Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Are pen pals still out there...

Posted 7/05/16 (Tue)

In this day and age of everything digital, I’ve often wondered about something that was once very popular and fun to do.

Does anyone, most notably teenagers, have pen pals anymore?

I suppose nowadays, one can get instant gratification from emails or text messages, why send letters with a stamp on them?

But that is what made having pen pals so intriguing and so much fun. Letters, as we know, aren’t instantaneous and that anticipation of the next letter brought all kinds of thoughts to the receiver.

When I was 15 years old, my mother was a subscriber of a magazine called Women’s Circle. The centerfold of that magazine had a section every month called “Teensville.”

It was in that magazine that I read of an Australian teen who was seeking pen pals. Her picture appeared with her Afghan hound.  She was one of about 12 or 15 kids who were featured every month.

Her M.O. seemed interesting so I wrote a letter and sent it off. It was postmarked April 30, 1975. I didn’t know whether I would get an answer or not. Forty-one years later, we are still in contact, mostly through email these days, but we are still close. I recently received pictures of her son’s wedding.

Thanks to Judy Bridge, now Fell, I’ve learned more about Australia than most students would ever get in a high school or college class about Australia.

In 1993, I visited Judy, her husband Geoff and their son Charles for two weeks. It still ranks right up there as one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Shortly after I received that first letter from Judy, I got to thinking why not write a similar bio and send that and a picture to Women’s Circle and see what happens.

Two months later the letters began pouring in. It became an interesting problem; which ones do I respond to because I couldn’t write back to everyone. At its peak, I was getting probably 60 to 75 letters a week that were coming from as far away as Alaska and the Panama Canal Zone.

Some of those letters did get answered; those that seemed the most intriguing. At one point in time I was writing regularly to 51 people on a regular basis including someone in Washburn and someone in Westport, S.D., a small  town near Ellendale.

For three of them, in Massachusetts, Ontario and Quebec, we stayed in touch for years. In fact, I’m still in contact with my pen pal from Brantford, Ontario, but again mostly through emails.

My pen pal in Quebec invited me to see the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with her family. I worked for my brother that summer to save up enough money to make the trip. I spent two weeks with them in Montreal and in the small village of Dunham, near the Vermont border. And yes, we did go to the Olympics.

Approximately 10 years ago, I received a letter from the mother of my pen pal in Cochituate, Mass., a suburb of Boston. She told me that her daughter had died of cancer and she wanted me to know.

Oddly enough, just in the last couple of years as I was researching Lac Megantic, Quebec, to find information about an oil train explosion there, I ran across Muriel Hooper’s obituary in the Montreal Gazette. She too, had passed away from cancer and to the best of my knowledge, was the only Muriel Hooper in Canada.

The others I have lost track of for one reason or another, but through my high school and college years, I had plenty of correspondence to answer.

As I said earlier, I learned a lot about Australia, the greater Boston area, Quebec and the greater Montreal area and New Hamsphire, where my Massachusetts pen pal had a cabin.

More importantly, writing to all these pen pals helped me formulate proper sentences on paper and taught me how to write proper English grammar and spelling.

It also taught me how to type. When I started this jouney, everything was written in long hand. When I was a junior in high school, I took a typing class. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a typewriter and began pounding out letters on the keyboard, first on a manual typewriter, then an electric, now Judy and Debbie and I write each other using computers.

I really believe that having pen pals all those years ago is why I chose to go into journalism. I was maxing English and typing tests so it made sense to go that direction.

I just wonder if anyone does that any longer. Proper English is slipping away because texting today uses so many acronyms and abbreviations. To me, writing letters was so much more than just a convenience.