Even now, after all these years, the sound of a train passing through town carries memories for me of our good friend Chester Milvey. I see him tucked away in a corner of one of those grungy boxcars, typing away on his trusty portable Olivetti like he still had somebody left to beat.
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Assuming he’s even alive, it wouldn’t surprise me none if Milvey hightailed it out of his boxcar, made a beeline for the town he’s landed nearest, and entered himself into another typing contest. Another thing, which I guess has to be said, if Milvey happened to land anywhere near Dubuque, he’d probably catch the first train heading in any direction straight the heck out of here. Some folks just aren’t meant to be where they find themselves.
Milvey was short for his age. His face, well it looked like way back when somebody took his or her anger out on it. Milvey’s ears reminded you of nothing so much as sprung earmuffs catching the wind. More often than not they were red along the edges, like he’d just heard something he didn’t want to know.
Where Milvey came from is another mystery. One day he was just there stamping cans in the basement of the Quik-Buy Supermarket like he’d been born for the job.
Milvey hit centers right along with the best of them. He was fast, maybe a little nervous, but mostly he was fast. In fact, he stamped so well in less than four months, Milvey got himself promoted to stocking shelves on the main floor. Less than a month after that, Milvey copped the brass ring. Walter Walinski, Quik-Buy’s assistant day manager, made Milvey express checker, sudden prestige and a spot near the door!
It took less than a week for Milvey to get the hang of the tricky black and silver QAE (Quick-Action Electric) cash register. Folks who frequented the Quik-Buy for six items or less generally agreed, whatever else he might decide to do with his life, like as not, Milvey had found the thing he did best.
Then one day, as fate would have it, and fate always seems to get its way in these things, a stranger wearing a white raincoat and blue sunglasses swaggers into the Quik-Buy. He makes three quick purchases of six items or less. By the time I get to express, he’s back in line, two customers ahead of me, waiting to check out three more bags of six items or less. It got Milvey so nervous after ringing up the guy he asked: “How’s about I pack all your little bags into one big bag, mister?”
“Ever use your dukes, kid?” the stranger replies.
“Pardon me, sir?” Milvey says.
“You got a lightening pair of mitts, kid. Ever do any typing?”
“Any what, mister?” Milvey shoots a nervous glance down to his hands. “Any what?”
“Typing! On a machine! The one with the alphabet!”
Well, Milvey gave a giggle that turned into a guffaw, which tickled most everyone waiting on express.
So we’re standing there, coughing and sputtering, trying as best we can to hold ourselves in when Walter Walinski, fuzzy brown toupee a tad off center as it most always was, skids up to his star employee: “What’s all the ruckus?” Walt asks.
“Kid’s got typer’s mitts,” the stranger explains. “He could be famous.”
“On a typewriter!” Milvey blurts out, wiping his nose on the corner of his brown work apron. “The one with the alphabet!” he chortles.
“Is that a fact?” Walinski says. He follows that up with a nod at the QAE, a squint at the customers, and a brisk, “Ring ’em up, Milv! That’s what we’re here for.”
The stranger stuffs a business card into the top pocket of Milvey’s work apron. “See, Nat,” he says. “Nat breeds champions.”
With that, he turns up the collar of his raincoat, waits for the electric eye to open the door, and disappears into the day.
Before you know it, the fluorescents get back their glare, registers are ringing off the wall, and we shuffle ahead with blank stares, the kind you get waiting in line, knowing sure as shooting you’re gonna be overcharged for something or other.
Well, it didn’t take much for Nathan Margolias, President of the Nathan Margolias School of Typing Champions, to fast-talk Milvey into enrolling in his school. Milvey attended evening classes three nights a week. The other thing he did was buy himself this used lemon-colored portable Olivetti typewriter, complete with leather-like carrying case from Alice Winslow, owner of Elmer’s Office Supplies down on Lake Street.
More often than not, right after class, Milvey made a beeline to his corner room at the Y. Far into the early hours of a new day you could hear him up there typing away to beat the band. So as not to disturb his neighbors, Milvey lined his room with sheets to deaden the sound.
