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The Light Touch / Just my type: Clacking the way to my future

Published 7:07 am, Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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The typewriter, what passed for modern technology in the 1950s, was the bane of my existence. My mother referred to it as an instrument, much like a piano, which, once perfected, could change my life. And, like the piano, the typewriter required practice.

I was content banging out school papers with two fingers, but according to my mom, a girl who wasn't a proficient typist was doomed. Typing was a skill that would hold me in good stead, the ticket to my future no matter what my career path would be.

"Girls who type get the best jobs," she said. "Girls who type have something to fall back on," a concept I never quite grasped. I feared I was in great danger of plummeting into a dark abyss lest I learned how to navigate my fingers around a keyboard. My grandmother further echoed her enthusiasm: "Girls who type can become secretaries."

To my mind, the least glamorous occupation lay in secretarial pools consisting of girls in angora sweaters and beehive hairdos, who sat on their rickety chairs, rising only to fetch coffee for disgruntled bosses, who allowed them a half-hour lunch break before another barrage of papers were flung on their desks. Back when I was a kid, those who typed made it into corporate America, a place that held a mysterious allure for members of the fast-fingers club.

But at 15, I had loftier aspirations. I dreamed of jobs of a more exciting bent: Ballet dancing, figure skating, acting -- or perhaps becoming a writer, the latter of which my mother said I would never achieve without the aid of a typewriter. So, I was sent off to typing class in preparation for my unknown future.

Adding to my adolescent torments was the typing instructor, Mrs. Wermes, a robust woman in her 60s who typed 100 words per minute, barked orders and wore a perpetual look of disgust on her face. She frowned at students such as I, who attended class under duress and couldn't care less about typewriters. In that way, I was an anomaly to the other girls who were serious-minded. They viewed typing lessons as a privilege, guaranteeing their future success.

Tucked away on those Saturday mornings in that musty room at the YMCA, slivers of sunlight broke through the torn, stained window shades where I longingly wished I were anywhere else. There I sat, surrounded by the clack-clacks of the keys against the white paper. The clacks came faster each week as the students' speeds increased. Some who started out at 25 words per minute soon moved up to 40, 50 and 60 wpm. By week three, a girl named Adrianne Stone, who wore braces and red pigtails, clacked out 75 wpm, much to the delight of Mrs. Wermes, who presented her with the gift of a typewriter ribbon, indicating her admiration for a job well done.

I viewed the typewriter as a hungry beast waiting to be fed as words fell magically into place, and sentences evolved into paragraphs. My "beast" was an old manual Olympia scratched from years of retaliations from frustrated students like myself.

Each class lasted for two unrelenting hours, when we were then released back into the world -- a welcome reprieve from the sound of the whirring air conditioner that emitted droplets of dank air, rattling our papers and making it even harder to type.

"Leaps and bounds, girls," Mrs. Wermes would shout out to spur us on, nodding approvingly at those who had succeeded, and glowering at others, like me, who she said had an affliction equated with laziness and a bad attitude. And yet, at the end, I managed to clack up to 65 wpm that might not get me into a secretarial pool, but was enough to facilitate making it through my term papers.

One afternoon, I stopped by my father's office. His secretary, Sylvia Warsaw, was banging out legal briefs on a fancy Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Her pointy stiletto fingernails rose high above the keys as she typed with the stubs of her fingers to protect her painted talons. Her hair was rolled up in a chignon and she wore too much rouge as she sat there, snapping her gum in time to the clacks. Suddenly, out of her mouth came a loud, "Damn!" Sylvia had sustained a mini-crisis: A broken nail.

"This typewriter is ruining my life," she bemoaned, inspecting the chipped enamel while she went to retrieve a bottle of lacquer to repair the damage. "Take it from me," she said. "Being a secretary is one lousy job."

After that, I held Sylvia in highest esteem. She had renewed my faith that life still existed beyond the typewriter. Even though I ended up with a Certificate of Recognition, which Mrs. Wermes reluctantly handed over with a look of disdain, I never did become a typist of distinction.

However, despite being a flagrant typing deviant, I did become a writer. I can still be found typing long into the night, making excellent progress with my two well-worn and very calloused fingers that manage to get the deadlines met, the columns done, and the novels written. And yet I know, no matter how illustrious my history of achievements, Mrs. Wermes would hardly be impressed.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer whose "The Light Touch" columns have appeared on alternate Wednesdays. Beginning in July, she will introduce a new column, "In Other Words," which will appear on alternating Fridays.