In Praise Of Letters

Are you a Sloppy Joe or a Neat Pete?

That was the sign on the wall of my fifth grade public school Language classroom. It was the first year I was to attend Public School after my formative years at the segregation academy, and culture shock was hitting me hard. But while the Christian School had given me no tools to live well in a multi-racial world, it had given me damn good Language skills – or at least, as long as the language we were discussing was American English.

My spelling skills were miles above the other fifth graders, who were spelling words like “WAGON”, while the year before one of our weekly words was “ANONYMOUS”. It had also given me above average penmanship, seeing as how we were plunged into cursive writing in the first grade. The Bible-based curriculum we had been steeped in sought to get you to writing script as early as possible – I am unsure why that was, other than a sneaky feeling I had that Jesus loved everyone, but must have preferred people with neat handwriting.

So, when that sign on the wall asked me to proclaim my camp, I was Neat Pete all the way.

I never had beautiful handwriting – it was quite utilitarian, but clear and legible. I had none of the loops and whorls that set my Aunt Louise’s fine Palmer-Method hand apart. She had been born left handed but made to convert as a child, which was common in those days, and could write equally well with either hand.

And Monty, my surrogate grandmother who had lived next-door to us my entire childhood, who was a farmer’s wife and scratched out a mean existence all of their life, had a lovely, quite readable script she used in her weekly letters to me late in her life while I was away in the Marines.

It was, of course, a different time then. For instance, people actually wrote letters to each other. As late as the end of the 1990’s I still regularly received letters from people – handwritten, because typewriters were business equipment, and computers at home were rare. In fact, until the proliferation of smartphones in 2008 or so, handwritten correspondence was still an occasional thing.

In college in the mid 1990’s, it was not uncommon to be required to turn in first and second drafts of papers in handwriting, using only the computer lab at school for the final draft. If you did not have access to a computer of your own, you would have to either que up at the lab, waiting your turn and saving your efforts on floppy disks when your 1-hour timeslot was up, or you could come late at night and share the lab with the Gophernet nerds.

But the letters. My mom’s parents would write me from outside Dallas when I was a child, filling me with tales of their Border Collie, King, and his adventures. There was the man who worked at their post office, a Mr. Prince, who had noticed my grandmother writing Mississippi so often, and she told him of me and my nascent interest in stamp collecting, and Mr. Prince became my pen pal until his death, sending me stamps with interesting stories long after I was no longer interested in philately.

And there is nothing like a handwritten letter to woo (or un-woo) your love interests. There was the girl I had met at Bible Camp the summer I turned 15, and who wrote me very chaste letters long after I had forgotten what her face looked like. The Baptist preacher’s daughter who I loved fiercely, and who wrote me a letter in response to my declaration of love with a note telling me she was “in like” with me. The girl I had a crush on all through High School that I was too shy to ask out, who wrote me a letter the summer after she moved away and told me she had been desperately in love with me and always wondered why I hadn’t asked her out.

But one huge advantage to written letters is that people sometimes say things in letters they cannot say elsewhere. The distance and the physical action of shaping the letters add nuance and feelings in a way hard to convey by email or text message. Like the letter from my Dad he sent me in Boot Camp, telling me words I needed to hear – then and now:

“Just remember, everything is temporary. Take it one day at a time. I have all the confidence in the world in you. I know you can handle it. Sometimes I have not told you how proud of you I am of you. I really am.”

Texting has nothing on that.

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