Thursday, May 25, 2006

Love versus Lunch

(Tools of the Trade, Part II)

By C. L. Beck

Have you ever tried using a quill pen? I’ll admit, when it comes to tools of the trade, a writing instrument made from a feather is just half a step above the zucchini and Woolly Mammoth paint that I mentioned last time.

How in the world did we graduate from one to the other? Was there a prehistoric feathered pen that bridged the gap?

The mention of quill pens always makes me think of those pens you see at wedding receptions. You know—the ones that tickle your nose as you try to write with them. Ah, that’s it. That’s how the quill pen evolved. Grunt, the caveman, had a daughter getting married and needed a handy way for guests to sign the wedding rock register. He didn’t have time to mix paint, and zucchini wasn’t in season anyway, so he plucked a feather from a Pterodactyl.

That mental image reminds me of an incident when I was a teenager. No, I’m not that old. I didn’t pull a feather from a Pterodactyl; the incident was between my bird and cat.

The bird’s name was George, and he wasn’t very bright. He once bit my uncle, who was trying to teach him to whistle, and my uncle gave him an even more interesting name. It can’t be repeated in polite company, though, so you’ll have to use your imagination. When it finally dawned on us that ‘George’ was a misnomer, we nicknamed him something much more accurate—‘That Stupid Bird’.

The cat’s name was Oedipus Rex. It was a dignified, grand name for a cat that we later realized liked to leave his calling card on every bush in the yard. Since the name was obviously too grandiose for the mangy ol’ thing, we nicknamed him Eddie.

Eddie loved George-That-Stupid-Bird. He’d sit in front of the cage every day, admiring him. I suppose it didn’t matter to him that George wasn’t too bright; he’d watch the bird for hours on end.

One day I was in the other room and heard George kicking up a fuss. Since he neither whistled, nor sang, it seemed odd to hear him making noises. Pretty soon the sounds turned into raucous squawks and the slap of wings against metal bars.

Rushing into the room, I was greeted by feathers flying everywhere. Eddie was on top of the cage with a mouthful of George-That-Stupid-Bird’s tail feathers, tugging and pulling on the upside down bird in an effort to get him through the half-inch slats.

Apparently, it was not love that Eddie had on his mind all along. It was lunch.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what Eddie’s lunch has to do with quill pens. For a moment, I wondered that myself. Then it came to me.

Quill pens are made from feathers and before Eddie got a hold of him, George-That-Stupid-Bird actually had some. Parakeet feathers aside, most quill pens are made from the feather of a duck, goose, swan or pheasant. The feather is stripped back so the pen is comfortable to hold, the tip is sliced on an angle and the inner membrane is pulled out. Voila! What was once some cat’s lunch is now a finely tuned writing instrument. I will admit, in the interest of space, I may have glossed over the procedure. However, if you’d like to go online to you can find a handy diagram of the process.

The upside to the quill pen is that it was readily available. Fowl abounded in the quill pen era, and those who wanted a more high-class pen could even use a five-foot long peacock feather. Talk about something tickling your fancy.

The downside was that the pen didn’t have any ink. The writer had to dip the point into an inkwell, taking care not to overload the pen. It was good for three to seven letters and then had to be dipped again. At the rate of seven letters per dip, writing was a tedious process. The thought of that makes me more tolerant when my computer takes more than a microsecond to do what I want.

I must say that I’m not old enough to actually remember quill pens, or to have used one. The closest I ever came was a fountain pen, which was in vogue only as a novelty. I never mastered the thing. It left ink smears all over my fingers and ink blobs all over the paper—which Eddie promptly walked in on his way to entice George-That-Stupid-Bird to stick his tail feathers, once again, out of the cage.

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