When folks of my generation regale youngsters with the joys of the mid-twentieth century — we played outside without supervision, our parents beat us senseless for any and all transgressions, we ate dirt without consequence, blah, blah, blah — we usually fail to mention one of the less gonzo aspects of our remote youth; we had pen pals.
Letter writing itself is a lost art. Most of us these days are about as likely to write a letter on paper, put a stamp on it and pop it in the mailbox as we are to stick a note in a bottle and throw it into the ocean.
To be truthful, in my day, letter writing was already considered to be on the downslide. Telephones had long since started the deterioration in analog correspondence that computers and the internet have since finished off.
But we had armies of determined English teachers who had no idea they were fighting a losing battle and they taught us to write letters. And for any psychic student who somehow knew learning to write a letter was a waste of his or her time and didn’t want to learn, those diligent English teachers would beat the crap out of that kid and make them learn. That, as you have probably heard, is how education worked in the good old days.
In order to practice our letter-writing skills, we were encouraged to have a pen pal, someone to write letters to who theoretically wrote letters back. Your pen pal might be on the other side of town, the other side of the state or the other side of the world depending on where your particular teacher got those mysterious lists of potential pen pals that they all seemed to have.
During this indoctrination into the joys of correspondence, we’d hear touching stories of people who met their pen pals after years and years of diligent writing. They were wonderful, poignant tales of soulful, endless letter writing that lead to a big payoff in the far distant future.
I didn’t have the patience. Wasting time writing long, long, heartfelt letters to a total stranger when I could be riding my bike or eating dirt was all just too Jane Austen for me. Although to be honest, I don’t think I knew who Jane Austen was at the time but you see what I mean.
Fast forward fifty years and ironically, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of my free time writing to people I barely know or have never met. Strip away the cat videos and that’s exactly what social media is. Correspondence with strangers.
No, you say. Not me. I have been very diligent in keeping the velvet rope rigidly deployed against intruders into my circle of friends. My social media friends are my real friends. And perhaps you have done exactly that, but I have not.
After a while, friends of friends start to seem like friends and then their other friends become my friends and before you know it, there I am writing notes to a whole gaggle of people I’ve never clapped eyes on. And some of them I come to be very fond of.
Then, earlier this week, I got to meet in person one of those online friends. It’s been at least four years since Kittie and I became Facebook friends. I really can’t remember how we got to know each other. Maybe we have a mutual friend but I can’t remember who it is.
During the time I’ve communicated with Kittie, I have enjoyed watching her progress as an artist, even commissioned her to do a portrait of my dog, learned a great deal about the care, feeding and breeding of Papillons from her, shared my career change agita, traded barbs about pop culture and scrapped feistily with her about politics.
Our friendship is all the more unlikely because we could not be further apart on the political spectrum. She is smart and has a sense of humor, both rare qualities in most people of her political persuasion. I like to think she feels the same way about me.
It’s really surprising that we stayed friends. After all, there was no real-world connection to bind us. Either one of us could have blocked or unfriended the other with a single stroke of the mouse at the slightest offense or provocation, of which there have been many.
After any one of hundreds of archly sarcastic yet terribly amusing comments made by both of us over the years, either one of us could have called it quits.
Now that I think about it, all of the trolls and mean people on the interwebs should be inspired by our story. It is indeed possible to be civil to a stranger you disagree with. Who knew?
Then Tuesday we met beside the statue of Andy and Opie outside the Andy Griffith Museum as Kittie passed through Mount Airy on her way to the Papillon nationals in Louisville, Kentucky.
She’s prettier in person and looks younger than in photos. Her voice is completely different than I had imagined. It had never occurred to me that after all the “conversations” we have had, I had never heard her speak. We talked a bit. I met her beautiful puppies and got to pet them and hold the littlest one. Then I went back to work and she went to Kentucky. But we’re real friends now and not just Facebook friends.
Our meeting is the contemporary equivalent of all those people who finally meet their pen pal after years of dedicated letter writing. It was just as deeply meaningful as I always imagined it would be while listening to those stories back in grade school.
Meanwhile back in the 21st century, we both posted pictures of the momentous meeting on Facebook. Otherwise, it would never really have happened.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.