“This isn’t writing at all. It’s typing.”

— Truman Capote

Thank God I learned to type.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me had I not learned to type. I’d be looking for bottles in trash cans in East St. Louis.

When I was a kid, there were relatives in my family who would always ask, “What’s gonna happen to that kid?”

At all family gatherings, I would entertain. I did impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Stewart. I told jokes my brothers told me. Aunt Mamie would whisper to my mother about how funny I was, but then my mother would whisper back, “I know, but I worry about what’s gonna happen to him.”

Mamie would say, and this is a true story, because she said it so many times you could embroider it on a pillow:

“That boy’s got to learn a trade.”

That’s a big one we all heard at one time or another, “He’s gotta learn a trade.”

I didn’t know at that age what “trade” meant. I thought maybe it was like a “trick,” like learning to juggle.

My brother Jug said, “It means a thing you learn to do, and then people hire you to do this thing, and they pay you, and then you get paid for it, and buy a house and have a family, and then you get a pension and die.”

I knew what fun was, and that wasn’t it.

So when you grow up hearing those words, “You have to get a trade,” it gets in your ear like water from swimming, and it whirls around in there all of your life.

When you’re very young, and birthday parties and Christmas morning are the most important days in your life, those words are like hearing, “You have to get your teeth cleaned, or they will rot and fall out and you’ll look like Owen Karenbrock.”

You surely didn’t want that to happen. Owen was the man who swept out Auel’s cafe up near the church. Owen had no teeth and couldn’t afford false ones. Neighborhood women used him as a boogeyman. Poor Owen.

By my late teens, when all I wanted to do was make out with Rosemary DeBranco, she of the one thousand and one pastel Angora sweaters and simple strand of pearls, I knew I had to get a trade, but what? None of the summer jobs I had in high school qualified as “trades.”

When in 1951 I got a draft card, I knew the jig was up.

So I enlisted in the Air Force, and after boot camp they gave me some tests that told them I was smarter than the guy from Hart County, Georgia, sitting next to me. So they sent me to college in Louisiana to learn clerical skills.

Clerical skills? What? Couldn’t they have just taught me some clerical skills in Texas? It turned out there was much more to it than that. It seems that the government has many documents to learn how to process, and you can’t fool around. But first you have to know how to type.

That’s where it all started — my rebirth, my salvation.

At Louisiana Tech, we were assigned to this Cajun lady’s typing class. I don’t remember her name, only that she was from Monroe, Louisiana, and that her fiance had lost his toes in a cotton gin accident.

And so I learned to type on one of those Royals with a bell and heavy keys. You had to hit the keys hard and then throw the carriage back. To kids today, that’s like starting a fire by rubbing rocks together.

Somehow I excelled at typing, and it changed my life.

As an actor, I needed to make a living doing other things. So I typed. From the Jewish Maternity Hospital in the Bronx to the reservation desks in five hotels, to typing inventory lists at the May Company in Cleveland, typing put meat between the buns in my supper.

I became a television script writer, because I knew how to type.

I am now a newspaper writer, because I know how to type. Had I not learned that, I probably would be selling newspapers from a box on the corner of 12th and Clark in St. Louis, and I’d be a toothless drunk like Owen Karenbrock. You know how much two sets of teeth cost?

Thank you, Uncle Sam.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

filed under: