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Zap Me a Cookie, Would Ya?

by on March 04, 2015 6:30 AM

If you're getting to be an old-timer like I am, you're becoming dippily nostalgic about the tools of the writing trade.

I'm not talking quill pens and inkwells here, but typewriters and the early days of personal computing.

When I went off to graduate school my parents gave me a Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

The beauty of my Coronamatic was that it had a correcting cartridge. When you mistyped, you ejected the black-ribboned typing cartridge and popped in the white-ribboned correcting cartridge. Then, you retyped the error, essentially whiting out the black ink. Then, pop the typing cartridge back in and continue on your merry way.

If you were as lousy a typist as I was, all that cartridge swapping could get tedious, but it sure beat ripping out a blemished page and starting over, especially when the error occurred toward the bottom and you had to resist the urge to heave the typewriter out the window.

Before the Coronamatic there was "Corrasable" paper, then Liquid Paper or Wite-Out, which enabled you to paint over your typos with a little brush. It worked pretty well as long as you had the patience to let the stuff dry. I still have a vial of Wite-Out in my desk. And no, I've never absent-mindedly applied it to the screen of my computer

The Coronamatic was cool, but not nearly as cool as the IBM Selectric, which allowed you to erase by backspacing. Way less cumbersome, but way more expensive.

Still, I got pretty adept at popping the Coronamatic's two cartridges in and out, a skill that came in handy when I was answering my comprehensive doctoral exam questions. At my school, we picked up a question at 8:30 a.m. and had to deliver our answer by 5 p.m. – for four consecutive days.

I wisely laid in spare cartridges – and needed them. At the critical moment I ejected the old cartridge, flung it across my bedroom, Frisbee-style, inserted the new one and resumed typing, all in one fluid motion.

What do you do the evening after an all-day exam? You don't study. You rest your aching brain. I went to see the stupidest movies I could find.

At 5 o'clock at the end of the four-day ordeal, everyone in my program gathered in the department office to high-five the finishers as we triumphantly crossed the finish line. Then we all went out and hoisted beers.

Now all I had to do was write a dissertation. I wrote the first draft on the Coronamatic, but then, thrillingly, I got my first computer, a KayPro II. If you've never seen one, picture a portable record player. The blue-and-silver KayPro had a suitcase grip and a couple of clasps. When you hoisted it onto your desk and opened the clasps, you let down the keyboard, which had been folded up against the screen – a very tidy arrangement.

The screen was about the size of a Kindle and the same dark olive color as an old TV. The characters, generated in WordStar or WordPerfect, forerunners of Microsoft Word, were a glowing green. Printer paper came in perforated continuous sheets with perforated rails along the sides. The printouts looked very technical.

Next came a Radio Shack laptop. I didn't own it. It belonged to the newspaper I worked for.

I took it when I was assigned to cover a huge fire in Yosemite National Park in 1990. By day's end, the National Park Service closed all roads leading out of the park. I was marooned, but still in business because I had a dial-up modem.

After I wrote my story, I clapped an acoustic coupler – it looked like a floppy telephone handset -- onto the earpiece and mouthpiece of a pay phone in Yosemite Valley. It worked. The next day, they reopened the roads, the newspapers arrived and there were my words on the front page.

The other thing I remember from those newspaper days in California was fun with fax machines. I would learn, via in-house e-mail, that there were chocolate chip cookies in Sports or strawberries in Features. "Help yourself!" the tantalizing messages said.

Except I couldn't help myself because I was in a news bureau – a satellite office about 50 miles away from my paper's main office.

Once, I begged the folks on the mother ship to stop tormenting us bureau folks with news of treats we couldn't eat. The response: a photocopied, then faxed plate of cookies. Yum.

On the plus side, to work in a bureau was to operate with minimal editorial supervision.

Computers are way more amazing now, but the pace of innovation has slowed. The machine I'm typing on right now pretty much does the same stuff as the one I had 10 years ago. It just does it a little faster.

I'm waiting for the guys in Sports to be able to zap me a cookie. A real one, that I can dunk in milk.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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