A New Type (of) Writer

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

Underwood Junior Typewriter

One of the topics I was surprised to find myself writing about in my VerbTribe class was my parents’ typewriters. While my mother begrudgingly used hers for working at home, my father prayed over his to help him become a published author (prayers which went unanswered).

Regardless of their different functions, both my mother and father issued a “hands-off-they’re-not-toys” policy to my sister and I. Being a poor listener, I took every opportunity I could find to get my hands on those magical machines. One of the few regrets I have in life was in not keeping my father’s typewriter – and his desk – when it came time to “weed out” his possessions after he passed away in 2001.

Since writing about those typewriters, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about buying one for myself. Not just for decoration though. I wanted to be able to use my new baby.

My desire grew exponentially after seeing the blue and orange beauties used by Maya Stein and Amy Tingle Williamson to create their “tandem poetry” at the recent Design Your Life Camp I attended. Thinking I was an oddball for wanting such a technological relic, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so many Facebook posts by my fellow campers about their own adventures finding a typewriter since they returned home.

Due to the seasonality of my husband’s garden center, last weekend was the first one we’ve had to ourselves since February. On Sunday, we headed out to our favorite flea market. Right before we left, I pronounced (quite loudly and confidently) that I was finally going to find my typewriter. Tim knows that’s my weird way of “letting the Universe know my intentions,” but he still thinks I’m a little crazy when I do it.

Truth be told, we’d only seen one typewriter there in the years we’d been going, but it was in pretty rough shape so we walked away. The odds didn’t seem to be in our favor, but a girl’s gotta’ dream, right?

I’m certain you can see where this tale is going, so I’ll just jump to the part where I tell you we not only found one typewriter that day…we found three! While my heart has long been set on owning a red one, we would have needed a wheelbarrow to haul around the IBM Selectric that had a $75 price tag (for those who might be interested, here’s a good photo and article about that exact model). The green and white one was a child’s plastic version, so that was another easy decision to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But then….there on the top shelf of a dealer who actually lives just a few miles from us, was the petite treasure in the above photo. It was so pristine looking that I asked if it was a reproduction. She assured me it wasn’t. When she offered to knock the asking price down from $20 to $18, I just knew I had to take “her” home with me.

My husband was as excited as I was, so we went straight home and started Googling to find out what we could about her. It turns out that – not only is she legitimate – she’s actually quite rare.

Tracking her serial number (591,834) revealed that she’s a “four-bank” Underwood Junior Portable, made in 1932. She measures a mere 4-1/4″ tall x 10″ deep x 11-1/2″ wide and weighs only 9.5 pounds.

Like many portable machines made during the pre-war era, she was scaled down to the basics. She has only one shift key (on the left side, which is perfect for this southpaw) and no 1 key, exclamation-mark, or dollar sign. All of those quirks are more than made up for by her glass and steel keys (which are soothing to my old eyes), as well as her ribbon-reverser.

But the story doesn’t end there. When we’d finished Googling, we started to tinker with her. We began by taking the ribbon off to practice “resetting” it. As one might expect, it unrolled more than we had anticipated once it was off. As it did, Tim scared the crap out of me when he suddenly screamed, “Stop!”

Unable to speak coherently, he simply kept pointing at the ribbon. I had to adjust my reading glasses to see what had caught his attention. Stuck to the ribbon – in two separate places – were white feathers (as shown in the photo below).

Typewriter Feathers

Anyone who knows ANYTHING about me, knows that feathers are my “thing.” My symbol…my calling card…my messages from lost loved ones. Over the years, they’ve popped up in my world in the most unusual places and at very poignant moments. This one though left me nearly speechless.

Every time I touch her now, I keep wondering, how long had they been there? How had they ended up there? Why were they there? How come I was the one to find them (well – actually Tim found them, but you know what I mean)?

In the end, I know none of those answers are important. What is, is being grateful and acknowledging their presence. I am and I do. Very much so.

And so the story continues, with me at the helm of writing it. I finally have my own typewriter and you can be certain it WILL be used. In fact, I invite anyone who visits to use it. There is NO hands-off policy in my writing world…and there NEVER will be.

“Please, pull up a chair and join me. Let’s play with letters and see what we can create. Let me begin by introducing you to Matilda (Matty) Underwood…she’s lovingly named after my grandmother-in-law; a solidly built petite woman who lost her eyesight, but not her sense of humor or wonder.”

Addendum: If you’re interested in learning more about Underwood Portable typewriters, this is a great website to start your journey. And yes…that is me in the photo above, sitting next to my mother’s typewriter, aching to “play” with it.