I’ve been writing all my life.
Starting a diary in a composition book with its speckled black-and-white cover like a still photo of the salt-and-pepper of a TV screen turned to the channels where nothing was being broadcast, I scrawled in block letters and drew pictures. I still love composition books.
Then a manual typewriter with a wet-ink reel-to-reel ribbon and hammers that would sometimes jam together, pounding out black letters on the wavery onion skin paper. It was a Royal, a gray whale heaped up on the big black wooden desk in our den, where I found my dad’s old pipe in the drawer.
Next the light blue Smith-Corona electric that my Mom brought home from her law office, nestled on a foam pad on the rickety typing table with the folding side-arms.
I still didn’t know how to really type, but I remember my mother telling me her father’s counsel that if she knew how to type quickly, she’d always have a job.
My mom was born in 1928, and before you assume this was only sexist advice of the old century, you need to know that the ability to type was particularly important in her Dad’s life, and therefore, our family history.
Her Dad, Albert Charles Dean, had to grow up fast, and learning to type made all the difference in his life.
The story was that his father was the fire chief of the town, Geneva, New York. There was a terrible fire one day and his father had failed to show, being drunk in some saloon. Women and children died. When the soused fire chief was finally roused and learned the news, he slunk home, packed a valise, hopped a train to Canada, and was never seen again.
Albert was 12 when his father walked out and disappeared, leaving him in charge of his younger brother Frank and a sister and his distraught mother, who took to her bed, helpless.
The family moved East to the bustling and rapidly-growing crossroads city of Syracuse and Albert looked for work to support the family. He found his way to a factory and somehow used his streetsmarts to negotiate his way to the office of the president of the company.
While he waited all day for an interview for a job, he played around on a typewriter in the the waiting room, teaching himself how to type in record time. When the president of the company, L. C. Smith, emerged from his office late that evening to discover this kid typing away, after everyone else had gone home, he rewarded Albert with an entry-level position as a clerk in the executive suite.
That’s how my Grandpa started his career at the L. C. Smith & Bros. Typewriter Company – known today as Smith-Corona, famous for typewriters in the 20th century and at present the world leader in label-makers.
After a couple years as a typing clerk, Smith sent Albert out to develop sales in the New England territory, where he could make a much better living. He now went by the name A. C. Dean, homage to L. C. Smith. He cris-crossed all the towns and cities north of New York City selling typewriters.
I lived in Concord, New Hampshire, for five years in the early 2000s. It’s the capital of New Hampshire, a town full of lawyers and doctors. I can be pretty sure A. C. Dean was there a century before, going office to office on Main Street between the Capitol building and Pleasant Street, selling Smith typewriters.
But Albert was more than a salesman, a footnote that is important to me, having made my professional career in marketing and business while having other, more significant aspirations.
During his twenties, he fell in with an artsy group of friends in some town in Massachusetts. They’d recite poems, put on plays and musicales, debate the philosophy of the day. It’s a good bet Albert composed his own verses on a portable Smith typewriter.