Copywriter Scott B. Laughlin 2021
My given name is Sylvester Roberts. But I prefer being called Bob. Being the smallest guy around has some drawbacks – too short for basketball, not enough body mass for football. Softball? Well, I’m tall enough. Weight doesn’t matter either. But patience does. Standing around waiting for a fly ball is not my favorite pastime. As a result I’ve elected to spend the majority of my time alone. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m an only child. I’m accustomed to it. It leaves me time for non-competitive activities, like fishing and reading.
Mother luck smiled on me a few months back. I don’t mean it was a stroke of luck that Uncle Ted passed. Have mercy. When his attorney read his will I learned I had become the owner of his Olivetti Lettra 22 typewriter. What a fine machine that is. Getting the hang of it took time. But time is on my side, another positive attribute of being a square peg.
As the evenings became weeks I learned to type words, rather than letters. I didn’t have to spell out short words. In time my fingers learned words like my eyes did. It just happens. Now I’ve added another activity to my short list of non-competitive sports – short story writing. Sweet.
An after-school job had not been a consideration until I spotted the help wanted sign in the Southern Pacific Depot. Everyone knows Brookings, Oregon is not large enough to support a Western Union Office. Instead, the train dispatcher handles the telegrams.
On the given day I spot the sign I learn looking for a high school student to deliver telegrams each afternoon. I certainly know my way around Brookings. George Warner, the daytime train dispatcher, ticket writer, Western Union Operator, and manager all wrapped into one. He’s an old man, pushing forties, probably. His hair was thin and gray at the temples. He’s a little stopped . Age, probably. But his eyes really draw my attention as I apply for the job. They are washed out and tired looking. He hires me, I start that very afternoon. The pay wasn’t great, but that’s not a big deal, me living at home and all.
George hands me a stack of telegrams already in envelopes each bearing the names and addresses of the recipients. Then he shows me the bicycle with a sign on the front fender that reads: Western Union. Just like that I’m an important kid.
Everything is routine for the first three months. But then rumors of an impending war makes Western Union important. People want to know. Overnight, it seems, the depot has become a madhouse. George can no longer keep up.
One afternoon I find him busy with a fat lady wearing a purple coat with a furry coat trying to schedule a ticket for San Francisco. Hen hasn’t had time to translate a stack of cursive telegrams into Western Union form. So without waiting for instructions, I sit down and begin typing. Then the Western Union wire comes to life. I’ve picked up the American Morse, enough to understand the clicking of the sounder. I set the cursive messages aside and begin copying the sounder with the typewriter without actually knowing what the message states. After receiving the sender’s end-of-message designator I reach for his bug and send an acknowledgement. Then I return to the stack of cursives.
“I sensed you were picking up Morse, but I didn’t know you could type,” George called across the room after the San Francisco lady had left.
“Sometimes I even surprise myself,” I said.
That demonstration of my skills didn’t earn me a raise, but it fetched me some respect.
On 7 December 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. Before the month was out I received a summons from the draft board. Evidently, George spoke up on my behalf, because the following day I boarded a train bound for San Diego. I’m not sure of my destination, only that I joined others already engaged in high-speed code training. These students had already advanced beyond pencil copy and were learning to use a typewriter. The school had all the earmarks of a structure that was hastily constructed. The studs and rafters were rough and unpainted. Apparently sessions are conducted around the clock. My classes are at night, each student monitors with headsets which the instructor, a bald headed man is a World War One Veteran. I can never get passed his sharp eyes and his push-broom mustache. And then there is his crooked nose and he fact he is wheelchair bound. All I know about him is that Master Sergeant McDougle. He is a no-nonsense man who is often referred to as the Baldheaded Bastard, not to his face, of course. Listening to Morse becomes boring for many during night sessions. When a student drifts off, as they occasionally do, they may hear the code change from random characters to PE777 PE7 JA, the rhythm associated with the song “The Old Grey Mare”. Other times their code may suddenly become extremely high speed. Either one awakened the sleeping student.
My first duty began in the radio room of a newly commissioned Liberty Ship where I settle in comfortably with a bug, headset, and typewriter. My pencil and paper decency is not exposed for a year, while my ship is at anchor in the Philippines.
I’m standing watch on the forward deck when Harry, a tall man who works in the galley, stops for a chat.
“Is that light sending a message, or is someone just fooling around?” Harry asked, pointing across the harbor.
Following his hand I recognize it as Morse.
“Here, jot down the letters as I call them out,” I tell him, handing over a scrap of paper and a stubby pencil.
“Is he finished?”
“I think so. What’s it say?”
“It says our ship is on fire.”
Naturally, I sound the alarm and the problem is quickly solved.
Throughout the war I was never again challenged to decipher code without a typewriter. One day my oldest granddaughter asked me what I did during the war. I probably could have told her of my swimming away from a sinking ship. But instead I told her I was a clerk.