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LeBARON: Pounding out the story on a thing called a typewriter


Typewriters.

What in the world are they?

Well, at one time, believe it or not, Mr. Ripley, they were secretaries. A typewriter was a woman who wrote letters for her boss on a new machine that ... well, you'd have to see one to believe it.

These contraptions proved to be such a good idea that they quickly evolved into an office staple and, before you knew it, almost every home had one and schools were teaching kids how to use them correctly.

I'm not going to try to explain the typewriter or its evolution. If you want to know, you can Google it (which is something you couldn't do on a typewriter) and probably learn more than you wanted to know about this technological dinosaur.

You will find that, after surviving two generations of office workers that have never touched one, typewriters are emerging from relic-hood in strange ways.

People are making jewelry out of the keys, spelling out their names on bracelets, wearing lapel pins with words like "Shift" and "Back Space" and "Tab" and "Lock."

Books have been written about typewriters and at least one network TV news show has reported, in recent weeks, that they are being rediscovered. One surprised young man was quoted, sounding stunned, that he could "just pull out the text. I don't have to have a printer!"

Gloriosky! — as Little Orphan Annie, who has gone the way of typewriter, liked to say.

WE HAPPEN to have a typewriter or two in our household — maybe even three, if I could find my old portable.

This not only indicates that we need to clean out our closets but also that one of us takes great pride in being a Luddite in a world full of Techno-heads. If you don't know what a Luddite is, you can Google that, too.

He actually writes letters on an IBM Selectric that dates to the last century, does this Luddite. And he takes great pleasure in doing so.

But every now and then he has to get it repaired. And when that happens we head to Petaluma and Chuck Ternes.

TERNES KNOWS just about everything there is to know about typewriters. He's been dealing with these mechanical wonders since he was 12 years old.

Chuck's father, Frank Ternes, opened the Woodstock Typewriter Company on Kentucky Street in Petaluma (where Copperfield's is now) in 1933.

By the time Chuck was in junior high he was working in the family business; sweeping out the store, watching, learning. In the late '60s he became a partner. In the 1970s, he and his wife, Beverly, bought the business. They moved to Liberty Street and prospered selling and tending office equipment for 20 years or more, even after the computer had pushed typewriters into attics, recycle centers and, presumably, oblivion.

BUT NOT SO FAST there, friend. At 72, Chuck is still tinkering with typewriters in his home shop. He is almost as unique as the machines he repairs, one of a scant few of his kind who still do the work.

His customers lug their machines, both antique and electric, from around the county and all the way from Grass Valley, Willits, even southern Humboldt.

"The people from the Drive-Thru Tree have brought me their typewriter," Chuck says, referring to the landmark Redwood Highway attraction in Leggett.

Some, like our household Luddite, still rely on their typewriters to communicate. Others are collectors, amassing small fortunes in the most obscure and intricate contrivances created to produce the written word.

Chuck was a collector, too. For a while. He had 150 machines dating to the 1850s but sold the entire lot to another collector several years ago.

TYPEWRITERS, for me, are pure nostalgia. The noises of the typewriter were the sounds of the newsrooms where I began in the 1950s. Things got eerily quiet in the 1970s, when computers began their conquest of our professional (and now our private) lives.

I'm not certain I could use one with any proficiency now, what with no "Delete," no "Define," no "Cut" or "Paste" — just think what great lapel pins those keys would make!

But the essence of them — the conversation with Chuck Ternes about the old Underwood #5 and the memory of my current editor banging away at deadline time on his old Royal when he was on the police beat — makes me smile, remembering.

I can laugh out loud, in fact, recalling when the newsroom was outfitted with a fleet of "new" machines, purchased as a well-used lot from the typing classes at Santa Rosa High School.

They had blank keys.

Many of the reporters used one of two tried-and-true methods to produce their stories, either the biblical method or the Columbus system.

The biblical one was "Seek and ye shall find." The Columbus was "Find a key and land on it."

These variations on the hunt-and-peck were made infinitely more difficult by the blank keys.

I remember being assigned to read and edit the prose of one veteran who would invariably start off on the wrong line with his two fingers and produce several paragraphs of pure gibberish. It was like cracking code to figure out what he had meant to write.

TYPEWRITER MEMORIES are all tied up with others — like carbon paper. We always made carbons of our work. It was messy stuff that left our fingers blue, wrinkled and cracked if we pounded too hard and produced "dupes" as unreadable as the aforementioned code.

I guess you can still buy carbon paper. Although I can't imagine why you would.

You can still buy typewriter ribbons — at Corrick's, and probably the big-box stores.

If I can find my old Olympia portable, I think I'll have a pendant made out of the "Return" key. A shout-out, you might say, to days gone by.