Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meditation Upon A T-ball Jotter

I spoke to a Rotary Club recently. I love Rotary Clubs. Such optimism and conviviality. If I ever overcome these feelings of pessimism and isolation, I might even join Rotary one of these days.

This Rotary Club listened politely. Rotary Clubs always do. They applauded politely when I finished. Rotary Clubs always do that too. Then, as Rotary Club presidents always do, the president of this club stood and thanked me and closed by handing me a pen. Pens seem to be Rotary’s universal way of saying thank you for coming to speak. I put the pen in my briefcase and promptly forgot it. I always do.

You know how pens are these days—cheap and generic, always coming and going. You run across one you like and it’s yours for a while, but eventually, it disappears. No one knows how. No one knows why. You reach for your pen and it’s just plain gone. If you hold onto the same one for a week, it’s remarkable. If you keep it for a month, it’s an heirloom.

At any rate, I must have lent whatever pen I’d been using to someone and they must have pocketed it. Because there I was the other day, in need of a pen, and it was gone. So I went to my briefcase, rummaged around, and came up with the one from the Rotary Club.

To my pleasant surprise, the Rotarians had laid a Parker T-Ball Jotter on me.

“Well all right,” I thought, “a T-Ball Jotter,” and I felt just a little better about the world. In an age of anonymous, blah, ho-hum pens, falling into a T-Ball Jotter was a day brightener.

My grandfather the traveling salesman was a T-Ball Jotter man. He owned a maroon one, and not just for a few days or months. It rode in his inside suit coat pocket for years. That pen was as much a part of his life as his scuffed up Gladstone suitcase, his black Ford with the sample cases on the back seat floor, and his notebook of details (penned in T-Ball Jotter) about his network of customers across southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and northern Indiana.

He was widowed and he lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. He sold furniture—sofas and tables and chairs and lamps—to a kind of small town family owned furniture store that disappeared decades ago. The department stores in the county seats killed them. Then the mass merchandisers killed the county seat department stores.

I drive across his old territory once in a while. I wonder which of the empty small town storefronts he walked through and which of the Main Street railroad hotels got his custom. I look up at a second floor window and imagine him at the desk in the room after supper, T-Ball Jotting the day’s hard-won orders onto company forms in the 40-watt light of the gooseneck lamp before bed.

He was widowed and lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. There were nine children in the house. Chaos reigned, especially in the morning. But there my grandfather would sit, at the breakfast room table, wearing a freshly-starched white shirt, tie properly knotted, eating his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and working the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune with his T-Ball Jotter.

It may have been the Tribune crossword that made a confirmed T-Ball Jotter man of him in the first place. He didn’t always finish the puzzle at breakfast and some nights he took it to bed. He had lived with fountain pens his whole life, and was amazed that ballpoint technology would allow him to work the puzzle flat on his back with his pen bottom up.

So he was a T-Ball Jotter man. And every so often, some occasion would come along—a birthday or first communion or confirmation or Christmas—and allow you to be T-Ball Jotter kid. Sometimes, on special days, great aunt, Flo would come through with a T-Ball Jotter, boxed and gift wrapped. It was not quite as good as a card with five dollars in cash, but it was two cuts above a box of monogrammed handkerchiefs from Kresge’s.

A T-Ball Jotter from Flo was a badge of maturity that you clipped into your shirt pocket and wore to school. You couldn’t use it for schoolwork much. It was ink, and inerasable. But it had a heft, and you felt a little more like an adult, at least until you lost it. You couldn’t look Flo in the eye for a while after that.

A few months after I left home to go to college, my grandfather had a heart attack. He was on the road, of course. He sat up in a motel in Kokomo, Indiana all night and in the morning he drove to Little Company of Mary and checked in.

I don’t know what happened to his pen when he died, but a few years ago, somebody brought one of his notebooks to a family reunion. There it was, in turn-of-the-century Chicago parochial school Palmer method cursive—a T-Ball Jotter glimpse of my grandfather plying his trade.

No doubt one of these days my Rotary T-Ball Jotter and I will part ways. I’ll reach to my shirt pocket, and it’ll be gone.

But maybe, if you’re a writer, God hands you a shoebox full of the pens you lost in life when you die. All of them. All the Papermates and the cheapo pushbutton jobs and the one or two Watermans you fell into and fell out with, and thousands and thousands of nineteen cent Bics.

Maybe God says, “Here you go, kid. Try not to lose them this time.”

If so, I’ll rummage through the box until I find this particular pen—this T-Ball Jotter. The one with the Rotary logo that says, “IN APPRECIATION TO OUR GUEST SPEAKER” on the barrel.

And I’ll put it in my shirt pocket and think, “Well all right.”