The Lawyer’s Typewriter

When I was a senior in high school, my father gave me a wonderful Christmas gift. No, not a car. It was something a lot more powerful.

It was a typewriter. And not just any typewriter, mind you, it was a Sears electric typewriter.

Yes, back in the 1960s, Sears & Roebuck made typewriters manufactured right here in the good ole U. S. of A.!

The Haltoms were a Sears family. To paraphrase a line from Garrison Keillor, we felt that if Sears didn’t make it, we could probably get along without it. Almost everything in our house came from Sears: the oven, the refrigerator, the black-and-white non-color TV with rabbit ears on top.

The most exciting day of the year came in early November when our mailman would deliver the second greatest book ever published, the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue, a/k/a “the Wish Book.”

On that very special day, I would come home from school to be greeted by Momma, who would smile and calmly say, “Well, it’s here. It’s on the kitchen table.”

I knew exactly what Momma was referring to. I knew that the Wish Book had arrived, thanks to Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck, God bless them!

I would race to the kitchen and sit down at our Formica-top Sears table, and frantically leaf through the pages of the Wish Book, staring longingly at colored photographs of bicycles and electric football sets and hula hoops and pogo sticks. And as I looked through the Wish Book, I would suddenly become both Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge, as I was filled with both Christmas spirit and Christmas greed.

By Christmas 1969, I no longer believed in Santa. This was a big mistake on my part. Now that I’m a father, I definitely believe that Santa is real. I have the bills to prove it.

But while as a sophisticated high school senior, I no longer believed in Santa, I did believe in the spirit of Christmas, in the greediest secular sense. That is to say, I wanted Christmas gifts.

And so it came to pass that either Santa or my father, or some combination thereof, came down my chimney with a Sears electric typewriter. It was an absolutely wonderful machine. In contrast to my father’s old Olivetti Underwood, which I had borrowed from time to time, I didn’t have to pound at the keys. The 1969 Sears electric typewriter almost typed term papers by itself. If I so much as sneezed at the keyboard, “QWERTY” would instantly appear on my bond, James Bond, typing paper.

It also had a wonderful feature. So help me, it had an automatic whiteout! Any time I made a typo, I could immediately correct it by hitting the automatic whiteout key, that would then quickly zoom over the typo with white ink.

This was the word processing equivalent of sliced bread.

I know you will find this hard to believe since I am now, no doubt, the coolest lawyer in the State of Tennessee, but in 1969, I was a nerd. I was captain of my high school debate team, which made me unquestionably the nerdiest kid in the school. I had to avoid the school smoking area, as it was the hang-out for all the cool guys in the school. If I got so much as within 50 yards of the smoking area, the cool guys would proceed to beat me as if I were the bass drum in the high school band. Not coincidently, they would also beat the kid who actually beat the bass drum in the high school band, since band members were regarded as almost as nerdy as the debate team members.

Accordingly, I kept my Sears electric typewriter a secret. Had the cool guys in the smoking area discovered it, they would have shoved me into the carriage of my electric typewriter, hit the caps lock and shift keys, and proceeded to type the word “NERD” all over my bond-paper-thin-flattened body.

But my Sears electric typewriter became my secret weapon. I used it to type editorials for the school newspaper, calling for police protection in the smoking area.

I typed transcripts of my speeches for the high school debate team, making a compelling case that the United States of America should limit its foreign aid programs to non-military assistance.

And I typed term papers, comparing and contrasting the fall of the Roman Empire to the Nixon Administration.

In the fall of 1970, I took my typewriter with me to the campus of the University of Tennessee. My typewriter drove my freshman roommate crazy for one simple reason: the Sears super dooper electric typewriter was loud. Whenever I plugged it in and switched it on, it sounded like a Harley Davidson blasting down Cumberland Avenue.

As all former college students know, term papers are always typed in the middle of the night, just a few hours before they are due. Consequently, it was impossible for my roommate to get any sleep when I was using my Sears electric typewriter. Unfortunately, I then learned the hard way that, unlike me, my college roommate was not a nerd. He was a really cool guy who had spent a lot of time in his high school smoking area.

But by my sophomore year, my typewriter and I had a new roommate, and he was a nerdy guy just like me. He actually liked my electric typewriter and borrowed it frequently.

By my junior year, I was using my electric typewriter to type out humor columns for the finest newspaper in this state … The UT Daily Beacon!

And then in the fall of my senior year, I used my Sears electric typewriter to type out my application to the Big Orange College of Law.

You see, that wonderful Christmas present that Santa and my father had delivered to me in 1969 had become my tool for becoming a lawyer and an unsuccessful writer.

In the fall of 1975, my Sears electric typewriter and I enrolled in the Big Orange Law School, and over the next three years, I played my typewriter like Myron Floren played the accordion on the old Lawrence Welk Show. I typed my first legal brief for the law school moot court competition. I typed a note for the law review that was summarily rejected by the law review editorial board, which was comprised of people even nerdier than me.

And then during my third year of law school, I used my Sears electric typewriter to send out letters to every law firm in the state, begging them for a job. One of them made me an offer, and I immediately typed my acceptance letter.

My Sears electric typewriter and I began law practice together 34 years ago. But a few months after I was admitted to the Bar, I discovered a new machine. It was a dictaphone, a desk-top tape recording device that enabled me to dictate my letters that were then transcribed by my very own secretary. This made me feel very powerful. I felt like Perry Mason with Della Street.

My wonderful Sears electric typewriter began to gather dust, and at some point, it disappeared.

I have no idea what happened to it. I can’t recall having a yard sale. I just know at some point long after I became a husband and then a father, I could no longer find my old Sears electric typewriter.

And then a few years ago, I began to notice something. In the words of that noted stenographer Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again. With the advent of email, I was suddenly required to type again. I couldn’t use my dictaphone to compose a response to an email. I was once again staring at a keyboard and pounding out a response, although I wasn’t nearly as fast as I was in the days when I could play my Sears electric typewriter like Vladimir Horowitz played his Steinway.

Not long ago, I got one of those fancy “smart phones,”which as it turns out, is a lot smarter than I am. And suddenly I was typing on the world’s smallest keyboard inside my phone. This was not easy inasmuch as you must have hands the size of a flea to effectively type on a smart phone keyboard.

And so, I am back to typing again. I am a 60-year-old nerdy lawyer pounding out legal pleadings and memoranda and letters on a keyboard designed for Tom Thumb.

It makes me wish I still had my Sears electric typewriter. Hey, has anybody seen a copy of the Sears & Roebuck catalog lately?


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.