I was recently in the middle of the most grueling interview I’ve ever conducted when I suddenly felt an overwhelming gratitude for the simple gift of typing. It sounds odd, I know, but there I was in Iraq listening to witnesses describe specifics of Saddam Hussein’s war crimes when I realized I was capturing every precious word despite my tears and the sometimes torturous process of listening to testimony through a translator.
I’ll write more of Saddam and genocide later, trust me, but the value of being able to type in that situation took me back to Berlin American High School in 1972. There was a short, gregarious Mexican teacher named Lou Moreno. He called himself “SuperMex” and he was the type of character who played cards with students between classes but who then would keep his assistants in check with the constant worry that they were on “The List” for some minor infraction.
He wouldn’t have loomed as large as he did in my life except that I once said in his presence—me ever the posturing jock—that typing was for girls. Mr. Moreno was the teacher of any course involving business machines and it turned out that for him typing was more than a skill—it was a pillar of life. So, he leaned into me right there in the hall, all 5’2” of him, and told me that he challenged me to take his typing class to see if it wasn’t as challenging as football practice.
I don’t know why but I did. I was the only male in the class and it truly was hard at first—though ultimately nothing near as hard as football practice. Sorry, Mr. Moreno. But it was not long into the experience when something—probably some hint of destiny—began winning me to the clean crisp way I could put words on the page. My handwriting has always been like tangled wire and so it was impressive to me that even I—servant of the unwieldy pen—could make myself understood on paper just like the rest of the world. I fell in love with it, got good at it, became one of Mr. Moreno assistants, and spent several high school years bouncing on and off “The List,”—which meant in and out of his very Mexican grace.
I was fortunate. This was in the mid-1970s. High speed, multi-featured electronic typewriters came next and then, by the time I graduated from college, the personal computer. I felt made for it all. I have an almost mentally imbalanced love of lists and calendars, I’ve always leaned toward the humanities and I am congenitally horrible at math and the technical side of science. My technological age gave me tools that compensated for my deficiencies and extended my gifts.
When I got my hands on a personal computer–PC for years and then the glories of Mac– it felt like destiny confirmed. I was gifted for nothing about the technical side. There is very little geek in my DNA. But the ability to have my already rapidly typed words enhanced in some way or moved at light speed around the world was intoxicating. How many times I have sat alone in a room and voiced my thanks to Mr. Moreno.
What I have not had a chance to tell him is one of my great regrets about his class. I learned to type letters with speed and confidence but I must have cheated or been on some sports trip when he taught the other students how to incorporate numbers and symbols into the whole. I’m embarrassed to this day that I can soar when typing letters but have to hunt and peck for anything else.
Now, two dozen books later, I don’t know how I could have done what I have without the fruit of Mr. Moreno’s challenge and the magic of typing. If I were not called upon to write thousands of words a week, hunting and pecking would be sufficient, even fun. But I spend months at a keyboard a year turning out tens of thousands of words and so I’m delighted with anything SuperMex taught me that makes it all go more smoothly. I even sit around thinking about how to improve the fine art of typing. Having wide shoulders and long arms, I tend to dislike small keyboards. The one I use fans out ergonomically, but what I really want is a desk chair with a split keyboard built into the arm rests. Weird that I think about such things, I know, but I also think a lot about how to redesign my racquetball racquet and the planes I fly.
I’ve read that we use a QWERTY keyboard made for the speed of typewriters in the late 1800s. Apparently the typewriters at that time would jam up if someone typed too fast. To prevent this, specialists studied the best design for typewriter keyboards and came up with QWERTY because it didn’t allow typists to move beyond the capabilities of the machine. A later design for the keyboard, called DVORAK, apparently allows typists to move much faster and make fewer errors. I’m tempted to learn it—I understand a modern PC can be set for both QWERTY and DVORAK—just to see if it makes any true difference. This is my sickness, you see, but it is also part of my craft.
So, I write this in praise of old Mr. Moreno and the wonder of typing. I’m grateful for it, even when I have to use it to describe the most ghastly of human crimes. In fact, as I prepare to fly home from Iraq in a few days, I realize I’m especially thankful for typing when I have to—get to—record the evils of mankind by way of addressing them. And I remember with a laugh and a deep sense of indebtedness the challenge of a little Mexican teacher who somehow found his way to Berlin, Germany, to prepare me for my life.