by Eric Bergeson, September 1, 2010
The heat of last week seemed like a good reason to stay inside and sort through junk.
Amongst the piles of stuff, most of which ended up in the dumpster, I found a treasure, a true historical oddity, something you don't find any more: A stack of letters, some hand-written, others typed.
The stack was fully an inch thick. It consisted of dozens of letters sent to me while I attended a summer session of college in England as a 21-year-old in 1986.
Full disclosure: I became so home-sick when I got to England that I spent the first week writing postcards to anybody and everybody back home about my bravery and exploits. The return address was prominent.
It was clear I desperately wanted mail. My friends, relatives, neighbors and even customers rose up to the call.
Mom typed weekly updates on the summer activities of the visiting cousins at the farm.
Dad wrote about the state of the machinery which was, because I was in England and not at home burying tractors in the swamp, much better than usual.
Kid brother, then 12, scratched out a letter on a blue Airmail mailer which began: "I want you to know that I write you entirely out of guilt and obligation."
Kid sister, then 19, reported on the social scene of local-kids-home-for-the-summer from college, a rowdy group to which we both belonged at the time.
Apparently, some of the guys were out drinking beer and decided that it was high time they drag a refrigerator around the back roads with a log chain.
Twenty miles they dragged that poor fridge, never thinking that if you're going to cruise the back roads drinking beer, a fridge bouncing around on the end of a log chain is not the best way to avoid detection.
Roughly the same group, gathered at the bar a while later, wrote me a dozen messages, the sort you'd find in the back of a high school annual, on a paper place mat which one of them mailed to England.
Grandpa typed weekly letters in his no-frills telegraphic style, freely mixing baseball news, horticultural updates and scripture quotes:
“Twins lose in ninth.
Hrbek strikes out, bat on shoulder.
Lo how the mighty have fallen.
All the millions can't buy a hit.
Or happiness either.
Movie stars addicted to booze.
Much better to raise apples.
Good crop this year.
Pies a bonus.
Neighbor Bernice wrote an account of the successful Daily Vacation Bible School, with a somber addendum about a local who died in a late-night crash.
It was sad news, but I was relieved there was nothing in there about a fridge.
The summer of 1986 was only twenty-four years ago, but how times have changed.
Will anyone eventually find a stack of handwritten or type-written letters left from a memorable summer spent abroad in 2010?
Letter writing is dead.
Oh, we communicate, if you can call it that, on email. Instantly. Badly. Thoughtlessly. But frequently.
A while back, I called a friend on his cell phone and we were well into the conversation before he casually mentioned that he was in Sweden and it was midnight there.
Travel, too, has become commonplace.
But the experience of mail call at breakfast on your first heart-wrenching trip from home since Bible camp, of hoping there's a letter for you, of glowing brightly for hours when three arrive in one day--that experience is gone.
Also gone is the touching thrill when you realize friends and family took the time to put pen to paper on a letter which required postage, which wouldn't arrive for a week, and which might last forever.
I was more touched when I found those letters last week than I was the first time I got them.
Not so with today's communication.
Where will our emails be in twenty-five years? Hidden on a hard drive somewhere.
Decades into the future, nobody will sit on the living room floor, mess strewn about, paging through old emails, laughing, remembering, sneezing from the musty paper.
There will be no quiet spells in the cleaning frenzy when a particular letter launches you into five minutes of reverie about a time you had almost forgotten.
We've never had more than we have today. But we've lost an awful lot, too.
And there's no getting it back.