Let’s talk about the relic that’s helped to bring us countless words of wisdom—in more than 144 characters at a time. Yes, today’s relic is the typewriter.
I still have the typewriter that got me through the final years of high school, then college—a Royal Sabre portable, complete with manual (it’s around somewhere, although the key to the typewriter case likely has gone missing). When I moved in 2003, I started to put it outdoors for the neighborhood scavengers, but couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. It was one of the most expensive gifts from my reluctant parents.
Why the Royal Sabre? I don’t remember where we bought it. We would have looked at discount stores like K-mart or perhaps Ames, where I’d picked out my Huffy Superstar 10-speed bicycle. We’d have looked at quality and price. My thrifty dad, who’d turned 16 in 1929, didn’t believe in throwing away good money on poor quality (or generic store brands, unless they’d proven themselves). Because of the store’s nature, there wouldn’t have been much of a selection. I don’t recall the price, but I’d guess about $80 to $90. (Incidentally, this is the price I remember for the Huffy Superstar.)
As a portable typewriter, the Royal Sabre was noisy. The keys striking the platen solidly made quite a racket, especially when a poor, erratic like me was in front of the keyboard. My bad habit of typing during the wee hours began in high school, when Mr. Verrault’s papers were due Monday morning. I’m embarrassed now to admit that, in a single-wide, 55-foot-long trailer, on Sunday nights/Monday mornings I was at it until after midnight. Forty years later I can’t tell you how late, but later than suited my early-to-bed, early-to-rise parents. Oddly, I don’t recall much criticism from them for keeping them up. (Of course, my dad could have slept through the Apocalypse.) If he were convinced something was necessary for my education and future independence, my dad would go along as best he could. Of course the procrastination wasn’t necessary—hence my guilty conscience 40 years later!
At college, I found many of my fellow students were more affluent and had electric models, which I considered decadent (I’d told my mother the same thing about electric can openers). I learned I had a fixed number of computer hours per quarter, but playing the text-based Adventure seemed easier than learning to write/type without a program. Although I had a vague idea about computers from Star Trek (for example, oddly computers sound like Nurse Chapel), in practice they were a new and mysterious beast to me.
Then, as now, typing was the last step in the writing process. At 3 a.m., I was writing the paper longhand in pencil on notebook paper in the dorm lounge. At 6 a.m., I was typing the pages slowly on the faithful Royal Sabre. At 9 a.m., I was finishing proofing and marking errors or retyping if needed. At 9:55 I was running madly up several flights of faux-Gothic stairs (or waiting impatiently for an elevator) to meet a 10 a.m. deadline. By then I would have had some wild hallucinations from fatigue and panic. The Royal Sabre would go back into its hard plastic case, and I would go to bed, too tired and wound up to sleep.
One of my college professors—I don’t recall which—sternly forbade the use of erasable typewriter paper. The finish made it easy to erase mistakes, but it was friendly to neither pen nor pencil. He was so adamant that he would threaten to knock your grade down or refuse the paper if you dared to defy his prohibition. For someone like me—with portable typewriter, subpar typing skills, no correction key, and no budget for different kinds of paper, this seemed excessive.
At some point my dad’s sister Marietta acquired a word processor, and several years after college so did I—a Smith-Corona. It had some built-in storage and some kind of external storage. When I first got it, I spent a happy afternoon playing with the different setups and type wheels, and practicing my typing speed. Suddenly it was dark, and I realized hours had passed while I was blissfully unaware. I used the Smith-Corona for resumés (for all the good that did me) and some correspondence. I’m not sure how I used it, just that it mostly supplanted the Royal Sabre. I don’t think I used it much because it was large and heavy, and I was lazy about getting it out and setting it up. It was also hard to write and edit on the three-line(?) screen.
