Friday, November 11, 2011

Always Wonder Why

           I thought of Andy Rooney the other day when I filled the tank of my car. The price of mid-grade gasoline was $3.55.9 a gallon, and I recalled how, many years ago during one of his commentaries on 60 Minutes, Andy had wondered why that nine-tenths of a cent always was tacked on to gasoline prices.
Why, he asked, didn’t the oil companies just round up to the full cent?
Among his many friends at CBS News, I was one of the newer ones, having met him in 1973, shortly after I joined the CBS Evening News. As journalists who considered ourselves writers first, Andy and I shared a passion for the written word. And we liked the low-tech way of getting those words on paper, using a manual typewriter.
I had bought an old Underwood at a yard sale a few months earlier, and I knew that Andy used a similar typewriter in his office. As he was walking through the newsroom one day, I asked him if he knew of a way to learn when my typewriter was manufactured. He told me where to find the serial number on it, and returned a short time later with a piece of paper with serial numbers and corresponding dates  – typewritten, of course: it turned out that my Underwood was built in 1942, the year that I was born.
Andy suggested that I take it to Martin Tytell, a forensic typewriter expert in Lower Manhattan, who could show me how to make it like new. With Andy Rooney as my reference, Tytell did, and thus began my hobby of collecting old typewriters, with bookcase shelves now filled with 18 L.C. Smiths, Coronas, Underwoods, Royals and others, ranging in age from 1875 to 1942, all in perfect working condition; there are a few more in my basement, awaiting repair.
Several years ago, a student at Portland High School in Maine asked Andy to deliver the commencement address, and he accepted. Andy later told me that he did it because of the sheer audacity of the invitation. “I don’t like to do these things,” he said. “But how could I refuse such a wonderful request?”
When I heard that he was coming to Portland, I emailed Andy an offer to stay at my house, which was about 25 miles away. He called me to explain that he planned to drive to the graduation ceremony in the morning, and then head right back to Boston, where his wife Marge and he were visiting. But he asked me to come into Portland to visit with him, and I did, and we spent about a half-hour talking before the speech, and half as long after. The one line that I remember was when he admonished the students to not sleep late in the morning, “to make the most of your days, because time is too valuable.”
            In addition to words and typewriters, Andy and I liked to play tennis, and we always had time for that.
            Andy had heard about a Tuesday and Thursday lunchtime tennis club that Walter Cronkite and I were putting together. Among the original members were Bud Benjamin, the Evening News executive producer; John Lane, the senior producer; Bill Willson, an associate producer; Charles Osgood, a correspondent; and Howard Stringer, then the executive producer of CBS Reports. We needed one more person to complete the group, so that four of us could play at least once a week. 
“Include me in the tennis club,” Andy said over the phone. “I can be available any time you want.”
            And he always was. If a particular member were unable to play on his assigned day, I would call the others. Andy would say, “I’ll cancel lunch plans.” Walter, Bud, John, Charlie and Bill would say, “Let me check my schedule.” Howard would ask, “Who else is playing?”
            Andy wasn’t a great player; on most days, he wasn’t even a good player, possessing a forehand that was hard pressed to stay inbounds, and a backhand that hit the net more often than it cleared it. But he worked harder on the court than any of us, and if he happened to be at the net for a return, his spring-action overhead was deadly accurate.
            And so were Andy’s off-the-court comments, his takes on everything from events around the world to happenings within the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street, where we all worked. Those were good days back then, when it was fun to be with colleagues, on and off the tennis court. Those are the memories that I always will have.
And now, whenever I pull into a gas station, I will look at that nine-tenths of a cent, think of Andy, and wonder why.