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Jack Smith

Barbs and arrows--even a quill or two--from outrageous pen and pencil users

May 05, 1987|Jack Smith

If I were to write that spats had gone out of style, I would receive a letter from at least one outraged old gentleman saying he wouldn't think of going to the racetrack in the afternoon without wearing spats.

No one who writes for a newspaper of large circulation should ever make any categorical statement.

I recall my recent observations on those supposedly obsolete items, the fountain pen and the pencil.

"I wouldn't care to be in the retail ink business," I said. "Ink was outmoded by the ballpoint pen long before the computer came into widespread use. . . . "

And I added what was supposed to be a rhetorical question: "Does anyone use pencils anymore?"

Let's hear from the pencils faction first.

"Shame on you sir!" writes Josephine S. Young (by typewritten letter) from Gardena. "Have you forgotten all of us who solve crossword puzzles?"

Frankly, I can't believe that anyone who is devoted to crossword puzzles would use a pencil . I regard that as dishonorable. A conscientious crossword puzzle buff should do all his cross-checking in his mind , so that when he writes down a word he is sure of it, and will have no need to erase it.

Ms. Young concedes, "I, for one, do not have the confidence to use a pen, for I have been known to make an error on occasion."

Yes, crossword puzzles are worked by trial and error, but one should never write in one's errors. I never use a pencil. But then I rarely finish a puzzle. I'm afraid it's blind arrogance on my part.

By the way, Ms. Young notes that she wrote a first draft of her letter in pencil.

"There are many of us around who still use pencils," writes Barbara L. Harvey of Claremont. "Being an accountant, I do all my workpapers in pencil. . . . The art gum erasers are still in use. We erase about a third of what we write, what with the tax laws always changing. . . . "

Ms. Harvey is excused. Anyone who has to deal with the tax laws needs a pencil and an eraser.

So is Colleen Bentley-Adler (a name to make Sherlock Holmes paw the carpet!), who works in the UC Irvine public information office. She writes: "In answer to the question, 'Does anyone use a pencil anymore?'--I always have one nearby. And if I'm not writing with it, then it's behind my ear or between my teeth. Try putting a computer in such handy places!"

David J. Simmons of Ridgecrest tells a story that undermines my recollection that ballpoint pens were rather inexpensive, "even at the outset."

"I well remember my first ballpoint pen. Just at the beginning of World War II I had read an article that mentioned the postwar marvels that were due, one of them being the ballpoint pen. About a month after the war ended a friend of mine got a copy of the New York Times and in it was a full-page ad for the Reynolds ballpoint for $12.50. He and I both sent for one and in due course received them.

"They never worked right. Skipping was a constant nuisance and I soon gave up using it. On my trip back to the U.S. the ship daily report announced one day that at about noon the next day we would be five miles from land--straight down. At noon the next day I stepped to the starboard rail and dropped my $12.50 Reynolds pen overboard.

"Within a year Reynolds pens were selling for a buck, and shortly thereafter were not sold at all, better makes being under $1."

"Some of us still write with pens with steel points which we dip in ink bottles (and they still spill)," writes Marie Lewis, a professional calligraphist, whose penmanship elegantly illustrates her vocation.

"I teach this art at the Emeritus College of Santa Monica College. I invite you to visit our classes if you are interested in seeing 20 pens being dipped in 20 bottles of ink and learning the strategies we use to keep them from spilling."

A fusillade on the undying usefulness of the fountain pen comes from my colleague William (Guns) Murphy, photographer-historian, who calls himself a "pen freak."

"I never leave home," he confesses, "without carrying at least six of them."

Well, yes. I'd say that makes him a freak.

He says he had just bought a new Cross ballpoint for $30. "I liked its blue color and feel. It's something like handling a gun. I make sure that my pocket arsenal contains one writing with a fine point, another broad, a third is red, and there is a Cross with a brush point for bold strokes. And of course there is one that writes with real ink--not a cartridge."

Murphy believes there is a renewed interest in steel-tipped pens because of a renewed interest in calligraphy--penmanship that is both legible and graceful.

While doing research recently at the Huntington Library, he said, he saw a letter from George Washington to James Madison. "What I found just as fascinating as the thoughts he was expressing was the beauty of his handwriting. . . .

"I picture this planter, general and patriot sitting at his desk, pausing reflectively to sharpen a quill with his pocket knife, then resuming his writing. Ah, this was truly an age of exquisite penmanship. A college professor I interviewed recently told me he has difficulty in grading the papers of some of his students because he can't decipher their writing. . . . "

Watch out for Pens Murphy. He's armed.

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