before. The office clerk was typing, but nothing on the typewriter appeared to be moving--the carriage didn't even appear to be movable at all. I stepped closer, ignoring the fact that I was no treading into territory that should have been off limits to lowly seventh graders, and I saw the most amazing thing: a tiny ball, whirling and twirling at phenomenal speeds as it moved across the page, leaving typed letters in its wake.  I was in awe; I must have watched the typist for three or four minutes before she noticed that she had an audience. "What kind of typewriter is that?" I asked.

"Selectric," she said.

And I knew then and there that someday I would have to own a Selectric. That stationary carriage, that spinning typeball (yes, it was officially known as a type element, but I never heard anyone call it anything other than a typeball), that sleek futuristic-by-1960s-standards boat-anchor metal body, and that wonderful sound that made any typist sound ultra-proficient--if anyone could fall in love with a typewriter, then I had discovered typographic love at first sight.

The problem was, the Selectric was an incredible investment--over $500 in 1965 dollars, and holding that $500 to $600 price through most of the 1970s. My parents rarely paid much more than $500 for a used car at that time, so they certainly weren't going to spring for the cost of a Selectric.

But Gary Steele's parents... now that was a different story.

I've mentioned Gary before; he was my best friend through high school, and both he and I got into fandom at about the same time. In 1968, Gary and I both joined a couple of amateur press alliances (the most important of which, in our eyes, was Myriad, an apa begun by Stven Carlberg, of which we were both charter members), and while I was producing my apazines on a portable manual Remington or Dad's Rome News-Tribune Royal or Underwood typewriters, Gary somehow got a Selectric.

To be honest, I know how. Gary's mother was particularly doting on her only child, and she was more than willing to spoil him, even if that meant giving in to his entreaties and spending a small fortune of $500+ for a new Selectric. Emphasis on the "plus"—while old IBM pricelists show $520 or so as the price for a new Selectric at that time, Mrs. Steele repeatedly cited $700 as the price that they paid, and I believe her. It wouldn't be unusual for Riddle Office Supply, the only source for Selectrics in Rome in 1968, to have added dealer mark-up on the machine--and it's possible she bought a couple of extra typeballs at the same time. Any time the subject of the Selectric came up, though, she always referred to it as "that $700 typewriter," so I'm convinced that is indeed how much they paid. And this was a the same time that Mr. Steele was still driving a 1956 Chevrolet he had bought new!

My parents, however, were far less willing to give in to my whining, so no Selectric for me. From time to time, I used Gary's Selectric—we each had our own specific typeball to identify our fanzines (I believe that mine was Letter Gothic, although it may have been Prestige Elite while Gary used Letter Gothic).

It would be 1973 before Susan and I owned a Selectric. More specifically, we became the owners of a used Selectric II, which we bought  (along with four typeballs) from the now-defunct House of Typewriters in Marietta for $375. Bear in mind that I was in college in 1973, working part-time while Susan worked full-time, and together we earned about $9500 a year before taxes. Nevertheless, we managed to scrape together $375 in cash for a wide-carriage Selectric II, and we produced hundreds (maybe even thousands) of fanzine and apazine pages on that typewriter.

I got rid of that Selectric in the mid-1980s, selling it cheaply to a friend who needed it to do his apazines. I had a new Macintosh and was convinced that a computer eliminated my need for a Selectric. And for the most part, I was right. But need and want are different things.

In recent years, I've repeatedly thought how handy it would be to have a typewriter to do checks, envelopes, note cards, and other related items that don't print quickly and/or well on a ColorQube 8570 printer. There's a certain convenience to just rolling a piece of paper into a typewriter, turning it on, hitting a few keys, and being done.

I bought a Brother daisywheel typewriter while it was on sale, but it just wasn't the same. There's this aggravating lag—you hit a key, and there's a fraction of a second delay before the key strikes the paper. Type several letters quickly, and three or four keystrikes occur after you've finished typing. It's positively off-putting, and I frequently find myself worrying if I've mistyped something. Even worse, this lag actually encourages typos—apparently I rely on auditory feedback more than I realized!

Then today, this Selectric II came my way as a Christmas gift. It's used, of course, but in remarkably good shape for a forty-year-old machine—and its provenance includes an unusual link to my and Susan's past, as it turns out. (I've been asked by the seller not to go into too much detail in print, so I'll respect his wishes.)  I've tested it, putting it through its motions, and everything seems to be working fine. So now I once again own the world's best typewriter--and this time, I'm not letting it get away, computer technology notwithstanding!

And  today, when I watched that Selectric typeball in action, I remembered that day in the West Rome High School office when I was awestruck by my first vision of a Selectric... and it still seems just as incredible today as it was then!

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