The Hunt and Peck Method
By Harry M. Covert
I learned at about 10 years old how to type and I did it on an old Underwood typewriter. What a machine. My father had bought it for $25, secondhand. He kept it on a rickety table in his little attic office at our house on 33rd Street in Newport News, Virginia. I would sneak up to his atelier and use the “holy method” on that black machine. I would sit for an entire afternoon in those hot summer days. It was hunt-and-peck known in religious circles as seek and ye shall find. Sweat would roll off my forehead as I toiled. There was no air conditioning in the house and no insulation up there either. I was almost in heaven as I slowly hit the keys. At that point, I was not a fast keyboard man. But I learned the QWERTY keyboard.
It was in that loft I began to write letters. I wrote first to my paternal grandmother in Detroit, Michigan. Usually I could come up with two or three a month and I described everything going on in our house. When my uncle went off to the Navy, he would get my epistles. A few years ago my mother insisted I take an old cardboard box from her basement. There I found letters my grandmother had written me and the missives I’d sent her. I found several of Uncle Carlyle’s letters from his boot camp days in Bainbridge, Maryland. Seems like the postage then was three cents. My interests expanded too. I copied articles from our newspaper. At that young age, it took me a few months to learn that I couldn’t justify the columns on the typewriter as they appeared in the newspaper. I finally figured it out. I found newspapers used typesetting machines.
I practiced typing every day. That was more fun then than practicing the piano. I copied sports news stories from the Daily Press and The Times-Herald about our Newport News Baby Dodgers, the Class B Piedmont League farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. For a long time in this summer of 1950 I kept a record of the runs, hits and errors, the standings and who had a chance to move up to the major leagues. Our town in those days produced some mighty good major leaguers like Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Chuck Connors, who later became TV’s Rifleman. There were others but I can’t recall them at the moment.
From those childhood moments, I was hooked on typewriting and newspapers. I admired what seemed to be the eclectic and exciting lifestyles of newspapermen and sportswriters. By the time I got to high school, I was writing most of my papers on the Underwood. It took special permission from my teachers to submit them double-spaced. You may recall that back in the early Fifties we were still writing with fountain pens, something I like to do today. Along about 1956 or 1957, ballpoints became the rage. I like to see notes and letters written with fountain pens. I even use a Cross and Parker 51. I wish I could find peacock blue ink for them. And I’ve tried. The Parker has been with me since 1972. I keep them both cleaned and usable. The problem with me though is my handwriting hasn’t improved. I keep trying. I’ve been trying to improve my cursive skills since at least the fifth grade in Mrs. Reames class at Daniel School. Her name escapes me now but our writing teacher used to come to our class and school at various intervals though out the year. And each time she would write the names of “pupils” who excelled in cursive on the chalkboard, which had changed from black to green with yellow chalk.
I worked very hard to try and improve my penmanship. Seems like everyone in the class was getting their name on the board but me. There were Dino Vretos and James Gay and even Fadolia Smith. Not me though. Then the final appearance of the writing teacher came. Miss Rebecca Reames, one of my favorite teachers of all times, sort of tipped me off that I may have made the good list. And so on a spring afternoon she arrives all smiles and begins to write all the names of my good writing classmates on the chalkboard. Instead of my name on the board, she wrote sweet Katherine Adams’ name. I was sunk.
<span style="color: #ff0000;">It was then I turned to the typewriter. And now, here I am writing on my laptop keyboard. And children today, even at 10, are at the magic keyboards of the computer and don’t have any ideas about a typewriter. One of my grandchildren catches me on the Internet almost everyday with instant messaging. What fun. And the written and spoken word is still exciting to me.
In high school I was able to learn to touch type and got a quick an easy “A” in Mrs. Clift’s typing class. I could type fast, lots of words and few mistakes. It sure came in handy because I’ve always been able to take advantage of my epistolary intercourse almost blindfolded.
I knew I was headed for a newspaper career. Mr. John Huller, my high school journalism teacher, had arranged a job for me in the sports department of The Times-Herald.“Scooter” Huller died a few years ago in Florida where he worked many years at Disneyworld. He’s a was a great man. The first lesson came quickly to me on that Monday morning following the Friday night graduation. I was scared to death. I was 17. But I showed up at the newspaper on 25th Street and sat down in the sports department. Gene Markham, the assistant sports editor and well-known scribe, assigned me the task of writing the little league baseball roundup. Nervously I picked up a black copy pencil and began to write on old copy paper. “No no no,” Gene yelled. “You can’t do that. You gotta type it. We don’t have time for that.” I was on my way. I had really died and gone to heaven that moment. I think Gene felt sorry for me but he made me feel welcome, no matter how wet behind the ears, and gave me a byline. I couldn’t believe it. And then I discovered I was making a dollar an hour and no overtime. It didn’t make any difference then. I got the newsroom education where I worked with the best newspaper people I’ve ever known, even to this day.
They formally welcomed me after deadline for the afternoon paper as the young boy, taking me to lunch at the old Tidewater Hotel on 27th Street and Washington Avenue, around the corner from the newspaper office and the police station and courthouse. We slid into the booths and the proprietor Bill Stokes, an old navy boxer, brought us each bowls of navy beans and white bread. There I was with well-known Tidewater Virginia newspapermen Gene Markham, Nick Mayo, Frank Fenton and Jim Avery. They talked newspaper talk. I listened. I was awestruck then. I’m awestruck now. I love remembering that moment to this very day.
That’s how I got started and I blame it on the magnificent Underwood.