The Observatory

The Truth Shall Set You Laughing

Jeremiah Horrigan

Jeremiah Horrigan
New Paltz, New York, USA
February 04
Working Copy
Former Knight of the Altar, St. Martin's parish in South Buffalo, NY. Old enough to remember ducking-and-covering from the nukes that Sister Jeanne assured us were coming our way, defending Santa Claus until age 10, hating playing sports, wanting to fly, escaping to Westchester County for three years, re-escaping to Buffalo for most of high school, escaping to Fordham U long enough to drop out, escaping school, getting political, getting arrested, getting tried, convicted and released for crimes against the draft. Husband to Patty, father to Grady and Annie. Housepainter, cab driver, idiot, then newspaper reporter in Poughkeepsie, years of freelancing (Sports Illustrated, New York Times, Negligent Mother Magazine) and shameful indulgence, followed finally by 18 more years of reporting, column-writing, some awards, discoveries large and small along the way, including these: Sister Jeanne was full of beans, writing is good for the soul and I'm the luckiest man alive.


Jeremiah Horrigan's Links
JULY 11, 2011 8:20AM

What it was and why it was perfect

Rate: 8 Flag

We found each other in the parking lot outside the hilariously misnomered Tiki Resort on traffic-clogged Lake Avenue in Lake George NY on the Fourth of July weekend. We shook hands then drew each other into an embrace -- a brotherly embrace if ever there was one.

Joe is my brother, younger than I by 18 months, on the verge of turning 60.  My wife Patty and I and Joe’s wife MaryAnn turned to grab our suitcases and check out the double-bedded room Joe had reserved at the last minute of a last-minute plan to travel ten hours from his home in Canton, OH to the Tiki, a converted Howard Johnson’s whose promised  “partial view of the lake” turned out to be so partial as to be invisible, much like the “balcony” at the end of the room that came disguised as a concrete sill, entirely capable of supporting the front legs of the room’s lone lounge chair.

Patty & I, no strangers to last-minute plans ourselves, had traveled a mere two hours from our home in New Paltz, NY to spend the holiday weekend at the Tiki. Without Joe’s invitation, we’d have been content to sit out the holiday in our usual way, puttering about the house where absolutely necessary, talking, cooking and eating before Netflixing an old movie. Then we’d settle in for the night, vaguely aware of the thunder of faraway fireworks but never rousing ourselves sufficiently to battle traffic and ennui to witness them.

But I digress. We were still in the Tiki’s parking lot, making bad hula-dancer jokes when Joe said he had something for me in the trunk of his car. Joe has a devilish grin and matching laugh, which suits him because he’s also an inveterate practical joker, with a particular taste for jokes involving mannequins and their various parts. Something for me in the trunk from Joe?

 Uh-huh, I said, bracing myself.

He popped the trunk and told me to look away while he showed what he’d found to Patty, who, when she saw it, sounded impressed and agreed with him that it – whatever “it” was – suited me perfectly.And they were right.

Finally granted clearance to view it, I stared down at a perfect icon for and from my life: a black metal typewriter, maybe 80 years old, wondrously intact, from its white-faced keys to its still-threaded black ribbon, and emblazoned in 64-point type with the gilded  word “WOODSTOCK” on the page rest behind the paper roller.

Though I’d never seen it before and have never used so ancient a model in my life, the typewriter carried with it echoes of what I do and did with my life and what Joe and our younger brother Jack all share from our newspaperman-father ’s life. Dad made his living at a typewriter, and so, in one way or another, at one time or other, have we.

For all I’ll ever know, dad may have perfected his two-digit typing technique at just such a Jurassic typewriter as this one. By the time either Joe or I could remember him, he was sitting at the kitchen table back in hometown Buffalo, having long since graduated to the gunmetal gray Smith-Corona portable he used to pound out stories on weekends. Tentatively striking a couple of keys while it sat in the trunk, I heard again the staccato echo of words being slammed onto sheets of innocent foolscap. All I needed was a cloud of White Owl smoke and a brazenly ringing telephone to complete a sensual picture of our father’s makeshift newsroom.

Joe’s gift will never again be put to its original purpose. It exists now to invoke not just memories but to be admired as the ingenious, familiar and handsome tool that it is, much as if we’d been a family of musicians and Joe had discovered a battered old Martin guitar at a flea market, too aged to restore, a thing to be cared for and admired for its beauty.

It sits perched temporarily before me on a wooden stool as I sit writing on its sleek ancestor. Its arced, yawning bed of exposed type bars smiles at me. Its keyboard – each letter appearing to be inlaid in aged ivory -- begs to be struck. It’s dusty now, only a day away from its trip home,  but, like a Model T rescued from a moldering garage, it will soon be buffed to a black metallic sheen that would have tickled Henry Ford’s putative heart.

I’m not a mechanically minded guy, but any fool can instantly see and appreciate this machine’s singular combination of beauty and functionality, its job so transparently obvious and simple: to impress upon a piece of paper, one by one, a string of symbols that add up to words that add up to sentences that culminate in the physical representation of thoughts that add up to . . . who can guess? A stillborn novel? An annual report? Letters home, letters of introduction, letters full of love or heartbreak. Who can possibly guess at the myriad uses this exact machine was once put to? What notes did it sound, what songs did it sing, in what directions did it send the thoughts and lives of people who used it or read its stories?

