Typing, the Royal and career choices

Today’s kids have no idea what it’s like to pound the keys of a manual Royal typewriter. They’ve never heard the sharp ding announcing the approach of the right margin, and they’ve certainly never gotten their fingers black or red while untangling a wayward ribbon. They know nothing about jamming keys or carbon paper. A platen is as foreign to them as a bail arm, a carriage return, or a paper guide.

At 12 years old, I taught myself to type on my sister’s portable Royal. She was 16 and had received this marvelous piece of machinery as a birthday present. I was allowed to touch it by promising I would help her with barn chores. I much preferred housework, but the temptation of that beautiful Royal was more than I could bear. I made a promise we both knew I would never keep.

Someone had given us a red typing manual that stood up instead of laying flat on the table. From that book I honed my skill. The summer of 1959 found me at the kitchen table pounding keys from the time I got up until late into the evening. I’m sure I took breaks for picking strawberries and blueberries and completing my chores, but not much more could lure me away from that wonderful machine and the many exercises the manual offered.

By summer’s end, Jude threatened to lock her typewriter in its case and hide the key. I had driven everyone in our house nuts except Gram because she was hard of hearing. My typing cooled down when school started, but every weekend and every summer I was back at my post, banging away on the Royal. My efforts paid off. By the time I took a typing class in high school, I was probably as proficient as the teacher.

When I was young, as far as I knew four career choices were available to women. We could become a nurse, a nun, a teacher or a secretary. One by one I narrowed the field. I wanted to be a nurse but sick people made me sick. My nun phase lasted until I fell in love with the boy who sat at my table in first grade. I gave up dreaming of the teaching profession in 1968 when a young, unenlightened college counselor informed me English teachers had no future. Nothing was left but secretarial work.

Although I never mastered shorthand, I was a fast and accurate typist when placed in front of a manual machine. I knew I would excel at any office job thanks to my attention to detail and meticulous working habits. In the summer of 1966, I approached my first real position with all the confidence of a well trained athlete. I would be typing for Professor Stephen Youngs at what is now Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie.

I remember the morning of my first day of work. I awakened full of hope, convinced I would astound those around me by my speed and accuracy. My freshman year of college was successfully behind me and I no longer had to work at Turley’s Lockview Restaurant as a summer waitress. Dad trusted me with our Chevy station wagon and life was good.

My joy was short lived. When I arrived on campus and uncovered the typewriter, feelings of horror and dismay shot through me. Instead of the lovely manual Royal I was expecting, an electric monster was hiding beneath the dust cover. I had never faced such an adversary and had no idea where to begin. That machine had a mind of its own. If I so much as breathed, it took off like a dog chasing a rabbit. What a disaster.

My beautiful typing skills didn’t amount to a pinch of salt pitted against that electric fiend, but that wasn’t the worst of it. When I applied for the job, no one informed me about the Dictaphone. Facing those two strangers, I was as lost as a shipwrecked sailor. By noon, I was ready to call it quits. I drove to my sister’s house and told her my troubles. She listened sympathetically, handed me a Kleenex, and reminded me of the Princess Cake. She said my first attempt at baking that cake wasn’t perfect, but with practice it improved. Her advice was to stick it out for at least one week.

And she was right. My boss was kind and patient. Co-workers helped me through the day and encouraged me through the week. By week two, I was more comfortable and by summer’s end, all fear had vanished.

Over the years, I had various jobs, most revolving around secretarial work. Eventually my typing speed climbed to 115 words per minute. It never occurred to me I should have been advancing a career instead of making do with a job. Typing at amazing speeds was fine, but that’s all it was. It’s taken me years to discover that putting words together to create an interesting story is much more rewarding.

Today’s women have career choices unheard of when I was young. The irony is many of them are still keyboard centered. I find it remarkable the skill I taught myself on Jude’s portable Royal all those years ago is required in the workplaces of 2014.

Isn’t it amazing how much things change while remaining the same?

Editor’s note: Sharon M. Kennedy of Brimley is a humorist who infuses her musings with a hardy dose of matriarchal common sense. She writes about everyday experiences most of us have encountered at one time or another on our journey through life. Her articles are a combination of present day observations and nostalgic glances of the past.