The Herald Bulletin

September 21, 2013

Jim Bailey: Era of pen pals gives way to social media


The Herald Bulletin

---- — It was very recently that inexplicably the name of Arne Sandli popped into my head. I hadn’t thought about that name since my grade school days in Minnesota when we were briefly – very briefly – pen pals.

Our teacher set us up with pen pals that year. I think we were fifth-graders, and European students who were learning English and liked to practice it by writing letters were a little older than we. I was given the name of Arne Sandli, who lived in Norway, and his address. I sent a letter asking a few questions about his country and getting into my affinity for radio programs in the era before TV became popular.

Eventually he replied. I don’t recall everything he wrote, but he simply answered my main query by saying, “I have a radio.” It was later in the summer before I wrote again. This time I didn’t get a reply. End of pen pals.

Back in those days pen pals were one method of reaching out to someone from another location or even another culture. In fact letter-writing in general was much more common than it is today.

One friend, whose father was our pastor in my early elementary years, moved away and we corresponded for a while. That too fizzled out eventually; out of sight out of mind, you know. I did run into him a few times later, twice in Michigan and once here in church camp-meeting-type settings. And I’ve encountered his older sister a couple of times in adulthood. But he and I have lost touch also.

The phenomenon of social media, however, has rejuvenated this type of contact. Going on Facebook, Twitter and so on, people are finding and friending others they’ve known in past lives.

As for writing letters, it doesn’t happen much anymore. I have to admit, even as one who wrote for a living, sitting down to write a letter or send a card to someone was a task I found easy to put off or avoid entirely.

These days most people, especially younger ones, Facebook or Twitter. Or they text. If they really want to be thoughtful they send an e-card. I’ve even found myself poring through online obituaries from my old hometown and adding condolences on the newspaper website for someone I knew many decades ago.

My wife, like many other old-schoolers, is an exception. She still finds it more personal to send cards by snail mail for birthdays or anniversaries or send condolences. We still use postage stamps at our house.

As for me, in the electronic age I’ve found it increasingly easier to stick a brief birthday greeting on a friend’s Facebook page. And the bulk of our Christmas greetings go out by email.

As for my old would-be pen pal Arne Sandli, even Google hasn’t provided much meaningful help.

Jim Bailey’s reflections on Anderson’s past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by email at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.