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Thoughts & Views: Keys to my newspaper kingdom

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On New Year’s Eve, a typewriter repairman in Manhattan hung up his ribbons, so to speak, after spending almost four decades working in the business.

A New York Times story, published Dec. 28, 2013, told how Bino Gan, a Filipino immigrant, now 60, learned the trade from his brother and, in 1987, opened his own shop, Typewriters ‘N Things, in the West Village section of Manhattan.

Among his customers, according to the Times, were filmmakers Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, but also plenty of regular New Yorkers, too, who simply prefer using the instrument.

Learning to operate a manual typewriter was key (no pun intended) to getting my first newspaper job at The Jersey Journal, when I was a very raw rookie, still an undergrad at the time, in the late ‘60s.

Having been weaned on the TV “Superman” serial, I had high hopes of grabbing a coveted spot on the City Desk as a wanna-be Jimmy Olsen (minus the camera he carried as sometimes sidekick to the Man of Steel…. The camera would come to me, much later).

Anyway, you had to know how to type before you could even be considered for employment. No, you wisenheimers, they weren’t still using feather quills.

I hadn’t taken any typing course in high school, so, what to do?

At my mom’s suggestion, I “enrolled” at Drake’s Secretarial School, now defunct, but, then, still going strong on the second floor of a commercial building in the Journal Square section of my hometown, Jersey City.

I was assigned a hardback seat in front of an enormous black Remington equipped with equally enormous keys. Each one could probably accommodate two of my fingers.

But the keys were blank! No lettering. No numbering. No nothing. Yikes! This was going to be a challenge, for sure. I think they had a big wall chart diagramming the layout of the keyboard for us students to master, which, eventually, I managed to do.

Boy, those keys were not only big – they were heavy – so you really had to exert your finger muscles with sufficient strength to ensure the typebar impacted your ribbon to make a legible imprint on the paper curled up on the roll. And, of course, you had to make sure your ribbon didn’t get tangled up as you pounded away.

Luckily for me, my mom – using uncanny precognition – had previously arranged for me to take lessons on another type of instrument – a Winter & Co. upright piano. On these keys (I see a pattern developing), I was compelled to play many selections of classical music during six long years of trial and much error.

Still, the forced labor got my fingers in fighting trim.

And so, when it came to the real test at Drake’s, I had had, as it were, my basic training. Now I was ready for the real deal. Which, in this case, turned out to be a musical application of key power to the highest degree, as our Drake D.I. ordered us to bang out a copy of a written form, as fast as we could go in three minutes, as a loud recording of a John Philip Sousa march blared from a phonograph record, after which our papers were checked for mistakes.

Now that was one heck of a way to learn how to type, let me tell you. And when I finally got that job, I discovered that several of my more veteran colleagues somehow managed to get by, very nicely thank you, using just two fingers on the keyboard – at lightning speed and with amazing accuracy. They knew their way around telling a story, too.

Looking back on my experience, though, I would maybe have added one more test, worthy of anyone wishing to soldier on as a member of what Ted Williams used to call the “Knights of the Keyboard.”

In that test, our D.I. could have ordered each of us to change our ribbon – or, if she’d wanted to be true to the cause – disassemble and reassemble our instrument while blindfolded. I bet Ernie Pyle could’ve done it in his foxhole, if he had to.

A whole lot of ribbons, tons of copy and carbon paper later, we evolved to electric typewriters (adjusting my keyboard action accordingly, from bashing to a light touch, to avoid bumping the wrong key) and, finally, to an actual computer keyboard.

Would I ever go back to the Remington, Royal or Underwood? Only to admire them as noble antiques that helped me along the path I chose so long ago.

– Ron Leir

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