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Tuesday, March 31, 2015


My grandfather, as a young man rode a horse each September one hundred miles to his school in Watertown Connecticut, spending the night at two inns along the way. After a long life, he died the year men walked on the moon.

I remember with crystal clarity, him telling me that there was no greater joy than daydreaming, and letting the mind wander while sitting back and listening to the sound of of his horse's hooves on the dirt road.

Mason Whitlock, himself younger than my grandfather, was approaching a hundred when I took my little Olivetti in for a tune-up and new ribbon. The irony was that during my years at college, I never once needed a new typewriter. I changed ribbons myself, and cleaned the type with an old stiff brush.

When I returned Elm City to live, caught in that confused space brought on by the digital age, I found myself longing for the music and dance of typewriter keys.

Yes I miss the sentences that come to my brain when working on a typewriter. A percussive beats out one's commitment to a sentence. There's a jazzy rhythm, a machine beat, a machine gun beat. There's the slow clop clop, of an old work horse.

The typewriter was a percussive instrument, the melody and base instruments are the swim of ideas at the tip of one's brain. There's a beat for every mood, and feeling, every bit of description or dint of discipline. The beat kept thoughts in train, since it was not easy to drop back in and restructure one's ideas. The first draft required discipline and focus.

The mind raced, pounding on the dendritic telegraph keys of cerebral neurons, surveying the terrain of the rail-bed ahead, laying ties, driving spikes, keeping clear sight of the benchmark period in the distance, open to a diversion in root phrase or clause. When a line end was reached, the locomotive let out a release of steam, and brought the train to terminus with a 'bang' to the period key. The trill moment was the end of a musical phrase. The traveller, with scheduled music in mind for all connecting trains, got soon clattering away across the sonorous landscape with nary a care in the world.

It was a form of acrobatics. Yes it was writing, but also a workout. Posture mattered. At some point a particular piece of paper stayed behind as a fossil track, a recording. A skull. First drafts were akin to fresh rushes of a film. Modifications seemed beautiful, ugly, or impossible.

Language leapt into the air as a drumbeat accompaniment to the writer's deepest love. The ear became attuned to the truth of the rhythm. Sounding good? Or did it lack commitment?

Mr. Whitlock kept hours, in a second floor shop overlooking York Street, across from the Hall of Graduate Studies. Here are my notes from the day I visited him, in early 1993.


Why bother repairing the old? What sort of allegiance is owed to a non-functioning hunk of steel?

Of what significance is my stepping out of time to track this down old man, who repairs machines for a generation caught in their ways, bound to clunky precursors of another age? What bother, what cost? Why hold myself back against progress? I felt a tug of regret. Was I wasting time, indulging in flattery?

Whitlock rambled on. 'Classic little thing. No different than pen or pencil. Taken a lot of pounding. Hasn’t got the weight of say that Royal over there.' He gestured toward a heart sinking heap of ancient machines, elegant, but forgotten.

'What else is broken besides the shaft?'

'Margin release needs a clean. Some tender loving care. I’ll take it apart, clean it. Your carriage lock is broken. Can’t let you strip the escapement gears."


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