It was a grueling three years of type, type, type—a murderous schedule of clicks and clacks, of bells and thrown carriages squeezed into his six day, 56-hour workweek at the Quik-Buy.
As was Nat’s custom during the Nathan Margolias School of Typing Champions Third Year Master Graduation Speed Test, a black cloth was draped over everybody’s hands. Milvey insisted on wearing a blindfold.
To nobody’s surprise Milvey set a record that day. In an exclusive to Hazel Blatther, social columnist for The Morning Mail, Nat was quoted as saying, “I gotta tell you flat out Haz, in all the years I been teaching Keyboard Master Course One through Three—only a hundred fifty bucks for the entire course, which includes a spiral-bound, four-color illustrated Typing Your Way to Fame Master Class Instruction Manual—I ain’t never come across nobody half close to matching that boy’s speed!”
To honor the occasion Nat had Milvey’s name engraved by Orange “Bill” Johnson, the town’s only living blacksmith, on a copper plaque in the lobby of the Nathan Margolias School of Typing Champions.
Milvey could have named his price as a typist in Dubuque, but our good buddy had bigger fish to fry. A week after graduation, Milvey talks Nat into putting him on the tournament trail.
To nobody’s great surprise, Milvey proved unbeatable. He captured the locals with ease. Breezed through the districts, the regionals, even the semifinals gave him no problem.
Then came that fateful day Nat sent Milvey to the Iowa State Typing Championship Finals. We all went, all his friends. Gruber’s dad, who owned the only garage in town, drove us there in a banged-up school bus he had painted white for the occasion.
Milvey sat directly behind Gruber’s dad, studying a cigar box full of well-traveled road maps. A few of us played checkers. Some of the younger guys were crawling on the floor to carve their initials into the backs of our green plastic seats. The rest of us were tossing popcorn up in the air and trying to catch the falling kernels with our mouths. One lunkhead scattered peanut shells all over the place. The dumbest thing though was when Clyde Riley took his thumb off a shook up bottle of soda pop. Spray hit most everybody in the first four rows and coated half the ceiling. For the rest of our trip, we had to sit there ducking strawberry drops and listening to Gruber’s dad having a hissy fit.
Soon as we drive into the parking lot behind the Des Moines University gym, Milvey scoots over to open the folding doors.
“Close the heck them doggone doors and sit yourself down,’til I get us all good and parked, else nobody’s leaving this here vehicle!” Gruber’s dad yells.
Milvey closes the doors, sits down and mumbles out: “Sorry sir, ’fraid I’m a tad overwrought, sir.”
After we get good and parked, Gruber’s dad looks at Milvey and gives him a quick nod, but Milvey just sits there mulling over the maps.
“When I move my head up and down like the heck I just did!” Gruber’s dad shouts, “That means you got the go ahead to open them doggone doors!”
“Sorry, sir.” Milvey scrambles out of his seat. “Guess I’m a mite out of kilter.” Milvey jerks the handle back and forth until the doors grudgingly creak open.
As he’s about to go down the stairs, Milvey does a touching thing, something nobody likely ever forgot. He turns to us waiting in line, nervously whisks his hands across the top of his crew cut and says in a warm, sincere tone of voice: “Somebody once said … don’t know who it was. Can’t say for sure exactly what it was they said, but it had something to do with how no dream is too small to dream!”
With that, Milvey struggles to open the folding doors a bit wider and half stumbles down the stairs. Somehow he manages to hit the ground running. The rest of us bail out behind him and start jogging around the parking lot, yelling and cheering to beat the band. Somebody lights a string of ladyfingers. Somebody throws up shredded newspaper.
Our good buddy Milvey leads a snake line into the gym. Gruber’s dad yells that he’ll join us soon as he finishes mopping up the ceiling and sweeping out the shells.
Hanging down from a backboard at each end of the gym are these large orange and black pennants that read: “The 21st Annual Iowa State/National Typing Championship Finals of Dubuque, Iowa. Organized in 1837.”