When it was in semi-regular use, the Royal Sabre never needed repair that I recall. Help was hand nearby, however, if required. A-Active (named to appear at or near the top of telephone directory listings—another relic) Business Machines operated in Hyde Park, first on 57th Street, then at 1633 East 55th, where I remember passing it. I never went in, but the ancient Underwood(?) in the window would catch my eye. The last ad I could find in the Hyde Park Herald for A-Active is dated July 6, 1994—which was probably about the time I brought home my first computer, a Macintosh Classic II borrowed from work.
The Classic was followed by a series of Apple laptops, and the Smith-Corona word processor faded from favor as I was sucked into eWorld and America Online. When I moved in 2003, I debated with myself over keeping the Smith Corona. Unlike the Royal Sabre, it ended up in the alley, its fate to be forever unknown to me.
In a previous, early work life, sometimes I used a typewriter, likely an IBM Selectric model. When the proofing business was slow, I might help with filling out forms. If I remember right, one or two typewriters had been dedicated to and set up for this task. I don’t recall details (probably to preserve my emotional health), but I’m sure it was a lot of fun to line up everything and hit the magic correction key when the mind or finger slipped as they often did, or start over if things went way south—as they often did. I’m sure I saw the correction key as a technological marvel. I’m pretty sure computerization and automation of forms became big business as soon as introduced.
Every now and then (more then than now), I play with Hanxwriter, a typewrite simulator for Apple devices inspired by actor Tom Hanks. If you want to spend more money, you can “buy” typewriters from the “Signature Collection,” like Hanx Prime Select, Hanx 707 (the closest to the Royal Sabre’s shower stall green), Hanx Golden Touch, Hanx Del Sol, Hanx Electrix, or Hanx Matterhorn. Despite the “now and then” above, I finally bought all. Hanxwriter can save documents as PDFs only, not text—so, like typewritten pages, Hanxwriter pages are not easily edited. There’s something amusing about that.
The Royal Sabre weighs more than even heavy laptops, and from the start I thought the handle on the case was too flimsy for the weight. It’s stood the test of time, however, and as far as I know the typewriter would still work with a fresh ribbon. Surprisingly, ribbons are available for many typewriters, including the Royal Sabre. I tell myself that someday I’m going to get one and try out my computer-improved typing skills, although I doubt they’re better on a machine where you have to depress each key with an impressive force—hence the beauty of those “decadent” IBM Selectrics. Someday.
The Illinois legislature is trying to help phase out landlines, so this is a good time to talk about the relic whose descendant you may be holding in your hand at this moment: the old-school landline telephone as I knew it.
I was about five years old when my parents had a black wall phone installed over the desk that separated the kitchen from the living room. My mother was proud that I memorized the phone number instantly. The day I forget that 716 number is the day you can write “dementia” in my medical records.
As a rotary phone, even then it was becoming old-fashioned compared to the newfangled tone dialing phone introduced November 18, 1963. I felt like my folks were behind the times, but according to Wikipedia the rotary phone persisted into the 1970s with the majority of telephone subscribers.
We had a private line, but one of my new friends did not—shared “party lines” were cheaper. When I needed my dad to pick me up after a visit, the chances were good that when I picked up the phone I’d be greeted not with a dial tone but with the voice or giggles of one of the neighbors or their teenagers. If they’d heard the click and you didn’t hang up right away, you might get a wonderfully crusty suggestion that you hang up. If it seemed that they hadn’t heard the click, it was tempting to listen in—except there was going to be nothing interesting said. No Sorry, Wrong Number type opportunities on Pleasant Avenue.
When I got to college, I found the dorm house had two phone booths off the television lounge. AT&T offered phones at student rates, so somehow (I’ll never know how) I talked my parents into letting me get one. I must have been more of a talker in those days, or 34 years of business calls have soured me on phone chatting. I chose a pastel blue tone dial desk phone, which thanks to what I think was then recently introduced color-coded modular jack technology I installed myself by matching wires—one of my proudest moments. That phone went with me to my first apartment, although the phone number (which I have forgotten) didn’t.
