Museum of Writing Machines

Right from the first waters, I felt a need to expostulate upon certain abstruse questions that would set to rest once and for all mysteries troubling to our philosophers. As I had not yet been born, this led to my insistent drumming on my mother’s placenta. A futile exercise. Had she understood Morse Code, I doubt such a feckless woman would have appreciated such matters, and I would learn, later, my enthusiasm only caused my father to slip from the bed breaking three ribs.

As a mewling baby not quite ten months old, I showed considerable industry forming words. Alphabetical blocks proved too primitive for those feverish visions that clung to me like the glassy shards of a dream—or to express my dislike for that milk formula which was causing me such gastrointestinal distress.

For a while I experimented with various modes of communication: letters cut from magazines and newspapers and glued to stationary, stationary I sent to our local newspaper. My early literary efforts met with lavish praise and one rather embarrassing visit from the police.

By the age of three I happened upon the expedient of melting down my lead soldiers into letters. I had linotype in mind. Though I tried everything—melted crayons, food coloring, tinctures of iodine—I could not discover a durable ink.

My very first typewriter, an old black Underwood, loomed large as an upright piano. Upon the Underwood I wrote some of my greatest works. Unfortunately, these early musings are no longer extant; I preserve no memory of them as I had just entered kindergarten and had not yet learned to read.

My second typewriter was a sky blue Royal. It boasted showy lines, not unlike the chrome-finned Chevy Bel Air of the day, but clanked like a bottling factory. I owe to the Royal’s sticky “s”, which locked up the carriage, my overcoming a rather embarrassing lisp.

My third typewriter, a Remington portable, had a key action as fast as a hired gun. During my troubled adolescence, my unhappily married parents were given to hurling insults at each other. It was upon this anodized gray machine that I learned the art of transcription.  My discovery that their recriminations had little to do with me led to my packing bed roll, toothbrush, and typewriter and leaving home.

I did a stint in the service as a sonar specialist on the S.S.N. Atlantis, a skill that earned me the realization that I was not alone. I would discover that this longing to communicate was discoverable in the distant keening of whales.

I wondered for years from city to city, studied at notable universities, had a fling with a soon to be famous actress. Unprepared for such an unglamorous match, she bolted to New York City, taking with her my Remington and several promising manuscripts.

I bought my next typewriter, an Olivetti Lettera, in a dust-moted Shady Side store that smelled of machine oil and mold.  While my significant other completed her certificate in higher education, I wondered from room to room in the Cathedral of Learning.

That I raised such a disturbing clamor among antiquity’s most learned men caused her to abandon me, very practically, for a locksmith with keys that opened every door.

There followed years of heartbreak in which I flirted with every manner of writing machine: typewriters with erasable ribbons, whirring motors, exchangeable balls, resident memory, LEDs.

None satisfactory, I gave up typewriters and developed a near fatal addiction to rapidograph pens. I scratched out laments, fitful and funereally dark.  I earning a reputation as a self-slasher and was easily recognized during this, my blue period, for the ink stains on my white Oxford shirt.

When I finally came to my senses, I vowed I would make a contribution to the human enterprise, if ever so small. I undertook the study of computer languages. For my thesis I devised a program in FORTRAN that catalogued all the words for “heavenly consolation.” This helped no one. FORTRAN soon became as dead as Latin; machines capable of reading IBM 80 cards are now extinct.

I launched my career at the advent of the personal computer, a career utterly unremarkable for my being part of that vast army, digitalizing and disseminating information at such a pace it would soon displace all habitable corners of the Milky Way. Cleverly, I learned to program a thousand Mondays and earned an early retirement.

I had intended in my leisure, at long last, with unflagging dedication, to express those shadowy intimations of truth. Unfortunately, given the exponential growth of information, truth, by then, had lost its cachet.

Instead, I collect word machines: stainless steel, Swiss- or Italian- or American-made; apple green and brown and black; anodized and metallic grey; spring- gravity- and motor-operated; slotted with transportable memory and giant periwinkle screens.

They rest mutely on marble plinths, dusty relics memorializing that brief moment when monks wrote rubrics in blood and the human spirit still illuminated the written word.

Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun, and other magazines, Len Messineo is a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and his stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. His short fictions are an occasional feature on PBS affiliate WXXI’s Salmagundi, and he teaches at Writers and Books of Rochester.

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