Henry McPeter, who ran the harness shop down on Brody Street right up until the day Hildy, his first wife, killed herself, thought it meant the finals were organized in 1837. Willie Stone, who worked the Y soda fountain, said he thought 1837 was the year the state got organized, as he didn’t see how the finals could go back that far. Stanley Owens, who handled reception at the Y, asked one of the ushers what was what, but all the kid seemed up for was to shrug his shoulders and look annoyed.
I counted 53 contestants. Except for Milvey, all of them were women. Quite a few were puffing away so it wasn’t long before you got this cloudy blue haze floating across the polished wooden floor. A few nervous Nellies cracked their knuckles. Up in the bleachers, friends and relatives cracked their knuckles back. Believe me, that is not the kind of sound you care to hear in a gym.
Finally the whistle blows. Our cheers get lost in the clatter of keys slapping rubber, ringing bells, and thrown carriages. The single pair of binoculars, rented to us by Nat who was down with the flu and couldn’t make the match, passed from hand to hand.
Stanley Owens unwraps two half-pints of Metter’s Blueberry Brandy. We take swigs and laugh and tell jokes about sex. Willie Stone sits in the back, tearing up newspapers and stuffing the shreds into brown paper bags.
Less than 45 minutes later, there’s this sight none of us was surprised to see. Chester Milvey’s standing on his chair, waving his hanky to let the judges know he’s done. Not just done! He’d won with time to spare! The other contestants kept doggedly typing away.
The man who might have spent the rest of his life as an express checker in a dumpy Midwest supermarket had double-handedly whipped the fastest typists in the entire state of Iowa!
The gun sounds. Our cheers rattle the windows. We throw up Willie’s shreds and yell: “Milvey! Milvey! Milvey!”
Milvey waits for the judges to get to his chair. Then, with a proud, carefree gesture, maybe just a little too proud, a little too carefree, Milvey whips the last page free of his typewriter, tearing it in half! Our good friend had forgotten to release his tension spring! Instead of coming in first, Milvey got himself disqualified!
He did a crazy thing then. Just to show you how much it got to him, Milvey stuffs both halves of that torn sheet into his mouth and then he begins to chew!
Nellie Post, only child of Ned and Nancy Post of Red River Falls, who came in second, captures all the honors: the traveling trophy, a bouquet of mixed carnations, and the adjustable Iowa State Championship Finals Typing Ring.
We try talking Milvey into taking the bus back with us. We had this shindig planned for up in his room at the Y. Milvey tells us to go on ahead and enjoy. He’ll catch up with us later.
We left Milvey standing in the parking lot, waving at Nellie Post, who was leaning against her automatic shift Volkswagen, one arm hugging the trophy along with the bouquet of carnations, while she struggled with both hands to close the clunky championship ring around her middle finger. Adding to the confusion was a herd of reporters taking pictures and asking the poor girl personal questions.
What happened next, I got from Ned. Shortly after our bus pulls out, Milvey walks over to Nellie’s car and locks himself inside. Nellie had to give him the carnations to get him to leave.
Two days later, on a misty gray morning, some of us pensioners and a few unemployed are hanging out down by Gruber’s Garage swapping tales and tossing coins when who should come straggling up the road back into town but our good friend Chester Milvey! Plain as day, you could see he’d done a mighty bit of traveling. His boots were scuffed and worn down at the heels making him walk bowlegged. His blue tweed two-button jacket was smudged and torn beyond repair.
Nat scurries over to Milvey, shakes his hand and asks: “How ya feeling, old buddy?”
“How’s that?” Milvey looks befuddled.
“About losing the match, dip-head?”
Milvey smiles that warm smile of his. “Didn’t lose no match, Nat. I just didn’t win.” While Nat stands there mulling that one over, Milvey throws us a friendly nod, gives us a thumb-up, and makes a beeline for the Y.
Milvey did two things. One came the next day. The other took longer to happen. He quit his job at the Quik-Buy and became the town recluse. Walinski, naturally not finding anybody near his speed, got so many complaints he was forced to shut down express.
