My Louisville Slugger: the fountain pen

Mont Blanc 221P

The author’s Mont Blanc 221, extra fine point, the perfect bat to swing away from home.

My way of life is simple enough. The only implement I use that is at least as mighty as the sword (which I don’t use, although some might suggest my chef’s knife comes close), the guitar (which I do play), or the baseball bat (which I haven’t swung since helping my son learn to play) is the fountain pen.

Well, if you want me to get technical, you can call it a cartridge pen, since the five fountain pens I own and use are filled with cartridges. I confess to a fear of the piston filler into which you vacuum a full tank of ink from a bottle. More to the point, I fear being just clumsy enough that half the ink in a fill might end up on my fingers.

A pen to a writer is as a bat to a ballplayer. We writers only hope that the lines we write endure as long as the joy, the artistry, the memories of a particular hit, a particular pitch, a particular game. Today those joys, artistries, and memories are preserved aboard YouTube to be cherished and shared. Our words, we hope, remain in print as well as on the paper aboard which we write, those of us who still write with pen to paper first.

But “cartridge pen” simply doesn’t suggest the romance of real writing with pen to paper. Of course, when receiving my first such pen as a fifth grader in 1965, there wasn’t much romantic about it. You didn’t think of the spiritual flow of words from your mind and heart through the pen to paper when taking classroom notes, you thought of surviving the day’s lectures until the final dismissal bell.

A friend of my parents who worked in the stationery business seemed to have a tireless supply of Sheaffer pens (lucky for him, with three children of his own), and was kind enough to present me with a pair of them. One was a ballpoint, the other a fountain pen. In those years, Sheaffer called their ink cartridges Skrip. Skrip for script. The ballpoint soon went the way of the St. Louis Browns but the fountain pen stayed.

And stayed. And stayed. Whenever I might lose one or one might exhaust its usefulness, I simply bought another one. Sheaffer “school pens” featured coloured, translucent barrels. Upon any need for a fresh one, I’d pick a different such colour each time out. I used them for years enough, until my Air Force days in the 1980s.

By then, the Sheaffer school pen had a flaw I couldn’t overcome: the nib was hard enough to leave the ball of my left thumb in discomfort. I switched to a Parker Vector model. Nice pen. Nice enough to attract the eye of an Air Force officer with whom I worked in the ancient Strategic Air Command headquarters, and who was well prepared to recommend a fine instrument to one of the only airmen she might have seen using any fountain pen.

She purred the words: Mont Blanc. To my guitar playing heart, she said them much the way a guitarist would say the words of a certain model of Gibson guitar: Les Paul.

She swore the Mont Blanc nib would be the single most comfortable with which I’d ever write, since its resin material around the gold point would contour to my grip in time and out of view of the naked eye. I admired her pitch and pondered it a week, then decided she’d talked me into it. I took a little money I’d tucked away and visited a stationer in the shopping mall a mile from my home.

Yes, there was a Mont Blanc for sale, in a charming, simple box, the nib tapered perfectly downward to the point, and well enough within my senior airman’s pay grade. Black, with gold trim and point. Understated elegance. The writing equivalent of sinking into a warm jacuzzi or timing up one hanging breaking ball too many to send over the left field fence.

Around the same time, George F. Will—professional philosopher-polemicist, with a Pulitzer Prize on his resume, but a man who only thinks he loves baseball as deeply as I— wrote a mash note to the fountain pen. From that I learned of its invention, by an insurance salesman who’d blown a significant commission because his pen leaked and told himself, “Well, we’ll see about that!”

Unfortunately, for both Mr. Will and myself, that particular story has been debunked. The gentleman in question did invent the modern fountain pen, but not necessarily because of a blown insurance commission. Who cares? Well, I kind of do. It turns out he was working for a New York pen maker named Holland who abandoned his enterprise after a mere six weeks. Our hero simplified the ink feed with U.S. Patent No. 293,545 in 1884.

Lewis Waterman also changed the company name. (No, old-time radio fans, Mr. Waterman was no known relation to Willard Waterman, the actor who eventually succeeded Harold Peary as The Great Gildersleeve.) That was then: the Waterman Pen Company introduced the disposable ink cartridge in 1953. This is now: The company is owned by Newell Brands, which bought Waterman’s eventual parent Gillette. Yes, the shaving supply company.