At some point AT&T (or whichever Bell it was if after the breakup) sent a letter saying I could (or had to?) buy my phone. In the rotary days, you were a subscriber and rented your phone, but the phone company(ies) began to sell phones. I can’t remember what happened—whether I got tired of that phone or if I dropped and broke it (either is likely), and I bought a boring tan Trimline. My heart, if not my budget or my living space, really wanted an old-school cradle phone, perhaps not as fancy as this Design LineEarly American model. I was stuck with the Trimline, however, and missed the solid bell ring of my first phone.
My next phone was a beige combination cordless with answering machine, so lacking in distinction that I remember mostly turning the little tape over. When I went shopping for it, I was disappointed to find the phone store was a thing of the past. Not only was the cradle phone no longer an option, but the office supply store phones were ugly and utilitarian, something more suited to a cubicle farm than a cozy home.
By the time I looked for my next and current phone, the office supply store options hadn’t changed much in style, although the color choices were more in the black, gray, and silver line. The answering “machine” is now digital. The phone docks in an upright position, so its footprint is more like that of the old candlestick telephone. It looks out of place on my Arts and Crafts-style desk. It would be more at home on the 1980s version of the USS Enterprise if the USS Enterprise had landline telephones. No one will feel nostalgic for this telephone in 50 years, and unlike cradle phones it won’t be sold on the 21st or 22nd century version of eBay or Craigslist.
At this point I have a landline telephone because I’m too lazy to switch from the DSL Internet access I’ve had for many years. I don’t use that phone often, although I still get doctor’s office reminders on that number, which I carried over from my first (shared) apartment. When I work from home, I realize how many spam/scam calls come in on that line. I can’t hear very well using it at normal volume, plus it costs an embarrassing amount of money every month. Although the Illinois rush to get rid of landlines is a problem for many, for me maybe it’s time. I’m never going to get that cradle phone after all.
(Also a relic: The sound of the landline telephone bell clanging loudly and all the household teenage zombies coming to life with a shout of “I’ll get it!” Now weird music emanates from their hand, purse, or pants pocket—that is, if they even get calls instead of texts. Remember the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis in which Warren Sheffield calls Rose long distance from New York City while the Smith family looks on and listens awkwardly? Those days are gone for good. Now it’s people on the bus or at the coffee shop or on the street corner who get to eavesdrop on your teens.)
My family didn’t travel for recreation. When we visited relatives, we stayed with one of my dad’s sisters, Mildred or Thelma. Even when I figured out that other families went on real vacations to Disney (ugh) or other attractions, I never thought about where they hung their hats at night.
Psycho, of all things, exposed me to that all-American icon, the motel or motor inn, with its outside doors and convenient parking. By 1960, though, even the Bates Motel had become a victim of the burgeoning interstate system, accessible only to those few who happened to stray onto the exit, say, during a blinding downpour.
Judging from the mid-century motels that remain open, someone still stays at them. I’ve spotted a few on the north side of Chicago as well as in a number of small midwestern towns. I can tell they’re old school because they tout amenities like air conditioning and color TV. Not just TV, but color TV. If today’s signs weren’t programmable, future generations might wonder at the “free WiFi” advertised at interstate exit hotels.
Years ago I spotted this old-school sign in Ottawa, Illinois, where “Lincoln’s voice was FIRST heard!” and a number of women worked themselves to death painting radium onto watch dials. Ever since I’ve wanted to stay there so I could take photos of the sign and enjoy some of that good old-fashioned air conditioning and TV (color not mentioned, but assumed). When I looked The Sands up, I found the rate—under $50—also looks like a relic from yesteryear, perhaps the 1980s. (Ice, however, is extra.)
