Write Back Soon: In Praise of Pen Pals
My first pen pal was Tammy from Princeville, Ill., population 900. We got together as fifth-graders through a program written up in Cricket magazine. Tammy was an atrocious speller, riding roughshod over the language with her phonetic renderings of words like “pitcher” (as in “photograph”). And she loved closing her letters with tweeny initialisms like “W/B/S” for “write back soon,” and other slogans that were more alliterative, and frankly a little weird (“Bad Boys Bring Babies”).
Tammy and I likely would never have been friends in real life. But I dove into her letters and their country-mouse anthropology. She was from a world I knew nothing of, and she was my most welcoming tour guide.
After a while, I pondered: If I could teleport to her dot on the map, what broader, more alluring worlds were out there for the plundering? It was a premise I couldn’t resist. Within a couple of years, I was trading letters with a dozen or so pen pals from Quito to Singapore.
The serious pen pal had an arsenal of materials at her disposal, the most basic of which was an ingenious item known as the aerogram. Sadly now extinct, the aerogram was a light blue sheet of paper with airmail postage value preprinted on one side. You scribbled out your one-page letter (no enclosures allowed), folded it into thirds, sealed it up and off it went. A few years ago when a friend moved to Ireland, I inquired at the post office whether they still made them; only one older lady behind the desk remembered what I was talking about.
Once the relationship developed and you had more to say, you stocked up on airmail envelopes and paper. I was pleased to notice these hanging tough on the drugstore shelf recently, and only wished I had a current use for them. The onion-skin paper was tougher than it looked, standing up to purple felt-tip ink with ease, and you could stuff an envelope full of it with negligible effect on the postage price. I liked to go fancy with what could best be called “designer” airmail stationery: color-coordinated riffs on the standard supplies, with shades of lilac or olive-and-tan replacing the familiar blue-and-red envelope border and “Par Avion” lettering.
Stickers were a popular enclosure, and I always wowed my correspondents, picking out the snazziest examples from the orgy of rolls at Lazy Susan on Clement Street, a growing girl’s accessory heaven. The inserts improved as we grew older and music became a hot topic. I would send out the San Francisco Chronicle’s weekly roundup of Billboard’s Top 20 albums, photocopied by my mom at her office. Sarah in the U.K. earned a favored place in my pen-pal hierarchy with generous clippings from Smash Hits magazine of my pop-chart darlings. When a fat envelope arrived—signaling a lengthy interview or a tasty foldout—it was a great day.
My posse wrote to me in varying levels of English, and in my replies I began to learn to think in a foreign tongue. I can only wonder what gibberish I wrote in junior-high Spanish to Graciela in Ecuador; she and her friends must have howled at my efforts.
We talked about our friendship dramas, schoolwork, crushes. It didn’t matter that weeks or months passed between exchanges; they were conversations. And we were friends, bonded by a shared curiosity about the world beyond our desks. I learned enough Swahili to get me by in some future exotic pinch, and that handwriting has distinct looks in different countries. Our letters were full of questions, and daydreams. “Maybe one day we can go to Tanzania together,” Nina from East Africa wrote me after her family had immigrated to Canada.
So much of the thrill of it was taking on new information and letting your mind fill in the blanks. Some of my pen pals I never even saw in photographs. I used to imagine where their letters were coming from: Sarah’s village in the gray north of England; the noisy street scene in Dar Es Salaam, where Nina wrote to me while she worked in her father’s store; Kym’s family sheep farm on New Zealand’s north island. I wonder what they imagined about me, at my private girls’ school in tony San Francisco. My scene must have sounded good on paper, where I was free of the baggage of my dirt-poor parents, my tragic complexion and other catastrophes of the late-twentieth-century young American.
Today I could plug all their addresses into Google Maps and drop in for a virtual visit. But I would rather retain the hazy abstractions of their worlds that live in my mind. The pen-pal relationship, built upon the handwritten word and the investment of time, wasn’t about instant gratification or knowing every detail of the other person’s life. Yet it was personal and intimate and rewarding. And all the technology in the world can’t replace it.