Written by Ralph E. Shaffer

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

... But I digress. You asked me to tell you about the ink well. I guess if anyone today can tell the story I'm the one. I wasn't here when it was erected, nor here when it disappeared. But for reasons you'll soon hear, the ink well probably means more to me than most anyone else still around. So here's my story about the ink well.

The ink "fountain," as some back then called it, was not a fountain in the usual sense of those words. It didn't spray ink in the air. Well, it sort of did once and I'll tell you about that later. It was more like a series of extremely small ponds, although even that is a misnomer since each well was only a couple of inches in diameter.

Anyway, the Ink Well originated in the early 1920s. As far as I know, Huntington College was the only place to have one, although it was such a grand idea it should have been emulated all over the country. Huntington back then was not yet a university, and it was co-ed, until the Regents banned women when the women's rights movement took off in the late 'sixties. The girls who had attended Huntington from its inception had been 'prim and proper,' but the Regents feared what would happen if feminists enrolled. It just didn't fit the Huntington image.

As I started to explain, the ink well was the brainchild of a kid running for student council in the early 'twenties. He was looking for a campaign plank that would set himself apart from all the other candidates, who usually ran on the traditional planks like keeping the library open longer or reducing the amount of fines. Stuff like that.

I don't know how he came up with the idea but it was a winner. Building an ink well outside the main classroom building was all he seemed to talk about, according to reports of the election in the student newspaper. It worked. He won and sure enough, he insisted on pursuing the ink well through action by the student council and by the end of the term in 1922 the ink well was in operation, just in time for final exams.

Here's how it worked. You've probably seen a picture of the ink well, but that doesn't show you how the students used it. It was a small ... I'm looking for a word. Octagon. That's it. The structure had eight sides, each one with its own ink well. It was an open, shed-like building, not more than ten feet across, with a roof that extended out over the eight wells so that, on a rainy day, you could fold up your umbrella, fill your fountain pen, and not get wet doing it.

Oh, I see I've left out the "why was it built" part. The kid who sponsored it argued, quite rightly, that it was essential to the education process. This was the day when everyone carried a fountain pen- to take lecture notes, write blue book exams, and send love notes to someone special during boring lectures.

One of the worst things that could happen to a kid was to arrive at an exam, especially a final, only to discover that his pen was empty. You had a few options. You might ask the kid sitting next to you if he or she had an extra pen. That usually didn't work because almost no one carried two pens.

You could write your exam answer in pencil, but that was a dangerous thing to do. Old Blodgett, who taught English here for 50 years, believe it or not, would refuse to read anything written in pencil. Automatic F. Even the most understanding profs would write a snide comment on your blue book, and you always wondered if the C was because of your content or because of the pencil.

You might ask the teaching assistant if you could borrow his pen, or he might make an announcement, interrupting the thought process of those scribbling away in their exam books, wondering if anyone had an extra pen.

As a last resort, in a small class without a T. A., you could ask the prof himself if you could borrow his pen. I wouldn't recommend that.

All that is in case you've forgotten your pen. But there was another problem, more directly related to the ink well itself.

Kids would often find as they got ready to leave the dorm for classes that their pens were empty and they had no bottle of ink. Stopping at the student store on the way to class to buy an ink bottle was an alternative, but then you had to carry that bottle around all day. And that's where the campaign plank came in.

Why not build an ink well and locate it in a spot where students on their way to class in the morning would pass right by it, and they could fill their pens? Yes, it was a brilliant idea, and it worked for thirty years. How many kids' grades were saved by that little ink well?

Now, if that was all there was to the story that would be enough, but I've left out what some thought was the best part. The ink well was a social institution. Since it was related to writing, I guess you could call it the social media of its day. It was where kids met old friends or made new ones. That was as important as its role in writing exams, although I don't think the kid who proposed the idea even thought of the social aspect of the ink well.

It was common for kids to say, "Meet me at the ink well at noon." That was better than trying to meet in the library, where you couldn't talk and which had several floors and you weren't sure just where you were to meet. But it wasn't hard to find someone standing at the ink well. From there the two could cross the footbridge over the creek and go to one of the eating places in the village, or they could go back to the dorm... or to the library if that's what they had in mind.

But the ink well was more than just a place to meet. It was common for a boy to say "Hello" to a girl he knew when they were both filling their pens, and then they would walk toward the classroom together. Or in the first few weeks of the fall term kids would discover, at the ink well, that someone they had known in elementary school was a Huntington freshman too. And on a rare occasion one of the profs, on his way to his office in the morning, would stop to fill his pen, and some wag would always have a cheery greeting for him.

All of that was good, but there was one other feature of the ink well that no one could possibly have thought of when the planning for it took place. I suppose you could call them 'stalkers,' although that word is usually reserved for guys with an evil intent. But I'm referring to the lonely Huntington guys who made a practice of spending a lot of time at the ink well in an attempt to meet girls. Any girls.

