Stories, etc.: The Pen That Started It All

Stories, etc. Index  ]

What was the pen, you ask, that got me started collecting pens?

Well now, let me see here…

Umm, why don’t you make yourself comfortable there, this could take a little while.

When I was a boy, my parents had one or two fountain pens kicking around the house. I remember in particular one seedy-looking metal-capped gray-green pen that was always in the drawer of the beautiful modern white pine desk my father built and installed in the front foyer. For roughly 50 years I neither knew nor much cared what that pen had been; then I stumbled over a duplicate of it — even to the color — so that now I know it was a 1950s Wearever:

Fountain pen

So far as I can remember, that particular pen was just a fixture of the drawer; I cannot recall ever having seen it used. By that time, you see, ballpoints had arrived on the scene, and my father was nothing if not a practical man. Which also may explain why the pen wasn’t a more expensive one. Were it not for that desk, I might think he had no sense of beauty at all, just a functional streak a mile wide. (On the other hand, he had to fit the desk into a smallish space, and instead of narrowing the drawers he made the desk’s kneehole just barely too narrow for any chair in the house, and we never did get a chair that fit it.) I’ve no idea what happened to that pen; it disappeared from my ken when we moved across the country in 1962.

The first fountain pen I myself owned was this black Sheaffer’s Lifetime Imperial.

Fountain pen

It was a cartridge model that looks like a Weight Watchers version of the PFM III, with its gold-filled trim and trademark Inlaid Nib. I bought it when I went away to college in the mid 1960s. The PFM had been discontinued by the time I bought my pen, but that wasn’t really relevant because it wasn’t as if I really cared about fountain pens. That pen was merely a means to further my own self-conceived air of eccentricity, and of course it had to have an Extra Fine nib. Fine just wasn’t elegant enough, you see. (Never mind that my handwriting of that period has been described in terms reminiscent of a bad horror novel.) I had definitely not been bitten by the bug, and long before the break between my freshman and sophomore years, the Imperial had been relegated to the drawer of the desk in my dormitory room. Well, actually, as it turned out, there was no sophomore year, as I instead got married and began contributing to the Gross Domestic Product. But the pen was definitely out of the picture. Twenty years later, I exhumed it from the drawer in which it was then buried and gave it to my daughter as she went off to college. A decade or so afterward, she decided that Dad could have it back, and that’s why it never went off to join forces with the celestial quire. But I digress.

In 1975, I inherited my grandfather’s Blue-nibbed red ripple hard rubber Waterman’s Ideal No. 7.

Fountain pen

(He had died in 1956, but my mother kept his pen until her death.) But beyond the fact that the pen had belonged to my grandfather, whom I had worshipped as a child and whose memory I still revere, I had no notion of what a wonderful prize had befallen me. It languished until a decade later, when I again felt a need to appear eccentric, and I brought it out and used it. It was that pen, with its elegant nib, that finally convinced me to do something about my atrocious penmanship, and I embarked on a year-long program to redesign my hand. The ancient pen’s equally ancient sac didn’t last very long; it gave up the ghost before the year was out. At the urging of a friend, I sent the pen to Fahrney’s, in Washington, D.C., for repair; but they sent it back with a note saying that they were unable to take the pen apart to repair it. I now see that as odd, because in the years since then I’ve taken apart innumerable lever fillers, among them that very Waterman’s Ideal, to repair them; but then I knew no better and assumed that the pen was a total loss as anything more than a family keepsake. Into a drawer it went.

My wife took pity on me that year and gave me a Montblanc Classique for Christmas. It looked modern; I wasn’t into modern. It wrote horribly; I didn’t like that, either. In short, I loathed that pen, didn’t consider it worth the effort of returning for repair, and quietly consigned it to the drawer with the Waterman’s. It should be pretty obvious that I wasn’t a collector yet. I didn’t even save the ink bottle.

Then, in the middle of the 1990s, along came Don, my son-in-law. By ’98 or thereabouts, he was heavily into finding everything he could get his mitts on and selling it on eBay. One day we got to talking about pens, and he showed me a Cross Solo that he’d been given by a former inamorata. He didn’t love either the woman or the pen anymore, and I discovered that the pen, at least, was pretty nice. So I swapped the despised Montblanc for the Cross, which it rather resembled in appearance, and Don sold the Montblanc on eBay for roughly the retail price of the Solo. We both came out of that deal well satisfied, and I began using the Cross. I still wasn’t hooked, though, but Don was. Oh, boy, was Don ever hooked.

Fountain pen

(I never took a picture of my Solo, but this one is the same color.)

By that time, you see, Don had discovered Fountain Pen Hospital and had acquired a Montegrappa Reminiscence and a Delta Nautilus set. He showed me the ’99 catalog, and my eye lit on the Bexley ebonite pens. They were big, they were solid looking, and they were seriously retro; right then, that was officially a Good Thing in my book. The "Olive Ripple" model, which I later learned was called "Green Agate" by Bexley, was nicely rippled, and it reminded me of the old Waterman’s Ideal. I rather liked it, although I’d have liked it even better in red. I was now definitely in danger of coming down with the collecting bug, the way a desiccated Martini is in danger of becoming too wet when carried through a room in which there is a bottle of vermouth.

Then I saw a picture of a Waterman Philéas, and I was smitten on the instant.

Fountain pen

Now there was one Nice Pen, with a good solid ’30s Art Deco look. It reminded me of the elegant streamlined designs of Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy. Unlike the Bexleys, whose prices appeared astronomical, it turned out to be surprisingly inexpensive, and I bought one forthwith. It wrote really nicely, and it replaced the Cross, which followed the Montblanc of ill fame to eBay.

And that’s it. I was hooked. There was no way I was going to continue my life without at least one seriously good fountain pen. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, I was within minutes of placing an order for one of those pretty Bexleys when Don stuck a copy of the ’98 FPH catalog in front of me. Yes, the previous year’s version. There are great pictures in those catalogs, even if you can’t get all the pens anymore. There were those Bexleys again, and sitting right next to them was their fancy brother, the limited-edition black chased hard rubber 5th Anniversary, only 500 made. Its price was rather stiffer, but price was by then irrelevant. That was my pen, no other would do, and I would cheerfully have mortgaged the house to have it. Without further ado, I became a fountain pen collector. I charged Don with the mission of fetching me a 5th Anniversary on his trip to New York for the December ’99 Fountain Pen Hospital gala; like the good dutiful son-in-law that he is, he carried out his assignment with aplomb.

Fountain pen

The pen was every bit as gorgeous as I had dreamed it would be, and I commenced immediately to use it. And I haven’t looked back.

So, did I answer your question?

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