But such an old fashioned machine is discreet. It leaves no traces, reveals no secrets.  Its history can only be guessed at, imagined, not conjured at the touch of a key.

And for all such seeming abstract beauties, this particular typewriter is resonantly and perfectly mine because of its name: Woodstock. It’s the essential reason Joe bought it for me.

Within our family, Woodstock has always belonged to me: I happily stood in its mud in ’69, defended its cosmic grooviness in a letter to the editor, used it to delude myself for some years into believing its legend, worshipped shards of its musical legacy (Santana! Hendrix!) and even managed to get a sliver of my memories published (and paid for) in an anniversary anthology and video-taped as part of an NPR fund-raiser.

Does it matter that the typewriter’s name harkens not to New York but to Illinois? Not a bit. After all, the music festival itself didn’t happen in Woodstock, NY. Besides, Woodstock Nation, as Abbie Hoffman once testified, was not a place but a state of mind. And that state of mind put its stamp on me as indelibly as the music of dad’s typewriter.

And so Joe’s gift, finally buffed if not entirely repaired, will be given a place of honor somewhere in our house, some place where, when I’m tired of the business side of writing, weary of typewriters whose stories are measured by deadlines and word-counts, typewriters that may dazzle me with their brilliance but are also happy to snatch what remains of my privacy for their own nefarious uses, I’ll visit this ancient ancestor, this Typewriticus Woodstockosaur and I’ll tap out a short, wordless, two-fingered tune that’s been stashed these long years in my memory bank, and Joe’s perfect gift will renew me. 

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I can see why this was the perfect gift.
I think I heard that tune in this piece - from a foolscap gold piece hallowed horn (sorry, Mr. Dylan).
Great story! Woodstock memories still amaze many years later.
What an amazing gift, a treasure! And I can't believe you were actually there at Woodstock, slipping in the mud. It must have been magical, and no wonder you still feel a connection so many years later.
Woodstock keeps popping up in little mentions & places, and it's not even August yet. Good for me that your memory is still crisp! -from Alaska. Thank
Your reference to your dad's two-fingered typing reminded me of an editor who ran the "rim," a horse-shoe-shaped desk where the sports copy editors sat at the Dallas Morning News nearly 35 years ago. Bud Kennedy was his name, and I've never seen two fingers fly so fast, or accurately.

Sometimes I wish we were back in those typewriter days, when things were slow enough for us to think before we "posted."

Glad to see you still providing insight and wisdom in a bent world.
Umpita: Woodstock was the sort of event that even a formerly mind-blown boy of 19 couldn't forget after 40 years. Thanks for dropping in from the NOrth Country.

James! So glad to see you back in the saddle! It's been too long. I hope all's well with you & yours. Your point about the acceleration of everything these days is well taken. Taking things slow and easy sometimes seems an absolutely revolutionary approach to life, doesn't it? Cheers man.
Wow what a wonderful memory. I was born too late for Woodstock.
Wow what a wonderful memory. I was born too late for Woodstock.
The closest I got to Woodstock was seeing the movie when it first came out (at the State Theater in Modesto) & I was completely into it & even now it represents this really vivid time for me. Whenever I see it I am 19 again in the best way. To actually be there? -- aaahhh!

As for typewriters, I love seeing old carbon copies of letters, hearing the clacking of the keys. Sometimes the weight of the keys made you believe you were writing something substantial. I love this: "I heard again the staccato echo of words being slammed onto sheets of innocent foolscap," & the way you wonder about the typewriter's personal history.

I have two circa 1975 electric Executives typewriter out in the garage. They don't work anymore, but I can't bring myself to throw them away because they belonged to my mom. Mom was like The World's Fastest Typist. The sound of a typewriter makes me remember her.

Really, this is such a lovely tribute to typewriters AND to brothers. I like the handshake-embrace, the expectation of a practical joke, the Tiki Resort, the hula-dancer jokes, & can imagine Joe's pleasure in finding that wonderfully evocative perfect gift!
What a lovely piece, in so many ways. The picture of your family and the love and comfort between you, the hilarious portrait of the Tiki "resort" and, most of all, the reverence used to describe both Woodstocks...makes me eager to hear that two-fingered song.
Suzie: And thank God for the movie -- like having sideline seats on the fifty yard line, being there was about the worst place to see or hear the music. I firmly believe most first-hand memories of the festival itself hail from Michael Wadleigh, not Michael Lang.

Still, I'd not trade the experience for all oregano in the dope that was going around then.

And you're dead-on about the effort required to pound out a story -- how even now that pounding seems to make a story stronger, more muscular to read as well as write.

Sounds like you should hang on to those typewriters. Check out the web; there's a surprising amount of how-to info up there.

And thanks for mentioning brother Joe. He's the hero of this episode.


Really, this is such a lovely tribute to typewriters AND to brothers. I like the handshake-embrace, the expectation of a practical joke, the Tiki Resort, the hula-dancer jokes, & can imagine Joe's pleasure in finding that wonderfully evocative perfect gift!
Ann: It's a song I'm sure you have stashed in your memory bank, complete with a whole 'nother set of sweet memories. (You're not telling me you worked at the AP and actually knew how to use all your fingers. That you didn't need to look at the keyboard? Are you?)