In WWII around Christmas time a hospital ship was bringing wounded and maimed Allied soldiers home from Europe to the United States. Also on the ship, in the holds below, were German prisoners of war. The Red Cross had delivered Christmas packages to the Allied troops before departure. Enroute, the wounded soldiers opened their packages to discover a panoply of candy, crackers and other assorted goods. Although most were consumed quickly, there was a sizable surplus. Several of the Allied wounded got together and convinced their comrades to send the extra bounty down to the German POWs.
When the Germans received this gift, they were overwhelmed with gratitude. They began talking among themselves, asking “what can we do to show our thanks?” Being prisoners, they had little in the way of possessions to share. After discussion, they hit upon an idea. Practicing quietly among themselves, they prepared their gift.
Eventually the ship approached the shores of the United States. Early one starlit evening, facing an uncertain future as prisoners in a foreign land, the German soldiers began to sing. In beautiful harmony they raised voices to their benefactors on the decks above with a tender rendition of “Silent Night” in German. Many voices strong, they continued their serenade throughout the evening, repaying the kindness shown by their onetime foes.
Who in the heck uses a fountain pen anymore? Well, I think they still have a place. Does anyone remember those fountain pens of our youth that we bought for school? They were made by Shaeffer, I think, with cheap metal caps and plastic bodies. They usually leaked ink, causing havoc on the page or in our pockets, with permanent ink to boot. You had to remember to replace the cap or the point would go dry. Ballpoint pens were cleaner, more convenient, less messy, and fairly reliable. Bic pens (from France) took over common usage-they were cheap enough that you could buy a dozen for pennies apiece. Disposable, they became utilitarian, undistinguished save for the color of the ink, discarded without a thought when out of ink or non-functional.
And they didn’t write worth a damn. . .the ink skipped, blobs would appear in parts of the letter strokes, the ball would stop turning, and it was a small but perceptible effort to push the ball across the page. And there’s just no gravitas when writing with a cheap ballpoint. If you want to enjoy your writing experience, you need to consider the fountain pen again.
I have always been intrigued by fountain pens. In part because they are old-fashioned, with a lineage of craftsmanship . Also, they’re reliable. A well-made FP can last for decades with proper maintenance, repeatedly doing the job for which it was created. I recently paid about $18 on eBay for a vintage fountain pen made probably in the 1950s. After a little work, I got it sliding across the page just like the year it was made. And oh how it slides-a good FP has almost effortless motion on good paper with modern inks. One can individualize the experience though the choice of nib width from bold to extra-fine. There are even italic and music nibs which give a different ink width between upstroke or down. Flex nibs can narrow or broaden the delivered ink stream depending upon the pressure exerted. With a fountain pen serving as an extension of the hand, tactile pleasure results from watching and feeling the output of one’s brain come to life.
Finally, there is the beauty of a great design. My first fountain pen as an adult was one I bought in Boston when I was a medical student there in the 1980s. The Parker 75 Cisele is a classic design which spoke to me from it’s shelf in that drugstore off Tremont Street close to Boston Common, though nowadays the pen feels too small in my somewhat large hands. Modern designs are varied and high in quality as well. I love my Conklin Duragraph FP seen here.
It’s a $40 pen but isn’t it gorgeous? It writes like a dream. And it has a history: Conklin pens were used by Mark Twain in the nineteenth century.
Like many modern tools, some fountain pens have become icons of status more than functional tools of expression. I will probably never buy a Mont Blanc pen, for example. But there are so many wonderful pen manufacturers out there these days. There’s also a wealth of information available on how to use and care for a quality fountain pen. Goulet Pens, for example, has a “Fountain pen 101” video series which is quite good. Many other sources have posted helpful videos on YouTube as well. Recently I had trouble getting ink into a cartridge converter reservoir for my Lamy Safari (another $18 gem made in Germany). Some quick research on YouTube provided the answer-I wasn’t placing the nib deep enough into my ink bottle to fully cover the fill hole.
So fountain pens are a bit more trouble, a bit more money, but the payback in pleasure and beauty is well worth those disadvantages, in my opinion.Happy writing!