I saw somewhere that today is the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system of writing for the blind. As his legacy can easily withstand a little friendly competition, I figured it’s a good day to mention Moon Type, the little-known alternative to Braille.
Tell it like it is
In the same sally through the encyclopedia that uncovered Moon Type, Chuck discovered in the entry for “warthog” this caption beneath an illustration: “The warthog is one of the world’s ugliest animals.” This tickled us no end, but a year or two later when the library got an updated edition of the encyclopedia, we were even more amused to see that the same illustration now had a more scholarly and much less colorful caption, along the lines of, “The warthog can be distinguished by its tusks.” We delighted in imagining the outraged protests from some Warthog Appreciation Society that resulted in the politically correct change.
My friend Chuck discovered Moon Type in seventh grade while browsing through a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia in the school library. Developed around the same time as Braille, its alphabet consists not of raised dots but of simplified, recognizable letterforms.
The Moon Type alphabet
(lovingly rendered by yours truly)
Chuck and I decided that Moon Type, as obscure and yet as simple as it was, was ideal for passing coded messages to each other. We committed it to memory and used it thereafter from time to time when we desired an (admittedly light) extra level of security on our written communications — which consisted mostly of jokes, plans for world conquest, and not-fit-for-publication commentary on our female classmates.
On one dismal occasion, that extra security failed memorably. Chuck and I were at the apartment of my girlfriend Andrea (not the Andrea that I married). Andrea’s parents were out of town and I was hoping Chuck would get the hint about giving us some privacy. I wanted to use this perfect opportunity to advance with Andrea to, shall we say, a less consistently frustrating level of physical intimacy. We were having a grand old time, the three of us, but when the hour began to grow late and Chuck was still hanging around, I decided to pass him a coded message — coded once with Moon Type, and coded again by being worded obliquely in case of interception. The message was, “book.” I expected Chuck immediately to apprehend its slang meaning, which we sometimes used, of “leave” — and to be unoffended by the request, and to comply at once while making it look like leaving was his idea, as demanded by the Guy Code.
Unfortunately for me and my hormones, all of those expectations were wrong. I handed him the folded piece of paper behind Andrea’s back. Of course Chuck deciphered the Moon Type immediately — this was in tenth grade, and by now we had been using Moon Type for years. But our usual ability to know just what the other was thinking left him just then, and he said to me in a puzzled voice, “Book?” I tried to shush him and to clarify my intent nonverbally, but this only puzzled him more and he inquired again, within Andrea’s hearing, as to what I could have meant. Now she grew curious too. Ignominiously I tried to change the subject, and then (when that failed) to pretend I’d been trying to remind Chuck about a book he’d borrowed from me, but then why would I have written a coded message about it? Suddenly Chuck got it — “Oh, you want me to leave!” — and he got huffy, and Andrea got pissed off, and that was the end not only of that evening but of all future attempts to, ahem, “advance” with her.
At the time it felt like a disaster for my relationship with Andrea, and indeed it was; but I didn’t realize then that the lasting injury would be my guilt about having offended Chuck, my best friend. In the many years that have passed I doubt I ever apologized to him for it, and though I’m sure in hindsight he considers this incident to be minor and excusable by the ordinary cravenness of teenage boys, I still feel like I owe him this public: “Sorry, man!”