Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pen Pal Pandemonium

When I was in fourth grade I started writing to a few pen pals. Two very special ones were Faith L., who lived in an orphanage in Hong Kong; and Ruby H., who lived in Ennis, Texas. They were both like me, in that they loved writing and loved receiving letters. We exchanged school pictures and post cards. We sent little birthday and Christmas gifts. Ruby and I even arranged a long distance phone call for one summer evening. Long distance calls were pretty expensive back then, especially from Alaska. They were reserved for special occasions, and were not made lightly. The local newspaper in Ennis even published an article about our big Alaska to Texas call.

Having two or three pen pals was really a lot of fun. And, I figured, if two or three were good, more would surely be even better! I started collecting pen pals from all over the world. I put a world map up on my bedroom wall, with map pins showing where they all lived. I developed a pretty good system for finding new ones. I would write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in some small town in that country, and it would usually result in a handful of responses, from which I would select my new pen pal. Before long I had 50 or so pen pals from America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, and was doing a fairly good job of keeping up with all of them.

Then came the day that my system blew up in my face. I decided to recruit a pen pal from the Philippines. I got out my atlas, selected a small town, and addressed my request to the editor of the local newspaper. The “sting” was that the town was too small. It didn’t have a local newspaper, so the post office forwarded my letter to the editor of the Manila Times. Now, I don’t know what the population of Manila was at that time, but it’s over 11 million now! It was no small town. And, to make things worse, they didn’t just run my letter once, but kept running it week after week.

We received our family mail at my dad's bakery. We knew the postman on a first-name basis. He knew about my hobby, and cheerfully delivered the first 20 or so letters from the Philippines. But before long I was getting as many as 70 letters every day from there, and the postman was no longer amused. He would stand at the front counter and count them out to me, one at a time. ONE. TWO. THREE . . . and so on, all the way to SEVENTY.

Now what was really funny was that about 95% of the letters came from male medical students in their mid-twenties, and included studio photos and proposals of marriage! My dad was getting worried. And I was getting frantic. There seemed to be no way to turn off the flood of letters that came day after day. I think, about six weeks later, the numbers began to dwindle, but even months later I was getting occasional letters from hopeful Filipino medical students.

That was the beginning of the end of my enthusiasm for the whole pen pal thing. I never again wrote to a newspaper to find a new pen pal.

To this story there is a happy ending, though. I did continue to write to Ruby H. and Faith L., and during my college years had opportunity to meet both of them. Faith and I actually attended Abilene Christian College (now University) together for four years, so we got to know each other quite well during that time. Imagine, pen pals from Alaska and Hong Kong ending up at the same Texas college! And Ruby and her father came to the Dallas airport once, to meet me when I had a layover enroute to Abilene, and we had a wonderful visit.

Sadly, somehow back in the ‘80s, I lost track of Ruby, and I’ve never been able to locate her again. I’m really grateful, however, that Faith (who is married with two grown children, and lives in Texas) and I still stay in touch, at least at Christmas every year.

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