IN GRADE SCHOOL, PEN WAS MIGHTY LIKE A SWORD & ALWAYS BUSY

The saying “The pen is mightier than the sword” was first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play “Cardinal Richelieu.”

An ink bottle and fountain pen, which now seems impossibly quaint, was a way of life when I was in grade school. (Incidentally, we began school after Labor Day, not in August as many students do now). While no longer the primary writing instrument today, fountain pens still are used for important official works such as signing valuable documents. Fountain pens reportedly improve handwriting and give it a distinctive touch. In addition, anyone who enjoys elegant writing will use fountain pens including many professors, teachers and authors.

Unlike its predecessor, the dip pen, or its successor, the ball point pen, a fountain pen contains a refillable, internal reservoir in its barrel that provides a continuous supply of fluid ink to its point (nib). Filling the reservoir with ink is achieved via a teeter-totter type lever on the barrel being moved up and down which creates suction or a vacuum to transfer ink directly through the nib into the reservoir. But, oh was it messy when employed by us grade schoolers!

You may have noticed old school desks with a round hole in the top for an ink bottle. Well, the Sisters of Providence who taught at Cathedral Grade School in downtown Fort Wayne were pretty smart. There were no ink bottles on desks! Students filled their pens at a designated window sill where one or two ink bottles were stationed atop ink blotters. It was still a mess with ink splatters on the sill, glass, wall and floor. And there were ink stains on and below desks as well as on student fingers, shirt pockets, pants and skirts. Which leads me to my first ill-found memory regarding use of a fountain pen.

We were given some sort of writing assignment. However, the girl in front of me, as usual, was more interested in what I was writing instead of concentrating on her own work. There was no flattery involved here. “Miss Busy-Body” often found fault with my way of doing things. She would turn around with a wagging finger and shame me for doing it wrong, whispering “Awe!” This time I mockingly returned the verbal utterance wagging my finger at her, forgetting my ink pen was still in hand. The dark liquid splattered all over the white collar on her blouse. I don’t remember any repercussion from this incidence except there being an open war between us silently declared that day.

The battle resumed a few days later in Myers Drug Store a block away. I was sitting with my buddies in a booth and, ”Miss Know-It-All” was with her friends a few stalls away. When I was served my drink — with a paper straw, mind you — I took aim and blew my straw paper at my new “enemy.” As luck would have it, I hit her square in the face. (I know, as it was said in the classic 1983 film “A Christmas Story” about owning a Red Ryder BB gun, “I could have put her eye out!”)

With the straw wrapper evidence in hand, my opponent reported me to the drugstore manager, our teacher and ultimately the principal. My punishment, with fountain pen in hand, was to write an apology to the drugstore manager with the promise the incident literally would be “the last straw” paper propelled at anyone.

The former Cathedral Boys’ School – the third school structure on the site — was built in 1915 and opened a year later as a co-educational school. Located on the southwest corner of Clinton St. and Jefferson Blvd., it faces north to what is now the City Parking Garage, currently being renovated. In the 1950’s it faced a parking lot and a large billboard.

At dismissal, all students exited school in silence from the north side in two lines. Most headed west to Calhoun Street where the city trolley buses and street cars ran. One sunny afternoon in 1955 as we exited the building, we were confronted with a most noticeable message on that billboard advertising a new movie opening at the nearby Palace Theater on E. Washington Blvd. The film was titled “Underwater!” and featured Hollywood beauty Jane Russell in “Superscope” in her skin diving best! Other than Russell’s underwater abilities, I guess the classic movie featured a song that was big stuff on the pop charts at the time: “Apple Pink and Cherry Blossom White,” which was a success for Perez Prado.

But the boys, myself included, had little interest in music that afternoon. Most of us stumbled down the steps amid some audible “Wows!” with mouths agape looking at a living color image of one of Hollywood’s leading sex symbols of the 1940s and 1950s.

Our day dreams ended the next morning in eighth-grade religion class when our good Sister assigned all of us to write individual letters to the manager of the Palace Theater asking that the billboard ad be removed. Again, with fountain pen in hand, I somewhat reluctantly wrote my letter. I don’t remember if my “classmate critic” tried to critique my missive or not. But our collective efforts were successful and soon – surprisingly by today’s standards — the advertisement was removed. On that day, those leaky old fountain pens truly were mightier than the sword!

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer