The letters arrived in my dorm mailbox every Thursday. I’d unlock the little door, fish out my mail, and thumb through the letters.
Dad’s familiar, copperplate cursive always stood out. He penned each letter with his trusty Parker fountain pens. No one writes like Abraham Lincoln anymore.
Each letter contained news from home, Wall Street Journal clippings, and forty bucks in cash.
The money often found its way to beer pubs and pizza joints. But those letters, in my father’s old school hand, found their way into my heart. Each one reflected his thoughts, advice, news, and most of all, love.
A thing of beauty
My love affair with fountain pens traces back to evenings on my father’s knee. As a young boy, I liked watching my Dad write on his long, yellow, legal pads.
Dad favored a thick, black Parker 21 fountain pen. Later on he switched to a handsome Waterman. His immaculate handwriting was its own art form. A thing of beauty. How that beautiful cursive came from such beefy hands I’ll never know.
Dad was born in 1921 and the schools back then still taught the fine art of handwriting. One’s penmanship used to be important. It reflected education, refinement, attention to detail and personal expression.
Unfortunately, communication today has devolved to keyboard acronyms, smart phone texts and email. No more perfumed letters from girlfriends. No more handwritten cards from grandparents. It’s easier to send the kids a birthday email and gift credits for Amazon.
Okay, there are still some people writing letters. The postal service hasn’t gone belly up just yet. But letters are becoming more and more like typewriters. Quaint vestiges of the past.
Maybe that’s why I still love fountain pens so much. Not to mention fine stationery, leather folios, journals and even melted, sealing wax. There’s something so beautifully analog, artful and elegant about it all.
Handwritten notes to people
My Dad bought me my first fountain pen just before I graduated from high school. It was a lovely Parker, with an internal bladder to refill the ink from an ink bottle.
That Parker fountain pen accompanied me through my university years. Many a term paper and blue book were completed with that pen. Best of all, it was like a piece of Dad was always with me.
When I became a police officer, I had to use a ballpoint pen for patrol work. Fountain pens were impractical for the triplicate traffic citations we used. My fountain pens were relegated to personal letters and book notes at home.
Several years and a few promotions later, I became a Lieutenant. This was a management position. I had to wear a suit, attend meetings and immerse myself in administrative work. Happily, I was able to employ my fountain pens again.
I tried to write some of my work correspondence with a fountain pen, but the police chief at the time told me it was unprofessional, and to use a typewriter.
A few years later, I was appointed as Chief of Police, and was blessed to have an executive assistant. For official correspondence, she and I would send type written documents and letters. However, I started using my fountain pens more and more, to craft handwritten notes to people.
I enjoyed writing personal letters in response to citizen inquiries. I also sent notes of condolence to community members who lost loved ones. I mailed out letters of congratulations to police professionals and others in our county who received awards or promotions.
Much to my delight, the handwritten notes were quite popular and well received. People appreciated the novelty and thoughtfulness of getting a personal, handwritten letter. Also, it didn’t hurt that I inherited my Dad’s flair for beautiful handwriting.
Old things stand out
I liked to collect fountain pens, as well as a few quality leather goods for my professional work. I used a beautiful, Saddleback leather briefcase and folio for all my paperwork. Each day, I would chose which fountain pen I wanted to use.
People often commented on my fountain pens, leather satchel and related items. The other police chiefs and staff at county meetings all huddled around their tablets and laptops. They seemed to compete for who had the latest/greatest devices. Except for me. I was happy with my fountain pens and leather notebooks.
Old things stand out. Particularly when they are of high quality and function. Yes, I had an iPad in my leather satchel, and sometimes it was useful for sending off documents and quick notes to my assistant. But most of the time, I was able to take notes faster with my fountain pen.
Colleagues, fellow police chiefs and their staff often commented on my beautiful note taking. “There’s something you don’t see anymore…a fountain pen and nice penmanship,” a Sheriff’s deputy once said to me in a meeting.
My fine pens, leather notebooks and paper afforded me the chance to enjoy a bit of art and elegance in my professional work. Anyone who has discovered the charms of calligraphy will understand.
The feel of a quality fountain pen, as the delicate nib tines glide ink across a page, is pure pleasure. Once you become hooked, you take note of different fountain pens and their performance. Not to mention the subtleties of quality inks.
Recently my 20 year old son discovered the old Underwood, Deluxe, portable typewriter in my office study. It’s on loan from my mother in law.
Intrigued, my son began plinking away on the typewriter. He emerged later with a typewritten page, a grin on his face, and the remark, “That thing is cool. I like the way it feels and sounds when I type.”
As stated above, old things stand out. There is a charm, elegance and simple utility to the devices of the past.
I’m comfortable in a suit, if it’s okay
Consider the wonderful movie “The Intern,” staring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. De Niro plays a 70 year old widower named Ben Whittaker who gets selected for an internship in a modern, start up company founded by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway.)
Ben stands out from all the millennials because he shows up each day in a suit, carries an elegant old briefcase, and conducts himself with dignity and grace. He asks why nobody “tucks anything in anymore?”
Just because something or someone is old, doesn’t mean there is no value.
In one scene, Jules and Ben have the following conversation:
Jules: Don’t feel like you have to dress up.
Ben: I’m comfortable in a suit if it’s okay.
Jules: Old school
Ben: At least I’ll stand out.
How about you? Do you stand out? How you dress and the tools you use make a statement about who you are. So does your behavior, and how you treat others. They may not tell the whole story about you, but they leave clues.
The joys of process
As an artist, I appreciate people who bring some flair into this life. I admire people who take the time to put themselves together. I applaud people who are not afraid to use old tools, like fountain pens. Not because they want to impress people, but because it’s important to them. It brings them joy.
Sometimes we get so wound up about outcomes that we forget about the joys of process.
As Chief of Police, it would have been far more efficient to dictate letters or email them to my assistant. But for me, inking a personal letter with my Pelikan M1000 fountain pen was pure joy. The process mattered to me, and guess what? It affected the outcome too. Because people loved receiving personal notes.
I retired early from law enforcement in order to dive into my fine art and writing career. I have my extensive fountain pen collection neatly tucked away in a wood and glass display case.
I still pull out different pens, load them with ink, and craft my letters and correspondence. Yesterday, I had out my Dad’s old Waterman. It’s a temperamental pen. The tines scratch a bit on paper.
But here’s the deal. That old Waterman fountain pen is a little piece of my Dad, who I lost in 2004. When I hold it in my hand, I imagine my Dad writing all my college letters with it.
It’s an old fountain pen. It has some history and miles on it. It leaks, it’s analog, and I love it.
Modernity and the digital age will keep marching forward. But just like Ben Whittaker in the movie The Intern, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to a few old things.
If they served us well in the past, they just might serve us well now.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. Fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here for the latest artwork and writing. No spam, privacy respected.