The smell of fountain pen ink hangs heavy
in the air. It’s intoxicating. Royal Blue mixing with Blue
and Blue-Black……further mingling with South Sea Blue,
the crème de la crème of ink colors. My Business Black
color standing out there all alone with its distinct, crisp, authoritative
hue. I was convinced it lent panache to my compositions.
Our pens were filled and poised. My genuine, imitation wood grain
Esterbrook was warm and idling high, waiting for the starting flag.
Like racing car drivers, we anticipated the speed of penmanship
practice. Our 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Kirwin, the penmanship queen
for the entire Newark school system, is officiating. It’s
penmanship practice at Abington Avenue School, the 1950s.
Mrs. Kirwin, steps away authoritatively from behind her desk,
ruler in hand, the crowd hushes….
“Ready class! (start your engines) First we shall do ovals.
Begin! Circle, circle, circle…make it smooth and neat…circle,
circle, circle. Mr. Roman…move that whole arm, not just your
“Yes ma’am, I’m trying, but only the wrist is
“That’s why we call it practice mister. Circle, circle
A cry rises from somewhere behind me, mechanical trouble sounds
come from a clogged fountain pen tip……
“What is wrong Miss Ferraro?”
“My pen is blobbing all over the place. I need a pit stop,
there is ink all over my paper.”
“Use a tissue to clean the tip, and get yourself back into
“You there, Mr. Pinorfi, don’t move your arm so much
or you will have ovals the size of Baltimore. Lighten up on your
grip. Smooth and fluid with your writing.”
You did not mess with Mrs. Kirwin. Besides being 6 feet tall,
she wrote out your graduation diploma. Get on her bad side and your
name might get misspelled or your diploma horribly mutilated. She
held the power, and a fearsome looking ruler to boot.
We were coming into the dangerous far turn on the track now. I
must be ready to downshift…….
“All right, class, move down two lines on your paper and
let’s see some push-pulls!
Miss Ferraro, are you with us?”
“Yes, everything is OK.”
As I let out the clutch, I cannot help but think if she is going
to clog, this is where it will happen; but my trusty Esterbrook
is humming. She responds like silk. That old polished steel tip
is slicing paper like butter, laying down push-pulls like a seismograph.
I swear I can hear ink draining from that old rubber bladder like
an open sluice gate.
Oh my gosh, I think, a push-pull spin out! Must have hit a grease
spot on the paper. I hazard a quick look to my left to spot Joe
Mulligan trying to pull his pen tip out of the desk. He’s
a goner—skidded right off the paper. That engine is toast.
Let the clutch out too quick….took that turn too high. He’ll
be buying another pen this weekend. Lucky for him it’s Friday.
There goes his allowance savings.
The smell of sweat and determination adds a musky odor to the
track. Arms are starting to burn, wrists are tingling. How much
longer can we take this high rpm condition. Everything has its limits
you know. The checkered flag comes into view…….
The crowd cheers as the cars head for the pits. Raised arms, boxer
style. all-around. Flex those biceps to get the blood flowing back.
There…I can feel my wrists again.
I’d better top off my tank just to make sure. Out comes
the ink bottle, a quick dip and snap of the metal lever and that
old rubber bladder takes on a load of fresh fuel. What technique.
Not a drop spilled.
“All right class…..let’s do the alphabet. Make
sure you get those curls and loops right. Make sure you match the
Palmer cards above the blackboards. Ladies, no curly-cues and circles.
Lower case ‘i’ has a dot, no tiny circles. Begin!”
Can you imagine today, taking ink to school every day like we
did. It would be classified toxic material. If you spilled it and
believe me someone always did, those guys in the moon suits would
be called in, and the entire school cordoned off with yellow tape.
Every class I remember had fading ink spots on their creaking, wooden
floors. It was a very different time.
I never was able to find that old Esterbrook. Today, with the
avant garde appeal of fountain pens, it would be a proud granddaddy.
I think it was originally my father’s pen. I can still see
that mahogany wood grain design. She was sleek….none of that
sissy mother-of-pearl stuff, with a finely split tip and the name
Esterbrook carved deeply into it.
As ball-point pens and cheap fountain pens with pre-packaged plastic
refills of ink came on the market, the elegance of traditional fountain
pens rapidly faded. The ball-points and later the felt tips put
the kibosh on ink bottles. It was an ignominious end for a proud
tradition. Try and buy bottled ink today. It was like when my engineering
slide rule gave way to cheap calculators. You could feel the magic,
the mystique, draining away.
Can you remember your first fountain pen?