From Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul,

by Bud Gardner, Jack Canfield, and Mark Victor Hansen

(Health Communications, Inc., 2000)



 

1,600 Articles Ago...”

by Gordon Burgett

 
 

It began innocently enough, a many-mile bike ride to the Des Plaines Theater to see a Saturday afternoon Roy Rogers movie. My fate was sealed when Dick Bauer walked by and asked me if I knew how to type.

Mind you, I was a sophomore in high school and about half as tall as a human. Dick Bauer was a junior and loomed like a giant.

Why?” I asked at such a weird request, as the line started to move toward the door.

Because if you can, go over to the Suburban Times office before 4 and talk with Floyd Fulle, an old guy, who needs somebody to write the high school sports for the paper.”

Forget that I’d never touched a typewriter―I’d cross that bridge if I came to it. I saw Roy, Gabby Hayes, and Trigger win again, then peddled across town to find the old man Fulle, who was every bit of 35.

Can you type?” Fulle asked.

Sure, why?” I replied, too scared to be diplomatic or coy.

Because my last sports writer handwrote everything, and he couldn’t spell either. He’d put a person in three times with three different spellings. If you can type, it’s $10 a week. Fill up the page and have it here Tuesday morning before school. For God’s sake, ask people how they spell their name.” He waved me away, like a hired gnat.

You need something this Tuesday?” I asked.

Aren’t you still on vacation? No, start next Tuesday. Go talk to the football coach. Check cross country. You’re the Sports Editor, you figure it out. Just give me a full page.”

There I was, an instant sports editor, suddenly rich, and he never once asked if I could even finish a sentence! So much for playing for the Cubs or buying a man’s hat and becoming some kind of an executive after high school: I was a journalist!

You can imagine the surprise back home when I shared the news. GORDON GOT A JOB! You’d think they were announcing the sinking of the Titanic or Liberace’s marriage. And a journalist! My mother was certain they had hired the wrong Gordon. My twin brother couldn’t stop laughing. My kid brother looked at me like I’d contracted a disease. Only my Dad had his wits about him. “You can type? What are going to use, Guttenberg blocks?”

I’d come to the bridge.

Well, I can’t really type, but how hard can it be? You just hunt around until you find each letter, hit it, and keep going. It’d be a little slow in the beginning...”

Yeh,” my twin added, “like the football season will be over by the time you finish your first article.”

So I get the information on Saturday, write the stuff on Sunday, and type Monday after school. Big deal.” I wasn’t about to go back to Floyd Fulle and lose my weekly windfall. “Dad, you’ve got parts of every mechanical contraption ever thrown out down at your place. Don’t you have a typewriter, or two halves we could stitch together?”

He laughed. “I’ll dig around and see what I can find.”

The following Monday my father brought home a huge monstrosity coated in dust, the keys obscured by machine oil and sweat. He owned a job shop and was an inventor―a perfector, he called it: “They tell me, or bring it in, and I make it work.” He was vague about the origin of this machine. I suspect he’d paid $3 to one of his buddies who found it in some storage bin.

It works,” he announced. “I wrote a letter and it was as smooth as butter!” That brought instant dismay, then laughter since my father had cut off his typing finger in a punch press and couldn’t spell. He was as likely to type a letter as he was to dance in the Nutcracker. Not a ringing testimonial.

We dusted it off, got out the turpentine, and cleaned off the keys and their arms. It sparkled when we were done. But nobody actually tried it, other than to bat at a few random keys to see if we could read the result. We could. I’d keep it pure until I really needed it.
 

Getting the information was simple enough. Everybody liked to talk about himself, including the coaches, particularly if they would read about it later. Put it all in some order, get the schedules for the fall sports, and I was ready for my debut. It seemed like robbery taking ten whole dollars for just that.

I read the entire Chicago Daily News sports section the next Sunday morning looking for clues. Keep it to two sentences per paragraph, no jawbreaking words, don’t use “I,” and let somebody talk every few paragraphs, preferably the coach or the stars. Duck soup.

I wrote two articles that afternoon.

An interview with the football coach and a few of the better players about the coming year. In retrospect, they all sounded the same. The coach either said nothing or talked like a machine gun, but to write it that way made him sound like he had an IQ of 45. The players, who probably weren’t that smart, rambled on, fumbling their verbs and mismatching their pronouns. So I converted their incoherence into complete sentences that finished in the same direction they had started. Their girlfriends must have been impressed. Nothing to sports writing that a dictionary, thesaurus, imagination, and a pencil couldn’t correct.

The article about boy’s cross country (girls were still considered too delicate to run that far in public) was easier. The coach was a regular teacher, English or history or something requiring articulation. He gave me yards of prose which I pruned to feet.
I didn’t call any of the runners. It didn’t matter. Who cared about cross country?

And lots of schedules with opponents, times, and places. Page fillers, bless them.

All that was missing was putting this text and the schedules into typed form. I rushed home on Monday, ate a sandwich, cleared off the table in the basement, found a tall chair, inserted paper, and started the hunt for the letters.

Simple as poking a pig, except when I got to the letter “e,” which was the second letter I needed. The key went down, the arm made noise, something flew up paperward, but nothing printed. I checked the renegade type arm: there was no font attached to it!

A mean internal voice asked, how many other keys have nothing at the end of them? I banged every key―qwertyuiop, and so on―nd only the “e” had fled. It could have been worse.

So I typed as if the “e” was replete and brilliant, the star of the pack, except that I put tape on the key itself to send my finger to the space bar. I’d write in the “e”s later. I began at about five, expecting to finish in time to do some homework, hear a radio show, and go to bed by 10. At 5:15 the next morning I finished typing my copy. Then I wrote in the missing “e”s, just in time to survive a fried egg, throw the copy and my untouched books in my bike basket, and pedal like the wind into town, drop off the text, and rush to school, with one minute to spare. Forget about sleep, I had six classes, each good for a short nap. Beating the deadline was what counted.
 

That afternoon I called Floyd Fulle to see if what I wrote was okay.

What happened to the ‘e’ on that typewriter? Get it fixed. Don’t use the word “and” so often. Get your check every Tuesday morning!”

My Dad took the typewriter to work and brought it back a few days later. He’d purloined an “e” from another typewriter and welded it to mine. It looked ugly, required twice the punching power, was in the wrong font, and listed about 15 degrees to the right, but it lasted three full years, 120 weeks times $10.

I was too young and dumb to know that what I was doing touched all of those athletes and their families and is still sitting, yellowed, in albums in attics. But I did spell the names right, and it was a lot of fun. The only problem: it was so much fun, it prevented me from making something of myself. I could be a plumbing wizard or yodeler or even a hypnotist but for the joy of tweaking words.

That was 1,600 articles ago. Being a journalist was duck soup.
 

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Gordon Burgett

gordon@gordonburgett.com

(800) 563-1454