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Ball Point Pens With Soul

from the pen of Robert Leone

Fountain pen lovers may decry the ball point pen as a tawdry, cheap, mass-produced device for grinding chicken-scratches into cheap paper. "Ball Point" may even be considered "fighting words" by some who read this article. However, I contend that at least some ball point pens have class, style, and even soul. I'll demonstrate this with five examples.

One measure of the Sensa's ability to capture our positive attention and earn our respect was the way the Pentrace message board erupted when rumors emerged of a fountain pen version of the Sensa ball point. Another is the proliferation of rubberized and/or ergonomic gripping sections all over the pen world, from the Omas 360 and Cross Morph to the Sanford Ph.D and a horde of "Bill Blass" pen sets available at low, low prices in my local office supply warehouse. Perhaps the truest measure is that a coworker, who dispenses with pretense every day as she copiously annotates invoices, bills, statements and accounts, bought one for herself. She carries it to and from work every day in the presentation case that came with the pen, a possibly unwitting parody of the way an 18th century duelist would treat a pistol set.

With its macho name and extra-terrestrial family tree members, the Fisher Bullet comes across as a good pen in a clutch. The ad copy often makes the slightest possible mention that the Bullet is also a good pen to put in a clutch! It's small, tough, and with its cap closure it can't accidentally open and mark up other stuff in a purse no matter how jammed the line at the grocery store or Opera would get. And don't laugh at that -- I have relatives who've played rugby and ushered "Rigoletto," and they can't tell me which one left them more bruised. I don't own one myself, but I know several people who do. Admittedly most of them are in the science fiction community, not the fountain pen community (not that there isn't crossover!), but these hardy fen (fannish plural of "fans") who scrimp and save to go to WorldCon felt plopping down the bucks for a Bullet was worth it.

For two generations the Cross Century ball point pen has been a favored graduation gift and the pocket-borne mark of middle management. The refill, the twist-to-open mechanism and even the shape and style have been emulated by others.
Let's dwell on that shape. That Deco-esque truncated taper at top and bottom show this pen is "designed," but it's not overdesigned like some "Limited Edition" pens. It's not a flaunted understatement either. It's styled just enough: No more, no less. It's a relatively slim pen, too -- so it can accent, not distort, the attire of any executive who might feel it necessary to show a pen. This pen means business, even if it looks good doing it.
I confess I personally am a bit ambivalent about this great pen. I'm not comfortable writing with one for an extended length of time. That said, I must close with one more Cross Century claim for having soul: A lifetime warranty that means just that.

In my college days I was assigned a book about modern American poets. Each chapter was devoted to a living, usually active poet. There would be a picture, a brief biography, an interview and a selection of poems. What struck me was that only two of the more-than-a-dozen poets were shown with writing instruments. In one shot, Ismail Reed (the only African-American in the bunch) was seated in a book-filled office, facing what appeared to be an electric typewriter -- the hard-working man of letters briefly interrupted in his labors. In the other shot with a visible writing instrument Nathan Tarn was standing in profile, with a Parker Jotter clip clearly visible from the pocket of his unwrinkled safari jacket.
We may decry the Parker Jotter as one of the leaders in the mob that drove the Esterbrook into extinction, but it is a solid performer whose slightly wider profile and push-button operation have made it a favorite with folks looking for an unobtrusive top-performing pen that's convenient for check-listing and spot annotation. Shiny nylon and brushed stainless steel may not be the height of esthetic expression, but the Jotter is meant to do just that -- jot.

No, this isn't a joke. Pentracers outside the United States may be confused by reference to this nationally notorious pen, which, irony of irony, is assembled by blind people! In fact, the only reason why I thought to put this humble entrant on the list is because the office supply vendor my workplace uses lets us BUY them! That's right -- we actually spend money to purchase what is very likely the most stolen brand of pen in America. They even sold them to us in BLUE (which had the Navy and Marine vets I work with asking how we got Air Force pens!). So, what did we get for less than five bucks a dozen?
Metal pushbutton top. Black resin (plastic) top body. Metal collar between the top and the lower section. Black resin (plastic) lower section with a metal ferrule at the tip. Inside, a brass ink tube. I admit the refill is different, the mechanism is different, the resin isn't described as "precious," and instead of a snowflake logo the identifier on the pen reads "Skilcraft-U.S. Government" on the lower section.
I'm not going to say right out the Skilcraft retractable is the functional equivalent of a Montblanc ball point, but it's fun imply that!
This pen, the staple of postal workers and government clerks across the United States, is not guaranteed for life, but it very likely is one of the least expensive pens designed and built with the expectation that someone would use them until out of ink and refill them. They're an incredibly hard-working value, and in so far as a ball point pen can be said to have "soul," I would say the Skilcraft pens have them. They are clear evidence that, in the ball point pen arena, inexpensive doesn't equate to inadequate.

This list isn't meant to be comprehensive. I can think of plenty of good pens I didn't bother listing. Some of them were situationally appropriate, such as a yellow Lamy Safari ball point I saw wielded by a "Racing Form" reader right after she ordered her breakfast at an al fresco eatery near the local horse-racing track.
Rotring is just one maker that has produced great inexpensive ball point pens seldom seen in the U.S. Papermate's Profile is a slightly slimmer competitor to the Parker Jotter that deserves respect. For years the Pilot "Better Ball point," in both stick and retractable, was a friend's best bet for long-lasting, low-fuss pink and purple writing solutions. My fulsome praise of Skilcraft is not meant to detract from the Bic Clic, even if it doesn't have a metal ferrule at the point end. And then there's the Aurora Thesi.
We prefer not to use them, but there are plenty of good ball point pens, even inexpensive ball point pens, that have the class, performance and soul necessary to attract fans. We should not let our love of nibs and bottled ink hide the merits of a good ball point pen.

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