Old typewriters tap into memories

April 9 would have been my father’s 100th birthday.
When he died seven years ago, I realized that many of my strongest memories of him involved writing, especially the actual process of typing, which seemed central to his identity.
It feels right to be typing out my memories of him. Of course, he’d have been pounding the keys a lot harder: He spent a half-century using well-worn machines with no power assists. But I like doing what he did, in my own way.
Mitchell V. Charnley began covering the waterfront for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1921. He eventually moved into magazines and then, in the ’30s, to college teaching at the University of Minnesota, a passion that stayed with him well into the 1980s.
Over the years his students included giants such as Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner and a horde of less-well-known journalists. Hundreds remained devoted to him through the decades; when they’d get together they’d all brag about the times he flunked them.
He also wrote a lot of books, from sports books to biographies and histories for kids to journalism books.
And he wrote floods of letters. When Mom died three years after he did, we found a trove of his earliest letters to her, wonders of humor and expression and affection that he’d banged out on copy paper — the cheap paper that vanished from newspapers only when typewriters did — with lines of black XXXXs through phrases that didn’t live up to his standards.
A lot of my early memories of my dad involve typewriters, especially a big, old, black Royal desk model with old-fashioned round keys and mostly exposed works that clattered noisily as he typed.
He would put the typewriter on the dining room table, sit squarely in front of it and start hammering. You could tell when Dad was typing from anywhere in the house; from upstairs, it would be a distant thunder, but if you were in the same room, you could feel it vibrate through your feet.
Dad and his big old typewriter got involved with my first newspaper, a mimeographed sheet put together for a junior-high English class. (The class was taught by one of Dad’s devoted ex-students; they were all over Minnesota.)
I drew the chore of typing a couple of pages of the paper on those blue mimeograph stencils you had to punch through and correct with smelly fluid that filled the errors imperfectly, if at all.
He saw that I was having a tough time, and soon he stepped in and set the typewriter to whapping away.
When the paper came out, the pages I and other students (or their parents) had typed were dim, smudged and hard to read.
Dad’s, on the other hand, were crisp, bold, clear and, of course, error-free.
We had many typewriters through the years; particularly memorable was a poisonous-green little Olivetti portable with the worst touch in the history of keyboards. Striking its keys was like trying to push your finger through a foam-rubber pillow.
Dad was devoted to it; I always suspected he really liked it because it was colorful and Italian — and because he could hit the keys really hard without punching holes in the paper. After his third or fourth “retirement” from the University, I helped him write the fourth edition of “Reporting,” his very successful basic textbook.
He contributed the ethical underpinnings of journalism and most of the fundamentals about how to write good newspaper stories. I updated a lot of stuff about how newspapers worked in the ’60s and ’70s, often with some teasing: “Dad! This typical’ newsroom comes from 1923!”
We did the book together on typewriters, though by 1978, my newspaper was computerized and I found the typewriter clumsy and slow.
Though my sister and I never were able to persuade him to try a computer, Dad did venture into the modern world: He had a series of electric typewriters, which he regularly battered into whimpering submission.
Over the years, I became more aware of the product of all that hammering. In his last decade, apparently along with half of the western world, I was the happy recipient of a bale of his correspondence.
Long letters, short notes, clippings with a sentence or two typed in the margins, comments on news, journalists, family, travel, the university, people, politics, woodworking … witty or serious, but never solemn, they were the product of an inquisitive, questing and always excited mind.
Dad’s last typewriter is a Smith-Corona electric, a wonderful, modern machine that replaced the old Royal’s clatter and bells with subdued clicks and electronic beeps. It had a button that instantly expunged a word or phrase, but he frequently ignored it in favor of more satisfying lines of black XXXXXXXs.
But he’d never have taken the next step, to a computer. You can’t stick a clipping into a computer and type a comment on the margin. And the black XXXXXXXs just don’t look the same.

Blair Charnley is a University and Daily alumnus. He welcomes comments via e-mail to [email protected]
Copyright 1998, The Orange County Register. Reprinted by permission.