Arriving at The Sands from long drive from Flossmoor, I didn’t think to look at the sign. After hiking at Matthiessen State Park and dining at the Lone Buffalo, I was too tired to look at the sign, although I had passed it at least three times by then. The fact that I didn’t notice the sign should have been a clue that something was up. Yes, imagine my surprise when the next morning I went out to take a photo of the beloved sign and discovered this:
The sign had been replaced! I sent my friend to the motel office to get the story, which varied a bit from this newspaper account. The sign was not the victim of changing fashions or tastes but of its own age and years of exposure to Illinois weather. It had become a hazard, perhaps ready to topple in the wind. If you look beyond the rust, you can see a crack between the bottom and middle pieces. The new less elaborate sign perhaps plays a sly tribute to its predecessor’s fate, depicting a tilted hourglass with the sands of time starting to run out.
I updated the Relics: Mail chute post with slightly better photos and a new photo taken at the Garland Building in Chicago. I forgot to take a photo of the lobby box, but will. Someday. I wonder what is under the white paint, although I suspect hallway mail slots weren’t as fancy as the lobby boxes.
As usual in the Midwest, summer has brought a relentless series of watches and warnings, including thunderstorms, severe weather, flooding, and tornadoes. When a new watch or warning is issued or a current one is updated, one of my phone’s weather apps emits a submarine sound. Sometimes I feel like I’m immersed in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Not that long ago, before mobile phones, weather apps, and 24/7 cable, people got their weather news and updates from regularly scheduled radio and television news. Emergencies might warrant a crawl across the TV screen with a siren or very loud beeping. Basic, everyday weather news at 6 and 11 wasn’t enough for my dad, however. He tuned into his dedicated weather radio.
A weather radio picks up NOAA broadcasts that include arcane weather details you won’t hear on the 6 o’clock news, which you may not watch anyway because you get the news from trending topics on Facebook and Twitter. I hadn’t heard a weather radio broadcast in decades, but I remember a flat, tinny male voice, most likely not a “voice talent,” reciting a long list of current weather conditions and statistics in a monotonously soothing way. My dad could listen to this for long periods, as though he were a farmer whose livelihood depended on knowing weather conditions intimately and preparing for them. Our weather radio did come in handy a few times, such as during the Western New York Blizzard of ’77. We kept spare batteries on hand for all of our radios because we never knew when wind or ice would knock out the power.
Today I imagine a weather radio may be useful to boaters, campers, hunters and fishers, construction foremen, and anyone else whose life or work might depend on unexpected or sudden changes in weather conditions. A few years ago in Chicago, a horrendous thunderstorm abruptly blew in without warning, even breaking thousands of panes of glass at Garfield Park Conservatory. If I were out on Lake Michigan in a small craft, I would have wanted to know about those black clouds darkening the western sky, how conditions were changing, and how long I would have to row my boat ashore.
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. . . . NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal.
As I said, once upon a time, the voice belonged to humans — as it turns out, the updates were recorded by staff at local National Weather Service offices, nearly all of them male. Although the voices varied, they were reassuring in their lack of voiceover-style sophistication. Today, however, the voices are synthesized. “Tom” comes closest to my memories, but still he doesn’t quite evoke morning at the kitchen table, listening to the weather radio.
Of course weather radios aren’t truly a relic. Not only can you still buy them, but there are even a number of options in a surprisingly broad range of prices (my brief search showed roughly $25 to $60, or $75 with a lithium battery). Copy for my favorite says: “If you’re in an area prone to occasional violent weather (and what area isn’t?) this radio can be a lifesaver.” I’m tempted.
Will your eight-year-old son or daughter wax nostalgic over iffy mornings and evenings or camping trips spent listening to “Tom” or whatever synthesized voice supplants him? For myself, “Tom” doesn’t evoke strong feelings or tempt me to buy that spiffy weather radio after all. I guess I’ll just have to keep feeling like I’m aboard the Seaview.
UPDATE 7/29/2016: After the skies turned dark again, I compromised and spent $4.99 on a weather radio iPhone app. Still not the same as the radio on the kitchen counter.
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