An encore for dad’s old typewriter

“The thing you want to do most is honor your father’s memory with the typewriter,” she said. “It’s about the meaning of the typewriter, not the monetary value.”

As I sit here looking at Old Ironsides on the hearth of my living room fireplace — a classic upright Underwood, circa 1960, with the green keyboard and shiny silver return — I hear a song in my head written and sung by the late Dan Fogelberg: Leader of The Band. The lyric that resonates with me is “his blood runs through my instrument.”

Dad could play it like a Stradivarius. With just two forefingers, he tap-tap-tapped out the newspaper headlines, or cobbled together deadline crime stories, or hunt-and-pecked out his Sunday columns, “Private File.”

Wilton Martin’s typewriter, silenced by his death for almost three decades, was given to me as a birthday present by my brother Bill Martin a few years ago.

My late friend Billy Leonard, may he rest in piece, overhauled it twice — a service for which wouldn’t take a penny. Billy told me it was “an honor.” I nicknamed it Old Ironsides (O.I.) in a tribute to Billy.

There is nothing quite like “hearing” a story being played by newsroom journalists in mad deadline passion, bells ringing and keyboards providing percussion. That sound in newsrooms, however, has been replaced by the whispers of computer keys. And a lot fewer of them these days.

Although I did follow in dad’s career footsteps, pounding those keys in four states at five different papers before computers displaced the symphony of the typewriters, we quit using those old contraptions in the early 1980s. For many of us that was The Day the Music Died in newsrooms.

So like O.I., these non-descript hunks of metal sit somewhere in virtual anonymity as an artifact, the relic of a bygone era which was glamorized by the Hollywood movie Deadline USA during which Bogart telephones the office on deadline and commands, “Hello sweetheart! Give me rewrite!”

*   *

Over the past year I have been wondering what would happen to O.I. after I am gone and whether any of the three of my adult children – all journalism majors — would place reasonable value on it. Or if the 50-year-old Underwood would be garage-saled. (It’s only worth maybe $30-$50).

It is one of my most cherished possessions.

My friend Lynda Spence of Extension Faculty at University of Florida, whose recent seminar on prized possessions intrigued me, suggested that one way to protect the sentimental value of such items is to pass them along with a story while you’re still alive.  If it’s not really something your heirs want, she said, perhaps the typewriter could be offered to a museum or journalism department.

“The thing you want to do most is honor your father’s memory with the typewriter,” she said. “It’s about the meaning of the typewriter, not the monetary value.”

Dad’s typing box hasn’t seen much action lately. I recently lent it out to a friend and former newspaper boss who, in his mid-80s, wanted to try and write a book. Jim, hoping to find some newspaper magic on the green keys, just couldn’t muster the strength to muscle out the words.

“I have to return Old Ironsides to you,” he lamented, a confession that perhaps that time and technology had passed us all by. But then so has it also to newspapers, railroads and home landline telephones.

*     *

I don’t remember that much specifically about dad’s prehistoric word machine in particular, except that he did use it once at home to write a freelance story for me when I was features editor of the St. Petersburg Times about the Ma Barker gang which happened on his watch at Weirsdale, Fla. back in 1935. My favorite photo with dad was made five years later and shows me at about age 3 sitting on his lap, his hands guiding mine, on what looks like an old Royal portable.

Two generations later I was able to do the same with two of my grandkids. Except with dad’s old machine.

“What’s this?” 10-year-old Gracie asked upon discovery of Old Ironsides sitting on my hearth behind a chair. She and Alexander, then 4, had been exploring the premises.

“It was my dad’s typewriter,” I told them.

First I typed the youngest one’s name: Alexander.

Then I placed the fingers each grandchild on the green keys, much like my father did to me.

Then she wrote her name: Gracie. That gave her the courage to type: Poppy martin is cool    and awe  some hgracie alex I ujmp.

Followed by Alexander’s: oplkh fdz cm than ,,/ pp ppp

Another generation of blood was flowing through his instrument, which sounded as sweet to me as Dan Fogelberg’s classic.

(Buddy Martin, executive editor and columnist for Best Version Media, can be reached at His daily radio can be heard 3-6 p.m. Mon-Fri on or 96.3 FM.)


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