Most nights, while the rest of us were busy sawing logs, Milvey was holed up in his room, typing away. On nights when he left his window ajar to take in fresh air you could hear him going at it a mile a minute. Willie Stone told me somebody in the know told him Milvey was typing his way through a library book called War and Peace.
Alice Winslow, who owns the only stationary store in town, but generally makes it store policy not to divulge her customer’s buying habits, told her bridge partner, Hazel Blatther, that Milvey was averaging over a ream a day.
After his savings ran out Milvey took a hack job as a stock clerk in a rickety fruit and vegetable stand on West Sioux Street in a suburb of Dubuque. Walinski tried to get Milvey back on express, but according to Walinski all Milvey would do is shake his head and mumble something about having to save up his speed. He stocked with a faraway look in his eyes and seldom talked to customers even when they asked fun questions.
It was something over two months less than three years to the day he’d lost first place at the 21st Annual State of Iowa Typing Championship Finals when word got out; Milvey had talked Nat into putting him back on the tournament trail.
What drove Milvey to return to the scene of such a bitter defeat? Pride? The sense of a task left undone? Something he needed to prove to himself that no amount of compliments from Dubuqians shopping at the West Sioux Street Fruit and Vegetable Stand could ever hope to satisfy?
It came as no surprise, two days less than a month later, The Morning Mail screams in bold red headlines: “Town Typer Tops Thirty Top Typists!” Milvey had won the locals with an astounding 432 words a minute!
Three weeks later, Milvey cops the districts with 2,571 words in five! Then the regionals with 6,452 in 10; and the semis with 15,438 in 20! Only the finals remained.
We all went. Most of us had wives by then so we needed two buses. Most of us had kids, but we left them at home. Frankly, the finals are no place for kids. We bought a stack of waxed cups and two jugs of red wine at a rest stop and spent the remainder of our trip emptying both jugs and jawing over the best parts of our last trip.
Milvey sat behind Gruber’s dad in the lead bus. Mattie, McPeter’s third wife, drove the second bus. Owing to a bad case of double vision, Gruber’s dad had long since lost his license, but he wasn’t gonna rent us the buses if he couldn’t drive lead.
Milvey sports blue-framed sunglasses and a pork pie hat with a feather in it. Lucille, my lovely wife, pinned a pink carnation into the lapel of his green tweed sports jacket during the victory rally in the Quik-Buy parking lot, Walinski’s treat.
It was a quieter trip than the trip before. Nobody tried to catch popcorn. Nobody threw peanut shells on the floor. Only one individual carved his initials on the back of a seat and that was poor Chet Winslow (Alice’s older brother) who had just recently lost his farm to the bank. We didn’t have to worry none about ducking soda drippings being as Clyde Riley had long since passed over to the other side.
Soon as our bus gets parked, Milvey taps Gruber’s dad on the shoulder and asks him if it’s okay to open the doors.
“Wait the heck ’til we get good and parked, else nobody’s leaving this here vehicle!” Gruber’s dad yells.
“Actually, we’re quite nicely parked, sir,” Milvey says.
Gruber’s dad presses his face against the windshield. A moment later he jerks his head back and yells, “So what in tarnation you waiting for then?!”
“Sorry, sir.” Milvey tugs open the doors, which sound for all the world like they’ve not been oiled since our last trip. Milvey scurries down the stairs and waits until we’re all outside before he unfolds a sheet of yellow paper and reads: “My good friends, we’ve come such a long ways to be here today, 42 and a third miles to be exact. I, for one, don’t intend, God willing, for none of those miles to be rode in vain!” Milvey gives us a victory sign. “Far as any dreams go, how’s about we try dealing with a little reality first!”
If somebody from the contest committee hadn’t come running out to let us know we were holding up the show, no telling how long we would of stayed in the parking lot cheering and carrying on.
Lucille and I took turns blowing a paper horn. McPeter lights a string of ladyfingers. Willie Stone throws up shreds. Two abreast with Orange “Bill” Johnson calling cadence, we march into the Des Moines University gym.
