I have always enjoyed listening to National Public Radio, which here in Sacramento I listen to on Capital Public Radio. However I became a more regular, avid listener during last year’s election, and now I listen to it pretty much every day, driving to and from work and to meetings, running errands, etc. Two stories I heard in the last several months have really stuck with me, and they both involved typewriters, for which I have always had great affection.
The first story (part of which also appeared in the New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-one-of-the-last-american-typewriter-companies-survives) was about prisoners using typewriters, and the second was about Tom Hanks writing stories that included typewriters. More about both of those later.
But first, listening to these NPR stories focused on typewriters made me remember learning how to type in a typing class in the seventh grade or so. It was back in my home town of Devils Lake, ND, and the typing class teacher was Mr. Brown, who also happened to be my best friend Shelley’s Dad. I remember him being a tall man with a crew cut, a booming voice, an engaging smile and a gregarious, no nonsense personality. He made learning how to type fun and challenging. I wonder how kids learn to type these days?
Now back to the NPR stories. The first story was about inmates in prison who want to write for a variety of reasons, many of whom did not regularly write before they became prisoners. However, in prison computers are not available to inmates for such purposes, and the only typewriter that they can now use is a special plastic typewriter – called Swintec – that is made by one company in the U.S. In the story prisoners were interviewed about how they secured the funds for the $225 typewriter, how expensive the ribbons were to replace and what kinds of things they were writing. One of the prisoners was on death row and started typing letters to officials who might be able to stop his impending execution (in which he succeeded). He began to think of his typewriter as his companion in his solitary confinement cell. Another prisoner actually became a journalist in prison, selling some of his articles with plans to continue writing when he is hopefully released.
I think this story stuck with me not just because it involved typewriters, but because prison life fascinates me. Why? In part because I don’t think I would bode well in that environment, and I just have a rather morbid curiosity about how life functions inside the prison walls. Since moving to this part of California I have toured Alcatraz Island and the former prison there three times. The tour includes audio narration featuring interviews with former prisoners about what it was like to be a prisoner there. It sounded like a truly dreary, depressing and dreadful existence.
Now on to a happier story. Everyone knows Tom Hanks as an award winning, extremely likeable actor. But it turns out he also is an avid reader and has long collected typewriters. He acquired his first one around 1978, about the same time he started his acting career. He now has more than 100. Oh how I would enjoy seeing that collection, personally shown and described to me by Mr. Tom Hanks. The actor also recently became a published author via a collection of short stories called Uncommon Type, with each story having a typewriter as part of the story in some way. The book is on my Christmas Wish List, should anyone want to send a copy my way!
Outside of prison, you don’t see people using typewriters very often, although they probably still have some use in certain settings. When I worked at a library years ago, for awhile we had one typewriter for library patrons to use to perhaps type a letter or an address on an envelope.
I have one not so very old typewriter, and I don’t even remember for sure now where it came from. An old boyfriend maybe? I would like to get my hands on some much older and funkier typewriters and restore them if necessary. It seems to me at one point we had a quite old black typewriter in our family house in Devils Lake. In fact I paused while writing this blog to text my Dad Fast Eddie to see it’s still there somewhere. Sadly, it is not
So that’s my little ditty for today about typewriters and prisoners. And Tom Hanks
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