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THINKING OUT LOUD - When cows and kids get a chance to type

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:12 PM

"Click! Clack! Moo! Cows That Type" was the title of a book I read to a second grade class during the recent "Right To Read" week.

It is the story of some cows that found an old typewriter and used it to send notes to Farmer Brown, demanding electric blankets for use in the drafty barn. The content of the notes was essentially: no blankets, no milk. Farmer Brown eventually met the demands but by then the ducks had gotten hold of the typewriter and were demanding a diving board for the pond.

Cute story, isn't it? And I was looking forward to reading it when it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this audience of 7- and 8-year-olds might not even know what a typewriter is.

Computers have been around longer than you think. When I first showed up in the Reflector newsroom in 1969, reporters were still pecking away albeit faster than you could ever imagine on manual typewriters with cigarette smoke-yellowed keys.

As a correspondent, I decided to go state of the art in my home office and bought myself a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. More than 1,000 of these columns were composed on that machine.

Somewhere in the late 1970s, as I recall, The Reflector dumped all those old manual typewriters and went electronic with some word processing equipment that would be laughable these days but was very progressive for the time.

I can still remember the huge monitors that displayed our written output in green type on a black screen.

Even more vivid, of course, are the memories of shutting down the computer without saving a story I had just spent two hours writing. The little reminder to save your work had not yet been invented. So in those days you could just exit the system and throw away a whole morning's work if you weren't careful.

And there were many times when I was not careful.

Usually, I would know it the instant the screen went dark. I would get that sick feeling that only a writer understands; the one that comes from the certainty that the story you just wrote was as good as you could possible make it and there was no way you could do it that good again. Not to mention all the time you had just wasted and were about to spend all over again.

Things like that made it difficult for many of us to welcome the computer into our lives.

But along came Macintosh in the newsroom and the love affair began to blossom. And why not?

Once you have corrected a typo with a single keystroke instead of shaking, dabbing and re-sealing the Whiteout, dragged-and-dropped an entire paragraph to a new position instead of literally cutting and pasting it manually, changed and re-sized a font in an instant and then emailed the whole works with a keystroke instead of going to the office on Sunday morning to type up a hard copy, you are pretty much sold on the computer versus the typewriter.

But it was a typewriter not a computer that Farmer Brown's cows had found.

And I wanted to be sure that my audience of second graders would know what this old fashioned device was.

So I took my old Smith-Corona with me to Maplehurst for my Right to Read visit.

It was in the same sturdy gray case in which it had lived for nearly four decades. And, as I prepared to open it for the youthful class, I said something that was surprising even to me: "The last time I opened this case, you were not even born."

Imagine that: I had not used my trusty old typewriter during a second grader's entire lifetime to date.

Then I started to wonder if it would even work. But the little electric motor sprang to life as I flipped the switch and, within moments, I had committed my first typo, executed my first strikeover and wondered how we ever got anything done with one of humanity's great inventions.

The kids loved it too. So I left it for them to experiment with for a few days.

The teacher sent me some of their typed output.

Maya cleverly proclaimed: "I am the first one to use the typewriter."

And a boy naturally typed a list of noises that can be made by the human body. Most were spelled phonetically, but he spelled fart exactly right.

I was impressed by that. But then I remembered that Farmer Brown's cows had spelled every word right in their note demanding the electric blankets.

I guess typists just rise to the occasion when forced to use a device that does not have spell check.

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