How I Won the Aqua Typewriter
Back in the 1960s, developers built a new shopping center at the corner of Lexington Highway and Cherokee Road in my hometown of Athens, Georgia. They named it East Plaza. The anchor store was Bells’ Food Market, which brought a much-needed source of groceries to the Eastside.
This site had previously been a rural farm with a large, white-frame farmhouse, outbuildings and several small former sharecropper houses on a hill. When I was a little girl, I could see these houses, outbuildings and the beautiful, rolling farmland from the front yard of my Bailey grandparents’ house on Lexington Road.
In the distance, to the left of the neighbor’s farm, we had a good view of airplanes taking off and landing at the Athens Airport, a much smaller place back then. I can still feel my grandparents’ house shaking and hear the dishes and knick-knacks rattling. Each plane takeoff and landing sounded and felt like it might be the end of their house, and maybe the end of us. This terrified me as a child, but didn’t stop me from visiting my grandparents and Uncle Terry, who was five years older than me. Their house was one of my favorite childhood places, rivaled only by my Coile grandparents’ house on Springtree Road, where I enjoyed countless days of fun with my Aunt Judith, who was three years my senior.
Another merchant in East Plaza Shopping Center, Fife’s Drugstore, decided to celebrate their grand opening with a Best Boy – Best Girl contest that featured an array of enticing prizes displayed across a tall shelf in their store.
I cricked my neck and studied the row of prizes: dolls, sports equipment, an aqua typewriter and a shiny guitar. I wanted that guitar. I had never played one before, but I imagined myself winning it, taking it home to our red brick ranch house on Cherokee Road and learning to play folksongs.
My grandmother, Myrt, who assured me I was indeed the Best Girl, set out to help me win the contest by having her many friends, some of whom were her Sunday School classmates at nearby Tuckston Methodist Church, visit Fife’s frequently to cast votes for me.
Finally, the big day arrived and the owner of Fife’s Drugstore announced the winners. When he called my name, I learned that I wasn’t the Best Girl after all. Despite my grandmother’s best efforts, I came in second and the Second Best Girl became the publicly proud but secretly disappointed owner of the little aqua typewriter.
I gave the guitar one more wistful look as I took the typewriter outside and shoved it into our burgundy Ford Galaxy.
“That’s a really nice prize,” my mom said, steering the car up Cherokee Road.
“Yeah,” I said, wondering what I was going to do with this little aqua machine. I didn’t know how to type.
Lucky for me, the typewriter came with some simple instructions, though these were no substitute for a typing class. I set the typewriter on a table in my bedroom and prepared to type something, using two fingers, of course.
From the age of eight, I’d been writing poems by hand. I didn’t think I needed a typewriter for those. Surely I could think of something else to write, now that I was the owner of a brand new aqua typewriter.
For a long time, I wrote nothing. I just stared at the typewriter, which happened to be my favorite color, and thought about the guitar I had missed winning.
Eventually, I tapped out a poem and then the beginning of a short story. The typewriter keys were stiff and hard to press at first, but over time, I got used to the feel of the white keys as I typed stories, and I began to enjoy the clickety-clack sounds.
Sometimes I wonder if I would be a writer today if I hadn’t won that little aqua writing machine or if I hadn’t had the benefit of all those Best Girl votes and my enthusiastic and encouraging grandmother, who believed I could win and helped me do it.
Today, when you shop in Lowe’s on the Eastside, you’re buying your appliances, paint and other home improvement items at the former site of East Plaza Shopping Center, which was on the former site of the farm and the sharecroppers’ homes. And most likely before that, the place might have been home to masters and slaves, and before that, it was the land of Indians who roamed and hunted there. My grandparents’ former five acres later became the site of Shoney’s and now Pinnacle Bank occupies that space, covering the once special-to-me ground, where my uncle and I and a neighborhood of Eastside kids played, where others worked crops, where Indians hunted and roamed.
These days, the little girl who came in second in the Best Girl contest at Fife’s Drugstore, is a published author. She replaced the aqua typewriter with a Smith-Corona and replaced that with an IBM Selectric, then a Radio Shack Tandy computer, a Packard-Bell, then several Windows computers and Macs. Today, she writes on an iMac and an iPad Pro.
Things constantly change, sometimes quickly and more often gradually. Farms and shopping centers and grandparents’ houses and entire ways of life are demolished. People are replaced, too. Others take their places, rightfully or not, and those who came before are, for the most part, forgotten.
“No, you can’t always get what you want,” the Rolling Stones sang in one of my favorite songs. “But if you try sometime you find you get what you need.”
One of the first stories I tapped out on my little Second Best Girl aqua typewriter was about Julian Bond winning the presidency. (This was before he became the first African American to have his name entered into nomination as a major-party candidate for Vice President of the United States.) I looked into the future, sitting there in my violet bedroom in the Winterville Cherokee Road ranch house, and imagined changes that might come during my lifetime.
If I had been voted Best Girl, I might have written a folksong about all the possible changes that were coming, and strummed it with the shiny guitar. But I didn’t win it. (Though I did learn to play a few cords later on, with my grandmother Coile’s guitar.)
Instead, I won the little aqua typewriter, the gateway writing machine that gave me a reason to write. And that prize guided me toward a lifetime of literary pursuits.
Sometimes second best is good enough.