“Mr. Vest is here today to talk to us about the importance of writing,” said Nicki Staber, one of three third-grade teachers at Collins Lane Elementary School in Frankfort. “Please give him your attention.”
Exactly how long I stood there before talking is unclear, but as a survivor I can tell you few things are scarier than standing in front of 90 wide-eyed third-graders. It was just yesterday that I was one of them and knew that anyone older than 12 was an adult and anyone older than 20-something was flat-out old. I don’t have any memory of how I started my speech, but it must have been confusing judging by the looks on the faces staring back at me.
In preparing to talk I had grabbed a couple of grade-appropriate books off the shelf in Miss Staber’s classroom. One of them was Kentucky’s Boone and the Pioneer Spirit by Lawrenceburg author K. Melissa Burton. “You know,” I said, “I know the author of this book. The book is about frontier life in Kentucky and what it was like to be a pioneer—one of the first settlers—in what was then a wilderness far different than Kentucky is today. No roads. Indian attacks. Wild animals.
“How could the author know what it was like to be a pioneer? She’s actually younger than I am,” I said, drawing even more confused stares. “Well,” I continued, “she knows what it was like because people back then wrote about their experiences and what things were like, and Melissa was able to read what they wrote and from that she was able to write her book.”
My point, which I thought was mildly insightful, was that when you write, you’re not just writing to those around you: “You might be writing to people hundreds of years in the future.”
This is about when I started down the wrong trail.
“When did you first start writing?” asked one of the students.
“When I was your age,” I said. “When I was in the third or fourth grade, my dad brought an old, battered typewriter home from work and fixed it so we could use it.” I started to say something about carbon paper …
“A typewriter?” puzzled one. “What exactly is a typewriter?” asked another.
“A typewriter,” I said, “well, it …”
“How did it work?” asked another, drawing a chuckle from Miss Staber, who realized, I hope, that I was not a typewriter expert.
“Well,” I said, pausing, pondering how to precisely explain the inner workings of such a thing to someone who had maybe never seen one. “It was like a computer keyboard, but it didn’t have any electricity. It had these round enamel buttons with letters like on a keyboard. You would hit the letter you wanted with your finger, hard enough to trigger a thin metal bar attached to a hammer-like thingy that had the engraved shape of a letter attached. The hammer-like thingy would fly up and strike a ribbon of black or red ink. The ink would then be transferred onto the paper, which was on a black rolling pin. Then you’d hit the next letter and the next. You couldn’t go too fast or the keys would get stuck together.”
“Is that when the bell would ring?”
“No, at the end of a line, a bell would ring so you’d know to move onto the next line.”
I told the students how when I was in the fourth grade a car crashed into a tree at the end of my street. I went down and interviewed a police officer about what had happened. I then came home, wrote up a story on the typewriter and sold copies to my neighbors for a nickel.
“You actually used a typewriter?” another student asked. “Just how old are you?”
A cloud of confusion descended upon the Collins Lane cafeteria. All 180 young, inquisitive eyeballs were focused squarely on me. I started to say something about all of the technological changes that have taken place since I graduated college. Before the words “nineteen hundred and eighty …” escaped from my lips, I realized that when I graduated and took my first newspaper job, the teacher—the adult clearly in charge—either had not been born or was, herself, a small child. The difference between us—both working adults—was a chasm—and juxtaposed against the wide-eyed, front-row likes of Annabelle and John-Cameron, junior members of my youngest daughter’s cross-country team, cast me in a rather elderly state.
I could clearly imagine how these young people saw me and how they translated my presentation to their parents several hours later.
“Anything happen at school today?”
“There was this old guy.”
“Yeah, he went across the country with John-Cameron and Annabelle.”
“Yeah. He was a time traveler or something. He talked about ribbons and bells and flying keys. Some of the keys were sticky.”
“Who was this guy?”
“I don’t know, but he went to college with Miss Staber and he knew Daniel Boone.”