Stories, etc.: Obsession

Stories, etc. Index  ]


This essay was written in July 2006. Were I to rewrite it today, the specific pens would have changed, but the philosophy expressed remains as true today as it was then.

Collecting fountain pens can be a real obsession for some of us, at least if we let ourselves go chasing after some of the more recherché variations of our favorite models. Let me tell you about my new Sheaffer’s Balance. Actually, it’s my old Balance, but it’s new to me, so I could call it my new old Balance, but that sounds silly. I can’t call it my old new Balance, of course, because I didn’t have it before, and it’s not new. Except to me. And besides, “New Balance” makes me think of running shoes. Or a rOtring Core, and I’d really prefer to give that hideous thing a clean miss.

If you’ve looked around this Web site, you may have seen, at the top of the third page of my vintage pens, my three Balances. One’s a black model with a dent in its cap trim, the next is a thin black military-clip model from the ’40s with a crack at the base of its otherwise wonderful semi-flexible Feathertouch nib, and the third (which, for reasons to be elucidated, isn’t there anymore) was a 1933-’34 Lifetime Marine Green full-length standard-girth 0model, the model with a short round-ball humped clip. Not oversize, just standard; I don’t need a pen that’s as fat as my big toe, thank you very much.

Fountain pen
This is the Marine Green Balance that just wasn’t quite it.

Well, that inexpensive Marine Green pen was very nice, but it wasn’t perfect. It had the slightest hint of a posting pressure ring, and it was just the least bit brassed on the band and clip ball, and the Fine gold nib wasn’t quite the Medium two-tone gold and palladium style I prefer. And besides, the color was a little darkened. Well, as nice as that pen was, its imperfections loomed larger every time I so much as glanced in its direction, and they finally drove me to do a very foolish thing, i.e., to set out on a quest for the Holy Grail, by which I mean a perfect 1933-’34 Lifetime Marine Green pen. It had to be the ’33-’34 version, you know, because of the clip. (Here’s where the obsession thing comes into play.) The clip, you see, is of major importance. Long humped clips, from the years before 1933, just don’t cut it; they’re kind of saggy-looking, as if they’re melted and running down the side of the pen. And flat-ball clips from 1935 on, well, they don’t trip my trigger, either.

I tried for months to buy my Holy Grail. I searched Web sites, I pored over catalogs, I contacted several dealers and, at one, ran afoul of the dreaded Sumgai. (Sumgai, so christened by Bill Riepl, is the individual your local dealer is talking about when he says, “Sumgai was in just before you got here, and he bought every one of the pens you’re asking about.”) I even tried casting magic spells written in Private Reserve Tanzanite ink. But all was in vain; no Holy Grails were on the market, only inferior Grails with the wrong clip and chips and scratches and iffy color and brass showing around the edges. Until a few weeks ago. Then, on Penbid.com, I found it. Right there on my screen, there it was, the very one, the real deal, the actual one-of-a-kind Holy Grail, an absolutely perfect 1933-’34 Lifetime Marine Green Balance, with a two-tone nib and a Visulated section. I breathed hard to calm myself, and I mopped the beads from my brow. Could this really be happening to me? That magnificent pen was giving me an utterly irresistible come-hither look; could it really be mine? I had to find out. I wiped the sweat from my palms and dropped in a bid, pledging my life’s savings and my firstborn (without her knowledge). I waited. I panicked and broke my own rules: I logged back in and raised my bid. I checked the auction again. Every day. Several times a day. I gnawed my fingernails. I couldn’t sleep nights. A whole week passed that way, one of the longest weeks in human memory. And lo! When the gavel dropped, figuratively speaking, I had bought the pen of my dreams. And its matching pencil, no less, with the tiniest bit of brassing, and even the original metal box.

I hastened to pay the seller, still fearing that some lurking cloud would come gliding over the horizon to overfall my happiness. The pen wouldn’t be perfect. That darkened spot I could see on the lever meant brassing, despite what the seller said. The color wouldn’t really be better than the picture showed, it would be dull and dark. There would be scratches. I knew in my deepest heart of hearts that I was being punished like Tantalus, for some sin of which I knew nothing; all of my fears would turn out to be true, waiting to materialize the day the pen arrived.

Finally, the package arrived. Barely able to contain my joy and my dread, I ripped it open. It contained a Sheaffer’s case in which lay a pen and pencil. And a shred of something that looked for one horrifying moment like a chunk from the lip of a pen cap. No, wait a minute! That’s not green plastic, it’s black rubber! It’s a piece of the ossified sac! Whew! Oh, yes, right, the seller did say he’d removed the sac. None too carefully, or so it appeared to my fevered gaze.

My Holy Grail was dirty. It was covered with the grime of the ages. And there was that spot on the lever. It sure looked like corrosion, not even ordinary brassing, but actual corrosion! I’d been had, I just knew it! Well, there was nothing for it but to clean the pen up and survey the damage. So into my shop the pen and I disappeared, obsessive, compulsive, you name it.

After I knocked the pen into its component bits and pieces, I cleaned and polished and cleaned and polished, being scrupulously careful not to affect the lovely imprint. The ink came out of the feed, and I reset the nib and feed into the section. A new sac, an impatient half hour for it to dry, and reassembly.

In case you’re wondering, the spot on the lever turned out to be just a little bit of easily removed crud. And the grime of the ages was actually nothing more than a very slight film from storage and use. And as for the seller’s care in removing the sac, it was a perfect job except for that one lonely crumb of rubber that looked the size of Asia when I first beheld it but in reality was less than an eighth of an inch square.

And the pen? There’s not a trace of brassing, there are no scratches, chips, or dings, there’s virtually no trace of wear at all. The two-tone Medium nib is velvety perfection, the Visulated section is clear, and the color is radiant. When it’s not in my pocket, the pen sits in my pen case and glows at me. And if you visit Page 3 of my collection pages, you’ll find it there, shining proudly, gloriously, right above its brethren. I’ve retired one Holy Grail from my list of future acquisitions, and I’ve added one Penbid seller’s name to the list of those on whose pens I wouldn’t hesitate a moment before bidding.

Fountain pen
This is the Holy Grail Balance.

The old Marine Green Balance? It now resides happily at the home of my son-in-law, who offered me a fair price for it without my having even mentioned the idea. And as for me? I’m satisfied, right? Well, no, actually, there’s still that elusive full-size second-model Chilton, you see, and there’s a show coming up, and…

So many pens, so little time.

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