I found, and started playing, an interesting typing game on line the other day. The reason why I started playing the game will be revealed in the natural course of this article, but with the finding and playing of this game I started thinking about my personal, evolving relationship with the printed word.
That relationship started in the first years of my life when my mom and I lived with her parents while my dad was serving on the USS Logan (AP-196) an attack transport ship in the Pacific during WWII. Each evening my grandfather would tuck me in to bed and read me a chapter from one of Howard R. Garis’s Uncle Wiggily books. While I liked the stories themselves, what I loved the most were the endings like this:
“Now, in case I see a green rose in bloom on the pink lilac bush, I’ll tell you next about Bully making a water wheel.”
“Now in case the little boy next door doesn’t take our baby carriage and make an automobile of it, I’ll tell you next about Bawly and Uncle Wiggily.”
“Now if it should happen that I don’t lose my watch down the inkwell so I can see when it’s time for my pussy cat to have his warm soup, I’ll tell you in the story after this about Bully’s and Bawly’s big jump.”
“Now in case that alligator doesn’t chase after me, and chew up my typewriter to make mincemeat of it for the wax doll, I’ll tell you in the next story about Grandpa Croaker digging a well.”
Of course the next story would be about Grandpa Croaker digging a well, or Bully’s and Bawly’s big jump or whatever the cliff-hanger ending was about.
I was so totally enthralled by these stories I vividly remember gathering up some paper and crayons determined to write my own book. Then, as I set out on this project it occurred to me that, at age four, I didn’t know how to write even a single letter let alone an entire book. No matter how brilliant my story might be, no one would ever understand the scribblings on the paper. Hell, seconds after scrawling out a line I didn’t know what it meant. So the dream was deferred.
When I started school I whizzed through Dick and Jane in about a week and started to devour just about everything I could get my hands on. I remember that in the second grade my teacher asked me how I learned to use commas. Well, DUH, if you read books you see them everywhere.
My father, back from the war, was a voracious reader. Books were everywhere and since he didn’t approve of comic books I had to read what was available. By third grade I had a library card and in the sixth grade I was tested as having the reading level of a college freshman. The only thing I thought strange about that was I thought all my classmates should be reading at that level, too. My mom, though she always said she enjoyed reading didn’t do much of it. After all, she had a husband and five boys to look after. What she did in lieu of reading was knit. She was a veritable loom. A Madam Defarge without the guillotine.
(An aside regarding my mother and her knitting. She made wonderful things. Well in to my fifties I still had sweaters she had made for me when I was in high school <and I was still of a size that they fit me>. Later in life I married a girl who only read one book <Valley of the Dolls> in the seven years we were married, but she was a seamstress. She made almost all of her own clothes. She could look at a dress in a magazine and then sit down and make one for herself. In their spare time both she and my mom created things that were useful and lasted for years while my father and I had stacks of books to show for our wasted hours.
I’ll never forget the evening when I was twelve years old and watching television sprawled out on the living room floor when she put her knitting aside, got out of her rocking chair and said, “come with me.” I followed her out to the back of the house where the laundry was located. “This is how you use the washer,” she said going through the procedure. “This is how the dryer works.” Then, setting up the ironing board she proceeded with, “This is how you iron a shirt,” and “this is how you iron a pair of pants.” And that was the last time she ever did it for me, and as each of my brothers hit the magic age of 12 they, too, learned the mysteries of the laundry room. There was absolutely nothing wrong with any of this and I firmly believe all mothers should do the same thing with their sons. It was so funny when I went away to college the first time I went to the laundromat to do my clothes. There I was putting my whites in one machine and my colored things in another while all around me were a bunch of guys reading the backs of boxes of laundry soap trying to figure things out.)
It’s a shame that boys weren’t required to take typing classes in high school. Almost all of the girls took typing and the ones destined to become “secretaries” took shorthand as well. On reflection all these years later both typing and shorthand should have been required courses for those of bound for college. The typing for the term papers we were destined to write with all their ibids and op cits, and shorthand for note taking in lectures.
I got my first typewriter, a portable Smith-Corona my senior year in high school and worked out a typing system that was to serve me for the next four decades. I didn’t learn how to “touch type.” I found it impossible to get a good, crisp impression on a sheet of paper with those keys that required the use of the little fingers. Instead what I pieced together worked this way: I used the little finger of my left hand on the Shift key and my index and middle fingers on the other left hand side of the QWERTY keyboard. My right index and middle fingers found the keys on the right side of the keyboard while my thumb worked the Space bar and my little finger hit the Shift key when a capital letter was required from the left side of the board. Even when I acquired an electric typewriter and pressing the letter “Q” no longer required brute force I didn’t modify my typing style. Any I remember when I got a job where I got to use an IBM Selectric. Man, did I think that was tits, that little ball spinning around. State of the Art technology.
That system served me well through college, a short stint in the Public Information Office of the USS Lake Champlain (CVS 39). It worked for me as a general assignment reporter on the Cape Cod Standard-Times, as assistant editor of the Inland Printer/American Lithographer magazine, as an advertising copywriter and hospital public relations hack and a hundred or so freelance magazine articles. It is interesting to note that the reporters at the two news rooms I worked in (as a copy boy <yes, there was such a creature> at the Miami Herald and at the aforementioned Standard-Times) generally pounded out their stories with only three or four fingers. If you see old news reel footage of the likes of Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney you’ll see them typing like that. The only people I ever saw “touch typing” in a newspaper office were the secretaries.
Despite my typing style, I was fairly fast and could pound out about 30 or 35 words per minute, but I was, of course, hampered with certain work that required me to look at a book or some sort of printed material and then type out what was necessary. I had to stop typing, look at the book and then back at the keyboard when I needed to type.
About 15 years ago I bought my first computer. It was then that I decided to learn how to “touch type” since you could buy a program that would teach you how to do it. Of course I modified the learning curve by not bothering to learn the keys with the numbers and symbols since I rarely use them in writing anyway and I’ll never have a job that requires a blinding typing speed anyway. With a little practice and playing the typing games when there wasn’t anything interesting to watch on the electronic cyclops my typing speed was pretty consistently in the low 40 wpm range and I no longer needed to look at the keyboard in order to type.
Recently, being bored, I looked up some online typing games to play and one has grabbed me. It’s a lot of fun. It’s called “Type Down.” The object of the game is to prevent a rising column of 20 words from reaching the top of the page. When you finish a group of words the next group’s speed increases and three groups represent a level. When you complete a level the next group’s words are longer and the speed is reset. Quite challenging. You can find it here…
One of my favorite New Orleans piano players was James Booker. Not only was he a great piano player, but he worked for a time for the City of New Orleans and was a champion typist which shouldn’t be too surprising since the typewriter is simply another kind of keyboard.