As I listened to friends exchanging high school memories recently, some of my own emerged from the dusty past, among them recollections about my very first typewriter. Well, yours, technically, the one you brought home from the Royal McBee plant where you spent your days putting them together on the assembly line. It was tucked into a brown leatherette carrying case, the whole gizmo light enough that even at 85 pounds I could hoist it myself. So I hauled the alien contraption up to that old desk I shared with Paula --13 and apparently not interested in it-- and there it sat, mute but as challenging as a gauntlet.
Typewriters did not come with bouncing balls or even electric power at that time. They had manual carriage returns and keys that required finger strength as well as dexterity. Never comfortable with mechanical objects, I approached it cautiously and with low expectations of my ability to master its rows of metal hammers. That is, until the typing manual arrived compliments of Mrs. Beezley, an old gray-haired neighbor lady—was she even 45?-- who taught what was referred to then as “business” courses at Draughon’s Business College, a place we understood at St. Agnes to be somewhat akin to a home for unwed mothers. You only went there if, shame, oh shame, you were not college material.
Once I opened the book and toured the domain of “a-s-d-f” and “j-k-l-semicolon,” I got hooked on my own ambition like a brand-new junkie. Determined to conquer this mysterious chunk of metal, I apprenticed myself to your typewriter and attended it like a slave. During the day I poked at it and memorized finger patterns. At night, just before nodding off, I set my fingers in motion as though they were ballerina legs practicing for the “Nutcracker Suite,” a process I later referred to as “learning to type in my sleep.” And it worked. In a few months, I was a typist, in control, if not yet perfect control, of this new and exciting writing tool.
By the time my schedule announced “Typing 101,” I was able to race through class like a marathon runner, using the time the other students spent mapping the keyboard to push for speed as if I were training for the Olympics.
I liked to type. It was mindless. I could think one thing and do another, and I found the efficiency of that arrangement irresistible. When Sr. Rosalee kicked off the new after-school creative writing class and opened the door for me, I was already near 80 accurate words per minute. That’s when typing, for me, became a bloodsport.
I sat at my desk for most of Sunday afternoon, typing and laughing and typing and laughing. I’m sure you remember because dad, who rarely noticed me unless he happened upon an opportunity for some creative punishment, asked you what I was doing in there. Whatever you told him, the truth was that I was writing a story, a very funny story, for Sr. Rosalee’s first assignment. Sadly, no copy of this parody of my classmates, as inseparable-as-Siamese-triplets, has survived, and our discussion will have to proceed without a manuscript to authenticate it.
What led me to focus on the three as story material, I am unsure. Perhaps jealousy. I thought of them as privileged, though in retrospect I suppose only one really was. And that one, Jackie, was so physically unattractive that, to be kind, I should have been more pitying than jealous. She was a girl who inspired people to look her straight in the eye to assure themselves they were not put off by her homeliness. But she was also an only child, reason enough for me, with my four siblings, three of them younger, to be envious. And Jackie’s parents had a thriving construction business, which translated meant she had all the stuff-- records, clothes, a car-- that existed only as fantasies in my world.
So skinny Jackie, Pam the plump blonde, and doe-eyed
Mary Ann became the stars of my first, and last, fairytale. And I must have done an adequate job of describing them because when they latched onto the story, they recognized themselves. Paper copies of anything were not easily obtained in those days, and I assume some traitor from Creative Writing generously shared hers with the trio. Motivated perhaps by their own jealousy—it was a really good fairytale--one of them (or, more likely, given their tendency to do everything together, all three) surreptitiously placed a copy of my masterpiece on the desk of the school superintendent, a priest with the unfortunate name of “Fr. Winkleman,” whom I had also immortalized as “Wee Willie Winklewoman,” the fairy of my fairytale.
Like political prisoners let out of jail, many of my memories of the events that followed have slinked away. But when the fallout arrived, I recall vividly that it slammed me hard into the barbed wire of my Catholic school enclosure, and I bled through the remainder of Senior year. Without a clue, I had stumbled into a raging war between the priests and the nuns of St. Agnes High, the first version I was to witness of the struggle for power between male and female clergy that continues to this day, albeit with different players and in different settings. In any event, Fr. Winkleman was beyond fury, and the combative climate only added fire to his flame. He wanted me expelled. His assumptions, first that I was targeting him with my “Winklewoman” and that my reference to “fairy” in a fairytale suggested I was calling him gay, a word not even in my vocabulary in 1964, tended to puff out his anger like smoke pulsing from a winter chimney. The Sisters of Loretto, however, had my back. When he told them, in whatever words he used, that I was questioning his sexual proclivities—a man who wasn’t even supposed to have sexual proclivities—
Sr. Rosalee countered, “Father, I’ve heard of queers and homosexuals, but, really, Father, fairies?” We Catholics lived at that time in the shadow of Vatican II, and Fr. Winkleman, flexing his less-than-toned clerical muscles, proclaimed, “This is going to Rome.”
Overnight, I was famous. The parents of my classmates began to call my parents to inquire what was happening.
Fr. Ernstman, my junior-year religion teacher and a man I disrespected and challenged relentlessly in class, came to my rescue, arguing with Fr. Winkleman against kicking me out and remarking that I was one of the brightest stars to light up his teaching career. I assumed he was confusing intelligence with the way I pounced on his lectures like a feral cat and clawed at his teachings on infallible truth. Fortunately for me, he knew nothing of the bloody battles at home where I was trained, had no idea of the guerilla tactics I had had to master to survive. Had he an inkling, he would have been terrified of my instinct to kill at the slightest provocation and most assuredly have fed me to the lions. But though I thought no better of him for it, he didn’t, and I graduated with the rest of my class, including the three nearly famous characters of my fairytale.
In retrospect I am heartily sorry for introducing all this contention into your life. Where did you find room for it with your full-time factory job and the cooking and cleaning and sewing, the neediness of the four of us still at home and the endless ranting and raving of our undiagnosed father? I’ve no memory of your being put out with me for adding another storm to your cyclonic world, confiscating the typewriter or punishing me in any other way. I like to think that when I walked across the stage at graduation, passing back and forth like a parade of one before the bishop (recently returned from Rome) and Fr. Winkleman and Sr. Rosalee to accept my academic prizes and to deliver the valedictory address that it somewhat compensated for the squall of that year. Neither of us knew then what the future looked like, that with all my early signs of promise I would crash once outside the gates of Catholic high school, spend years rehabilitating, and make a meager living behind one of the typewriters you built at Royal McBee. I like to think that at least for that one day we were both just proud.