An orange-and-black pennant with “The 21st Annual Iowa State/National Typing Championships of Dubuque, Iowa. Organized in 1837.” hangs down from each backboard. Nobody bothers asking anybody how it could still be the 21st Annual three years later than the last time it was the 21st Annual. You get to a point in life where you pretty much know what questions not to ask.
Milvey jogs around the floor, knocking over chairs and picking them up, frantically searching for the electric IBM with his nametag on it. Soon as he finds it he plops himself down and just sort of sits there, not moving a muscle. He doesn’t crack his knuckles; don’t even bother taking off his hat!
A half hour later, give or take, after everybody’s sitting behind their machine and the officials have made all the speeches they care to make, the gun sounds. Milvey’s hands race across his keyboard like a herd of greased pigs.
Stanley Owens passes around an unmarked pint he claims is Metter’s Classic Blackberry, but to me it tastes more like Metter’s Old-Fashioned Elderberry. We take turns using the binocs rented to us by Nat, who had the hives and couldn’t make the match. McPeter and Mattie help Willie Stone tear up shreds. Lucille and I hold hands, something we’d normally never do in public, but remember these were our friends.
The roar of all those electric machines and the blur of all those hands going full speed was a thing uncommon to behold, pretty much awe inspiring.
Some 50 minutes later, there’s Milvey, sweat blotching his hat and staining his shirt, standing on his chair waving a hanky to let the judges know he’s done. “Over here! It’s me again!” he yells. Well now, let me tell you, we let out such a stomping and carrying on up in the bleachers, Lucille said on the trip home she thought sure as shooting we’d all collapse into a dusty heap of twisted metal and wood, battered and bruised beyond repair.
The gun sounds. Three elderly judges weave their way towards Milvey. Two are carrying the traveling trophy, the third cradles a bouquet of mixed carnations in one arm while balancing the clunky adjustable Iowa State Championship Finals Typing Ring on a small red pillow with the other. Meanwhile, all the other contestants doggedly continue typing.
Grinning from ear to ear, our good friend carefully, maybe just a little too carefully, releases his tension spring to free the last sheet of paper.
That’s when it happened! We couldn’t tell dead certain from where we stood cheering, but later that night Lucille and I figured out what it most likely had to be. The doggone copper bracelet Milvey wore for his arthritis must of snagged the tab key! It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Way more than enough!
ZONK! CLUNK! The delicately triggered electrically operated carriage shot to the left, taking a piece of the last page with it! Milvey had forgotten to shut off his typewriter!
“Oh no! Noooo!” Milvey groans. His head hits the keyboard with a sickening clatter. First place goes to Phyllis Smith, a widow with four kids, who works part time at Botford & Sons Dry Goods.
After most everybody else had left the gym, our group straggles down out of the bleachers. Lucille walks over to Milvey and invites him to the Blue Moon Dance Hall. We had it rented for two hours. The wives brought meat loaf, polish sausage, potato salad, coleslaw, and pork and beans. The men had chipped in for two half barrels of beer, one lager, one dark. We told Milvey how sorry we were, then we sort of just mingled around, bumping into each other, not really knowing what else to say.
Finally, our good friend lifts his head off the keyboard. It was a sight I’ll not likely ever forget. Milvey’s got these white polka dots on his face from the keys. The dots are threaded through with tears. “Go to the Moon,” Milvey sobs. “Enjoy and … and God bless!” His head bounces back to the keyboard with a heartbreaking clatter.
I can tell you for a fact, the party at the Blue Moon wasn’t the same without him. We had all we could manage knocking off both kegs. The food we didn’t eat we divided up and took home. Nobody did much dancing.
The next day a few of us are hanging out down at Gruber’s, waiting for our good friend Chester Milvey to come wandering up the road back into town, except he never did.
“He were a loser,” Nat finally says.
“Naahhh, he weren’t no loser,” Willie Stone says right back.
“A quitter then,” Nat says, working hard to put some distance between himself and his star pupil. “He were a quitter.”
