The man behind the keyboard
Last night I began cleaning the 1926 Underwood typewriter that I bought at a flea market. I have never tried to restore a typewriter, so for some helpful tips in how to do it, I turned to the internet. There, I found lots of people who do know how to do it (just Google: restore vintage typewriters). One restoration expert said to start out with lots of clean cloths, cut into 6 inch by 6 inch squares. Following his advice, I cut up an old t-shirt and went to work.
Using only soap and water as the cleaning agent, I soon discovered that I was lifting a particularly nasty looking, yellowish/brown substance from the surface of the heavy metal chassis. Upon closer inspection, I soon recognized the substance: it was nicotine. Considering the age of the typewriter, it is entirely likely that much of its working life may have been spent sitting next to an ash tray into which countless cigarettes may have been extinguished. Smoking in offices was at one time not only allowed, but more often than not, the norm.
My younger co-workers at the office where I work today find it incomprehensible that smoking would be allowed in an office, but as I have often explained to them, prior to the mid-1980s, smoking was not only allowed in the work-place, it was almost in-vogue. At least it seemed to be so on the U.S. East Coast, my geographic entry point into Corporate America.
The nicotine encrusted typewriter took me immediately back to the late 1970s. It was around then that I began my first job as a technical writer, starting as an entry level writer for an engineering company in suburban Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The company had only one client, but it was a big one – the United States Army. My department handled technical documentation. In short we wrote Army manuals, and we wrote lots of them – tons of them as a matter of fact.
Nearly everyone in the department was retired from one branch of the US military or another. Everyone, except for a handful of junior writers (like myself) had a brass nameplate on their cubicle identifying them by name and branch of service. Each carried the abbreviation “Ret.” , or retired, as the suffix to the service branch, as in Captain J.T. Soandso, USN Ret.
The head of our department was a retired US Air Force Brigadier General (USAF Ret.). The General was rumored to have been a personal friend of famed General Curtis Lemay, but that was only a rumor…I cannot confirm or deny. In any case, unlike General Lemay who was a cigar smoker, our general was a pipe smoker. Within an hour of his arrival at work, his office was as fogged in as Thule Airbase during summer thaw. If there were any complaints as to the General’s propensity for fine pipe tobacco I never heard it. Non-smokers could just hold their breath as they passed his office.
In fact, if anyone at all ever complained about the air quality in our office, I don’t remember it. Nearly all of the writers were smokers (actually heavy smokers), and it is unfortunate that some of them eventually succumbed to smoking related disease, but that’s another story entirely. All in all, they were a fine group of individuals, and I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege to work with them. Many were decorated combat veterans and I learned a great deal on that first job of mine.
It was a hard working group too – 12 hour workdays were not uncommon. Pretty impressive for a group largely comprised of retirees. Perhaps it is no wonder that it was at this company that I met a man who I consider to be, the only true workaholic I have ever met in my life. This would be Lt. Colonel Wilson, United States Army, Ret. (rank and service branch are factual, but Wilson is a fictitious name – let’s just leave it at that).
More on Lt. Col. Wilson in my next blog, but for now I have a typewriter to finish cleaning.