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Just My Type

When I was a child I never spent one minute with my father in his workshop. There was no workshop. A complete inventory of the tools in the Engel household: one screwdriver, one hammer, one wrench, and one bottle-opener — all kept in the depths of the kitchen catch-all drawer. Yes, the Engels were so unmechanical that we considered a bottle-opener a tool.

But I do vividly remember many times when I was dazzled by my father’s manual dexterity. His instrument was neither a lathe nor a drill; it was a typewriter.

My father was an accomplished hunter-and-pecker who combined impressive speed, rhythm and accuracy. And so at the tender age of seven, watching him, I fell in love with everything connected with typing. I’m one of the few children who did not beg for a new model bicycle each birthday but instead always pleaded for an upgrade of my current typewriter.

I was enthralled the first time Dad boosted me up into his typing chair. I was so little that he needed to place the thick Indianapolis phone book beneath me (had we lived in a less-populated city, I never could have reached the keyboard.) When I first put my tiny fingers on the middle-row eight keys, I assumed that would be resting on A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H, the same alphabetical order I had recently memorized and proudly recited hourly until my older sister threatened to dump her bowl of alphabet soup on my head.

I tapped the “A” and it appeared, like magic, smacked up and shining blackly against the white sheet of paper. But when I tapped what I thought would be “B”, an “S” appeared. When I looked down at the keys, there were A-S-D-F-H-J-K-L; where A through H should have been.

I immediately asked my father what was probably the fiftieth question of that early Sunday morning: “Daddy, why did they put the letters in that order?” This time, for a change, it was a question worth asking. I still remember my father looking at the keys, thinking with furled brow, pausing, and then confessing: “Elliot, I don’t know.” There was another pause and then — “But I’ll find out.”

Of all the good examples my father bequeathed to me, the one I’ve probably appreciated the most as a teacher was his inability to give a facile guess to a question he could not answer. He always made it his mission to answer with accuracy, and I owe him an enormous debt for inspiring a love of research in me. He called the reference librarian at our downtown branch who told him she would have to do some checking and call him back. Imagine my glee in posing a question that not only stumped my brilliant father but even puzzled the “Reference Librarian,” an august title which, to a seven-year-old, sounded like Merriam Webster himself.

She did call right back. Although I didn’t fully understand his explanation to me at the time, Dad told me that the original typewriter designer worried about key jamming that might occur if the letter that had just struck the paper did not have time to fall back before the next one arrived. And so the designer intentionally placed the letters on the keyboard in a difficult, illogical pattern to frustrate and slow the typist down to the capabilities of the machine. This slowing ironically made the process of typing more efficient.

I feel that there’s a lesson here about the Seduction of Slow as we now speed deeper into the computer age of Google Instant Information and Gratification, while the typewriter has joined the record player, slide rule, and encyclopedia on the shelves of future antique stores.

The act of reading a book is so much slower than watching a film or television show. Yet the demands made on us by following a narrative word by word by word often make the ultimate experience profoundly more rewarding. Similarly, with all the good answers my father patiently gave me during my childhood, it is his pauses that most impress me now, as he carefully thought about his responses, indicating not only a respect for the question but, even better, a respect for the questioner, his little son who adored and still adores him.

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