By Sharon M. Kennedy
Today’s kids have no idea what it’s like to pound the keys of a manual typewriter. They’ve never heard the sharp ding announcing the approach of the right margin, and they’ve certainly never gotten their fingers black or red while untangling a wayward ribbon. They know nothing about jamming keys or carbon paper. A platen is as foreign to them as a bail arm, a carriage return, or a paper guide.
At 12 years old, I taught myself to type on my sister’s portable Remington typewriter. She was 16 and had received this marvelous piece of machinery as a birthday present. I was allowed to touch it by promising I would help her with the barn chores. I much preferred housework, but the temptation of that beautiful typewriter was more than I could bear. I made a promise we both knew I would never keep.
Someone had given us a red typing manual that stood up instead of lying flat on the table and from that book I honed my skill. The summer of 1959 found me pounding the keys from the time I got up until late into the evening. I’m sure I took breaks for picking strawberries and blueberries and doing my chores, but not much else could lure me away from that wonderful machine and the many exercises the manual offered.
By summer’s end, Jude threatened to lock her typewriter in its case and hide the key. I had driven everyone in our house nuts except Gram because she was hard of hearing. My typing cooled down when school started, but every weekend and every summer I was back at my post, banging away on the Remington. My efforts paid off. By the time I took a typing class in high school, I was probably as proficient as the teacher.
When I was young, as far as I knew four career choices were available to girls. We could become a nurse, a nun, a teacher, or a secretary. One by one I narrowed the field. I wanted to be a nurse but sick people made me sick. My nun phase lasted until I fell in love with the boy who sat at my table in first grade. I gave up dreaming of the teaching profession in 1968 when a young, unenlightened college counselor informed me English teachers had no future. Nothing was left but secretarial work.
Although I never mastered shorthand, at 57 words a minute I was a fast and accurate typist when placed in front of a manual machine. I knew I would excel at any office job thanks to my attention to detail and meticulous working habits. In the summer of 1966, I approached my first real position with all the confidence of a well-trained athlete. I would be typing for Professor Stephen Youngs at what is now Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie.
I remember the morning of my first day at work. I awakened full of hope, convinced I would astound those around me. My incredible speed and accuracy were sure to make me the star of the office. I would be applauded and envied by everyone. My freshman year of college was successfully behind me with only one “D” in biology on my transcript. I no longer had to work during the summer as a waitress. I finally had my driver’s license. Dad trusted me with our Chevy station wagon. Life was good.
My joy was short-lived. When I arrived on campus and uncovered my machine, feelings of horror and dismay shot through me. Instead of the lovely manual Royal, Remington, or Adler typewriter I was expecting, an IBM electric monster was hiding beneath the dust cover. I had never faced such an adversary and had no idea where to begin. That machine had a mind of its own. If I as much as breathed, it took off like a dog chasing a rabbit. If I typed fast, all the words ran together. The slightest touch of the keyboard sent the keys flying. What a disaster.
My beautiful typing skills didn’t amount to a pinch of salt pitted against that electric fiend, but that wasn’t the worst of it. When I applied for the job, no one informed me about the Dictaphone. Trying to type on that terrifying piece of artillery while listening to Prof. Youngs’ voice through the earphones, was impossible. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go home. Facing those two machines, I was as lost as a shipwrecked sailor. By lunch time, I was ready to call it quits. I drove to my sister’s house and told her my troubles. She listened sympathetically, handed me a Kleenex, and reminded me of the Princess Cake. She said my first attempt at baking that cake wasn’t perfect, but with practice it improved. She advised me to stick it out for at least one week.
And she was right. My boss was kind and patient. Coworkers helped me through the day and encouraged me throughout the week. By week two, I was more comfortable, and by summer’s end I had conquered the IBM and the dreaded Dictaphone.
Over the years, I worked at a variety of dead-end jobs, most revolving around an office. When I applied for a job as a legal secretary at a Detroit law firm, my speed of 115 words per minute shocked the secretaries as well as the attorneys. I made three mistakes or the word count would have been higher. It never occurred to me I should have been deciding on a career instead of making do with boring-beyond-tears employment. Typing at amazing speeds was fine, but that’s all it was. It took me years to discover that putting words together and creating a newspaper column or a short story was much more rewarding.
Women today have career choices unheard of when I was young. The irony is that many of them still center around a keyboard. I find it remarkable that the skill I taught myself on Jude’s portable Remington all those years ago is still required in the workplaces of 2022.