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.