Once upon a time, Waterman was owned by Bic, the makers of cheap ballpoint pens and face-slicing disposable shaving razors. That’d teach them. My boyhood includes many a hearing and reading about the miracles ballpoint pens wrought. With miracles such as those, we didn’t need pestilence.

Writing under water? Marvelous—if you were held hostage by a great white shark forcing you to write your own ransom note. Writing through butter? Perfect—if you planned to write your answer to  “Casey at the Bat” on a pancake. The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the IHOP nine that day/The score stood four to two with but more syrup left to play.

Sheaffer School Pen

The birth of the affair: a 1960s Sheaffer fountain pen for school students.

One Bic commercial of the 1960s involved firing a Bic pen from a high-powered rifle through a wood board, then writing with the point while holding the board. Imagine Lord Chesterfield amending his rule for raising a son properly: All a gentleman can teach his son is to ride, to shoot, to tell the truth, and to write after blowing his pen through an oak plank.

The problem with fountain pens today isn’t that they still exist, it’s that enough have become even more now what Mr. Will noticed in 1985:

When civilization is in steep decline, even good things, like today’s increasing sales of fountain pens, happen for dismal reasons. The Mont Blanc Diplomat, an exquisite instrument, suddenly is, like the BMW automobile, another adults’ toy from Germany. A salesman at a tony Fifth Avenue shop explains why the shop sells pens but not ink: “Our customers aren’t interested in ink.”

In the immortal words of Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez to a particularly recalcitrant umpire, Horseshit! Horse [fornicating] shit! Didya hear me?

Mont Blanc no longer brands the top of its Meisterstuck (German for “masterpiece”) fountain pen line the Diplomat; it’s now simply the Meisterstuck 149. The series has been Mont Blanc’s most famous series since the Washington Senators won their only World Series championship. The 149 costs $960 new. The Meisterstuck 145, $635 new. And that may be Mont Blanc’s entry-level series today.

The company has fallen prey to the same syndrome the guitar making business has, the signature model, whose extremes can take you to your financial Waterloo faster than Napoleon took himself to his. Don’t laugh. Mont Blanc’s Napoleon Bonaparte Limited Edition 92 fountain pen costs $38,500. You can buy his and her Hyundai Elantra sedans for the same dollars.

There are fountain pens aplenty affordable, for those still new to the fountain pen’s finery. Sheaffer’s VFM series costs between $10 and $20. (I own two.) The Waterman Kultur, which has a somewhat vague, somewhat satirical  resemblance to the classic Diplomat, is a mere $19. Perhaps surprisingly, Parker still makes the aforesaid Vector model, with the prices varying between $13 and $20 depending on the colour you prefer, from red to blue to gold to stainless steel. Beiluner, Dryden, Lamy, Pilot, Scrivener,  and more make comparably affordable fountain pens. Several make higher-end pens as well; one or two even make disposables, for those still in thrall to disposable technology.

I’ve re-acquired the humble Mont Blanc 221, the model I first bought in 1985 for a mere $160. A California dealer offered a 221 on eBay, all but (miraculously) new old stock, for a comparative song, and I pounced. In 1985, it was considered one of Mont Blanc’s starter pens. It wouldn’t kill Mont Blanc to re-introduce a similar model at a similar price. Perhaps my old, kind Air Force colleague, wherever she is, would care to purr in their ears now?

You see where baseball’s owners lockout has brought me? The absence of substantial movement toward a new collective bargaining agreement that addresses the game’s economics reasonably, and eliminates the worst of the game’s Goldbergisms, has left me to scribble about the Louisville Slugger of my profession.

What I write on paper may well survive in full hue the way plentiful good music, no few truly classic films, and no few baseball games survive on the aforesaid YouTube. In that instance, YouTube is the Mont Blanc-on-paper of the high-tech world. When preserving boorish balderdash and brain damage, alas, YouTube is concurrently the high-tech generations’ version of the Bic ballpoints shot through planks and drilled into walls. With the same spiritual holes in the same arguments.

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