“Weren’t no quitter neither,” Willie says.
“What the heck were he then?” Nat asks.
Willie thinks a moment and then he says, “Milvey just weren’t no strong ender is all.” Nat nods, but he looks befuddled.
What put the icing on the cake was Mattie blurting out: “I don’t give a hoot what nobody says! To my mind the poor man put typing ahead of most else in his life. And it weren’t no right thing to do, else the good Lord woulda let him win!”
Minutes later nobody’s left at Gruber’s except Gruber, Lucille and me, and Gruber’s looking like he wants out. Mattie had given us all some hard thinking to do. Truth to tell, most likely there wasn’t a one of us not putting something ahead of something else that ought to come first.
The Quik-Buy’s an office building now. Walter Walinski is semiretired and runs the elevator there. McPeter’s liver quit on him. Poor Chet Winslow hung himself from a beam inside the barn he’d lost to the bank. Mattie bought out Gruber’s dad, who went blind and died. Nathan Margolias resides in the Dubuque County Jail, courtesy of the IRS. Alice Winslow married Orange “Bill” Johnson, of all people. Willie Stone took over from Stanley Owens running the desk at the Y.
Stanley rents a room across the hall from the room where Milvey used to live. On his good days when he’s not under the weather Stanley’s more than willing, for a little pocket change, to cover expenses, to tell the story of Chester Milvey’s life.
Milvey’s room is roped off. Milvey’s typewriter is there, along with his desk lamp and the bed where he’d fall exhausted after typing class and a 56-hour workweek at the Quik-Buy. The walls are still lined with sheets to deaden the sound. Course they’ve yellowed some and started to shred. On his desk is a torn sheet of paper Stanley tells folks came from Milvey’s second loss, the half he didn’t get to eat.
After Lucille passed away, I took myself a dog for company. Mind you, it’s not the same, but it beats tar out of living alone.
Most nights, weather permitting, after we do our business, Lucy and I drop by the Y to chew the fat with Willie Stone. Often as not our talk drifts back to Milvey. How, no matter what was going on in his life, Milvey wore a smile that made you feel that he just couldn’t wait to ring you up.
Here you got this good soul who struggles so hard to do this one thing he gets near perfect. Then right on the brink of success he does himself in. Not once, but twice, and for all anyone knew, maybe even more than that.
I recall one night I brought up the name of Alice Winslow.
“Milvey carried a torch for that woman,” Willie says.
“Alice Winslow, really?” That took me by surprise.
“Not too many people knew it, but Alice was giving Milvey free typing paper.”
“What you suppose that was all about?” I asked.
“Alice was sweet on Milvey.”
“Shame it didn’t work out.”
“She had her store. He had his typing. A perfect match.”
“Doggone, crying shame.”
“And then some.”
“Think Mattie had it right? The Lord’s way of taking Milvey to task for putting typing ahead of most else in his life?” I asked.
“Could be, except what in tarnation was it Milvey should have been putting first?” Willie said.
“Just don’t hardly seem fair, that’s all,” I said.
“Who are we to question The Man Upstairs?” Willie asks. Conversationwise, that took the wind out of our sails.
At some point Willie comes out from behind his desk, kneels down, and scratches Lucy’s ears.
After that Lucy and I head back outside to do our final business for the night. Sometimes we just sort of stand there in the road for a while. Lucy cocks her head and sniffs around. Crickets are cricking. Off in the distance, there’s this faint sound of a train coming on.
If the sky’s clear, and the moon’s not too full of itself, the stars get to shining in that special way they got of making woman, man, and dog alike happy to have a few good years left.
Sometimes, not always mind you, but sometimes, after the train passes, or maybe a little after that, Lucy sits there, ears all a-perked, refusing to budge until I hear what she’s hearing. If the wind’s up a little bit and blowing in the right direction I swear I can. It’s an ever so faint click, click, click drifting down from Milvey’s corner room at the Y. Truth to tell, some folks even gone … well, they just never get too far away.