Full Circle: Boston one-hole wonder

Published 9:52 am Friday, October 28, 2016

How many of you know what I’m talking about? What if I say Boston L? Or Boston wall-mounted? Now do you know?

In this world there are wonderful sounds: birds, breezes, ballads … but nothing quite matches the burrrrrr of a Boston L. How utterly satisfying it is to listen to its whirring grindings as it sharpens my pencils. My left hand inserts the dull pencil into the single hole while my right hand grabs the tiny knob and begins to crank. At first there is resistance as the tiny gears hit the blunt end, but within seconds the burrrrrring modulates into a smooth whir. The point of this exercise is the point; a reshaped, restored perfectly pointy pointed pencil!

As a writer, I can attest to the satisfying sensuousness of placing the sharp tip of a pencil to paper, followed by the flowing execution of a neat, legible word. For me the experience is right up there with butter.

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When we purchased our Austin home a few years ago, we were delighted to find that it came with all kinds of unexpected extras: splendid windows, two fireplaces, perfect plumbing, an outstanding roof … and a vintage 1971 Boston L pencil sharpener. I was charmed by the discovery of it, all quietly tucked away in the broom closet. I remodeled the house changing out many things, but I would not have dreamed of removing the Boston L.

Actually in my uncertainty as to if it was really mine, I momentarily entertained the idea of returning it to the former owners as I would have done with a forgotten ruby ring or picture album. But in the end (and almost-but-not-quite consumed with guilt), I concluded that anything bolted to the structure of the house (like the furnace or water heater or drywall) was ours. Certainly I would not have unscrewed the front door hinges or pulled out the bolts holding up the kitchen cupboards, so why would I detach the Boston L? No, it was ours. Here to say. And, wow, what a fortuitous perk!

As for my feloniousness, it didn’t take long for the gnarly, nagging culpable side of my possessiveness to dissolve. Actually, it flitted away in a nanosecond like a dust particle in a strong wind.

Do you suppose the fates meant for us to buy this particular house? Like I needed this specific house because it had in it this very pencil sharpener? You see, my friends know it is routine for me to be abruptly awakened from a sound sleep at 2 a.m. because an idea for a column has just formed in my dormant head. It is a miraculous gift my sleep gives me.

What I immediately do is reach for my pencils and paper in the drawer beside my bed. There they steadfastly await my call like loyal sentries poised and ready to capture my thoughts. These tools are to me what a pipe wrench is to a plumber, a drill is to a dentist, a garter is to a nylon stocking and a vigorous Listerine gargle is to a successful kiss. Necessary!

As I write these words, I glance at my Dixon Ticonderoga and see that the nib is little more than a nub. Time to make a trip to the broom closet. At 2 a.m. in our deathly quiet house, the burrrrrring noise is like a cannon going off. Still, how much more civilized and down right simple is my Boston L than, say, my having to chisel the words onto a stone tablet? Imagine the time it would take to say nothing of the mess it would make in my bed.

You may ask, why not use a laptop? And I would reply that the security of permanently drawing the carbon across the paper is to me way more reassuring than the undependability of the internet. What if a thunderstorm suddenly hit knocking out the power? Or a Zamboni slid across the ice into the electric pole breaking it in half? My pencil doesn’t care about such mishaps. It remains inscrutably loyal; resolutely functional.

And have you considered this? What if all the ballpoint pen manufacturers in the world decided to close up shop because people now text? Would we not all be scrambling to find the pencils in the back of our drawers? As for me, if I am ever cast into a dungeon with only a pencil and toilet paper upon which to write (do dungeons come with toilet paper?), I will be a happy prisoner.

In choosing a pencil, I particularly favor a No. 2. A No. 1 is too smudgy and dark. A No. 3 is too hard and light. No. 2s are perfection. In Goldilocks’ words, they are just right.

It seems that any number of folks take credit for inventing the pencil. One man wrapped a string around a graphite stick; another more evolved brainiac inserted the graphite into a hollowed out wooden stick. Amazingly, pencils have been around since 1662. We’d all agree that the inventors were ingenious alright, but it’s the guy who put the eraser on top that I’d like to hear about. Now that was real genius. It’s like the chap who invented the wheel being really smart, but the dude who invented the other three … a true Einstein!

When our daughter, Erin, was a young girl, she decided to start a collection. After all, her girlfriends had amassed stockpiles of dolls and barrettes and stamps. But, what would appeal to her, she wondered? After much consideration, Erin made up her mind. She would collect erasures. Not erasers, mind you, but erasures … those pesky smurchy marks and detritus that shed when erasers are rubbed across paper. It wasn’t an easy hobby, mind you. Actually it was akin to collecting dust bunnies or cottonwood fluff.

I’ll have to admit to questioning her judgment on this project … her good sense. But I should have been more patient. She grew up to be a physician. I don’t think that she collects erasures anymore, though. Doesn’t have time. Besides, a display like that just wouldn’t look right hanging in a doctor’s office.

It took nearly a century after the invention of the pencil for the eraser to be developed. The people rejoiced because it was a vast improvement over what they had previously used — gummed up bread. The new material was known ironically as “gum” elastic — or by its Native American name “caoutchouc.” I’m guessing that the white man was not as good at pronouncing big words as the Indians, so he was forced to change it to something easier … “eraser.”

What I’d really like to know, however, is who messed it up? Honestly, gummed up bread would be inordinately better than many of the pencil erasers on the market today. These poor excuses for erasers are like trying to eradicate graphite marks with a petrified tree stump. For crying out loud, finding a decent eraser nowadays is as rare as discovering gold in your flowerbed — or finding out your mother-in-law has changed her mind about moving into your guest room.

I don’t know about you, but I hold on to a trustworthy eraser the same way I covet worn comfy slippers and a good fitting bra.

I’m hazarding a guess that you may not have given much thought to pencils and Boston Ls, but let’s face it, folks, in life it’s the little things that count. The little things. Burrrrrr…..
Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing maggiemamm16@gmail.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”