I say any girls rather than pretty girls for a reason. All Huntington girls were attractive. Those were the days when colleges required prospective frosh, boys or girls, to submit a photo. Now, some schools, maybe most, wanted the photo so they would not admit certain ethnic groups. That wasn't Huntington. Huntington practiced non-discrimination regarding race and religion at a time when most colleges, even state schools, refused to admit various groups. That's what the photo was for at those other schools. A kid might have great grades and recommendations and write a brilliant admission application essay, but that photo would ding him or her on ethnic grounds. Not at Huntington!

Huntington had its own form of discrimination. The photo was used for a different purpose. All Huntington girls were attractive because the photos weeded out those who weren't. they never got into the school.

So any girl a guy met at the ink well was going to be a good-looker. Here's how it worked, but don't get me wrong. There were only one or two guys a year who did this. Most Huntington men were socially adept and met girls in a more normal manner.

The stalker would show up at the ink well about 15 minutes before classes started at 8 a. m. About that time students came down from the dorms and the Greek Row in sufficient numbers to make his venture worthwhile. He'd stand at one of the eight wells, filling his pen, In fact I watched one of these guys once. He had a pocket full of pens and would go from well to well, filling them.

Now at this point I need to tell you how the fountain pen worked so you will understand why the stalker was at the ink well. In those days most pens were filled by inserting the nib into the ink and lifting a lever on the barrel of the pen, sucking the ink into a container inside the barrel. There were variations on the system, and some of the fancy European pens worked differently, but the principle was about the same in all of them.

When some girl had trouble filling her pen, the guy would offer to help. He was usually well versed in the functioning of the different pens - maybe that's why he had so many in his pocket, different kinds - and he almost always successfully filled the girl's pen and then when she thanked him and started off to class he would start walking with her. Most of the time she let it be known in some fashion, probably very politely, that she wasn't interested in a social relationship with him, and he'd soon be back at the ink well. The length of time it took for him tor return sort of indicated how long it was before he realized he wasn't going to get anywhere with that girl.

There was, on very rare occasions, a girl stalker. Maybe she was a dorm girl who wanted to meet frat boys. She seemed to be very selective in her choices. In her case, she was the one who was having trouble filling a pen and guys would offer to help. If she sensed that the guy was just a dorm kid, she'd say "No, thanks, I'll manage," and he would move on. But she stayed there fumbling with the pen and making comments about the faulty pen until another guy offered to help. If he was a fraternity man, she'd smile and give him her pen, he'd fill it, she'd start a conversation, and the two of them might start off toward a classroom building. Maybe she went to classes, but the only place I ever saw her was at the ink well. She was there so often that I guess the frat boys were particular and asked her what sorority she was in and then dumped her when she said she lived in the dorm. Anyway, she was at the ink well as often as the guy I've been telling you about.

Until one day. I think it was during final exams. Everyone was pretty tense. Some young thing was having trouble with her pen and she got pretty vocal about it, using language not usually heard from a girl, especially a Huntington girl. Our "hero", the stalker, moved in and offered to help. She was genuinely relieved, so grateful that it looked like he may finally have made a friend. Until something went terribly wrong with the pen. As he finished filling it, he raised the pen to give it back to her. At this point the lever got caught on something - maybe a button on his sleeve - and it went into emptying mode. The ink squirted out, all over the girl's white blouse. If she had been frustrated before because her pen wouldn't fill, she was now exasperated. Her blouse ruined, her pen empty, and a final exam about to start- what could be worse? She started running back up the walkway toward the dorm, the boy rushing after her, pen in hand. The idiot was telling her to take her pen. That was the least of her concerns. She told him to go away as she raced back to the dorm in tears. He finally stopped, standing there holding her pen.

At that moment the girl stalker caught up with him. She explained the problem was that this was one of those strange European pens that took a little coaxing to fill and it was necessary to lock the lever or what had just happened would indeed happen. She led him back to the ink well and demonstrated. He was impressed, but it wasn't clear that he fully understood the process. They talked for a few moments - the first time anyone had ever seen them conversing together - then they turned and headed over the footbridge toward the coffee shop. No one ever saw either of them again at the ink well.

Well, that's the story of the ink well. Oh, I didn't tell you about its demise. The ball point pen did it in. It was still here in the 'forties, but by the mid-'fifties it was gone. With the advent of the ball point pen, fountain pens were used only by the effete and they were not likely to cater to a plebeian ink well. Our only reminders of that great social institution are photos. Not quite. I met the girl I married at the ink well. Was I one of the stalkers? That's something I won't tell you. But I still haven't figured out how that fancy European pen works.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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