Lightning in a Bottle

Nothing quite prepared me. I had thought my 146 LeGrande was the epitome of the fountain pen maker’s art. A Meisterstuck, with all that that proud German label quietly implied. A hint of magic was loosed, after all, every time I screwed off the cap and touched its lovely medium nib to paper. In the month since I first inked it, that pen has been a jar full of epiphanies.

But still. It did not prepare me.

My education continues apace. I have learned much of the world of fountain pens over the last several months. And it seems those lessons have only accelerated since falling under the spell of the products from the boys and girls of Hamburg.

Last weekend I wandered into the Paradise Pen store at Tyson’s Corner Mall. The same store where a month ago the fellow had put an inked Montblanc pen into my hand for the first time.

I should blame him.

Twice, I walked around the store’s circumference. I looked at everything, something I hadn’t done on that earlier trip. As I passed the spot in the glass display case where the Montblancs were, my eyes glanced down at the gleaming rows of black pens, lying like sleeping soldiers against the felt.

All except the 149. That still rested, posted, with its nib uppermost, waving like a flag, upright in the mug. Phallus-like, indeed.
I smiled to myself. I knew something about the 149 I hadn’t known on that earlier day.

The friendly woman asked if I’d like to see anything. I looked up at her and smiled.

“No, thanks. I’m just looking.”

But even as I said it there was an edge of something abiding in the back of my mind. And walking out of the store didn’t help.


One wonders sometimes from whence these impulses come. They sit there in the back of your mind, ticking like the little bombs they are. After a lifetime of confronting them, I know now the path they are likely to take.

It all comes down to the rationale we fashion, of course. Were this simply another rifle, or a fly rod, or a camera, or another motorcycle, it would be a heavy lift. There are arguments I can conjure. Defenses I can muster.

But as a writer, it seems, I am quickly lost. Getting ink on paper sits at the nexus of it all, after all. And so there sits the rationale, easy, sliding down like two fingers of an 18-year single-malt.

One of the epiphanies that month-old 146 had brought to me was that size is a malleable quality. When I started this journey a few months ago, the M200 which started it all struck me as a perfect fit. Posted, it fit fine in the hand. And capped, it fit fine in the breast pocket of a dress shirt. The day I brought it home, I still thought of the LeGrande as oversize, with a learning curve to climb.

I was wrong, of course. The 146 brought a wonderful balance.

Its real lesson, though, was still a few weeks down the road. The time I first picked it up to scribe a quick note and so, being in a hurry, simply held the cap in my left hand while I wrote with the pen unposted.

I ride motorcycles. And when I climb down off one of my heavier bikes – my Harley Road King or one of my BMW sport-tourers – and instead mount my Suzuki GSX-R1000, a thoroughbred sportbike with ice water in its veins, it’s like laying down a sword and picking up a straight razor.

Of a sudden, I learned that 146 of mine was not an oversized pen. Unposted, its handling sharpened immeasurably. The line it lay, quickened. After a few days, in a once unimaginable turn of events, I began to think of my raw, unposted 146 as a not-large, even diminutive pen. And so do doors open.

Then there was the ink. For more years than I can count the pen I nearly always carried was a Uni-Ball Vision with 0.5mm point. That’s a ballpoint that lays down a hairline-fine line.

Cheap and serviceable. And it more or less gave my struggling script a passable legibility. At least if I printed.

Binder stubs on that M200 began to pull me out of that morass. When I’d gaze at the fattened slopes of parts of the letterforms, contrasting with the threadbare lines on others, I was entranced. My handwriting might not deserve it, but I could sense the elegance that lay there, just below the surface. It bespoke an indefinable beauty that, far from being the superficial frivolity it might first seem, struck me as important.

Words are beautiful. Why should not the shape of the letters that make them?

From there it was but a short trip to heavier lines of ink. A 0.8mm Binder stub to go with those earlier 0.6mm items. A Pelikan medium. And all of a sudden the world of nibs was opened up. And that led to the medium on that beloved 146 of mine. The one that wrote like blood.

And so it was that the confluence was set. One more bridge to cross.

The brown box arrived yesterday. Twice as large as I expected. And square rather than rectangular. Odd. That led to piquant thoughts all evening as I, in a bit of Spartan self-denial, let it be, save for the odd glance.

Finally, with midnight approaching and the house quiet, I allowed myself the pleasure. The box within the box was square, as well. And twice the size of the one my 146 came in. One mystery solved.

Even as another was just getting started.

Nothing quite prepares you for the 149. It lies there in a kind of stately elegance, with undertones of grace and magnificence expressing off it like ghostly tendrils of spindrift. You know you have something.

Carrying a coffee mug into the bathroom, I filled it with cold water and dipped the virgin nib, twirling the piston-fill knob on the end until a dozen-odd ink-chamber-full quantities had been sucked in, and then expressed back out.

Back at my desk in the den, I picked up the bottle of Montblanc black and unscrewed the cap. Abiding a moment’s pleasure – am I the only one who gets a warm wash of pleasure when looking down into the inky depths of a bottle of ink? – and once more plunged the nib into liquid.

Turning to my tablet of Clairfontaine, I leaned forward and lowered the nib to the paper. There was that instant of pause, like waiting for the break of a rifle’s sear, when the multiple threads of what has long been unknown suddenly flash together in a fusion of the known - and then I was writing.

Glistening, wet strokes, with an effortlessness that transcends belief. Like softly trailing a fingertip across a woman’s breast. It was as if the broad nib did not need to touch the paper, but simply kiss the molecules adjacent to it.

Our lives are filled with the pedestrian. That’s just the way it is. But every so often we’re invited to touch something of the ineffable. And therein, sometimes, if we’re bold enough to grasp it, lies magic.


© 2009 Jeff Hughes