• The Typewriter's Rat-a-Tat-a-Tat-Pling!


    The Longwood Symphony of Boston medical professionals was the model for our Durham Medical Orchestra. I have been a member of its second violin section since its beginning six years ago. Several years ago, we added Leroy Anderson’s piece “The Typewriter” to our repertoire.

    Leroy was a Harvard graduate and was encouraged by Artur Fiedler to write music for the Boston Pops. “The Typewriter” was one of his more popular works especially among percussionists. For once they could be at the front of the orchestra behind their typewriter, load paper, tune its “A” key to the oboe’s 440 Hz and then go rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-pling throughout the entire piece ripping out the paper with a flourish at the end.

    Most Scope readers will recall when every office had several typewriters that were totally finger-powered, sounding their obligato of rat-a-tats and plings. Our performances of Leroy’s piece were enthusiastically received by older Duke reunion groups. But younger folks — even those in our orchestra — had no idea of the function of that bell that told the typist to finish the word and pull the carriage return lever to advance the paper and start the next line.

    I loved my portable and its plings. But in my earliest teens at Carr Junior High, typing was the root of my first serious parental rebellion.  My mother, bless her heart, had decreed that I would take the typing course at school. I adamantly refused, pointing out that I would be the only boy in that class and the butt of my buddies' derisive scorn. Furthermore, the tests were words per minute and some girl would surely beat me.

    Our positions were both set in concrete but Mom came up with a compromise. After school, I would have to take the bus downtown to a secretarial school, and after touch-typing there for 90 minutes I could come home. I am sure that it cost the family as the course lasted for weeks. I was still the only male and although I never learned to blindly do numbers, it turned out to be one of the most beneficial classes that I ever took. When it was over I could type as fast as I could write and yes, some women in my class had higher wpm scores than mine.

    But none of them could match Betsy Barton. J. Lawton Smith, neuroophthalmologist had joined the Duke faculty toward the end of my residency there. Although he did not see many patients, his reports were multipage erudite explorations of differential diagnoses often dictated in front of his patients. His first secretary, Janet, fresh from teaching school was a very attractive, intelligent and talented young lady who soon had a stack of untranscribed tapes on her desk.

    Lawton’s frequent use of terms like "ophthalmodynamometry" required research. Janet heard that Betsy Barton downstairs had prodigious typing skills and asked her for help. Betsy’s machine did not go rat-a-tat. It purred like a tiger. Lawton was soon getting his reports back in timely fashion. When Ed Norton lured him to the Bascom Palmer, he took Betsy and her husband along with him to Florida. Janet ended up in Florida also as my co-resident Bill Hunter’s lovely wife.

    Do you still have your typewriter? During our downsizing, I could not justify the space for my IBM Selectric and much to my regret out it went. Grandchildren didn’t want it. Their typing is primarily with thumbs on iPhones where you get three choices for every next word.  Leroy Anderson’s musical salute is obsolete and will soon be of interest only to historians. It is failing to get laughs or even smiles from a younger generation mystified by rat-a-tat-a-tat-a. PLING.