Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Old Writing

I've been following Charles G. Emery on Facebook, and generally enjoy his (re)posts.  One in particular caught my eye, Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather hear your voice than read your texts.  I'd much prefer not to be pestered at all, thank you.

You see, back in the bad old days (here we go, right?) when dirt was a brand new thing and everyone had to walk to school barefoot for five miles in the snow, uphill both ways... we had the letter and the telephone.  Given that this was before AT&T angered the wrong people and got itself broken up, long distance calls were prohibitively expensive.  In fact, bear with me while I digress a moment.

To make a long distance call, you called the local operator.  You'd explain your business, and she (it was always a she, AT&T refused to hire male operators) would connect you with the long distance operator.  You would then specify the number, the city, and the State.  You'd also specify if this was person to person or station to station.  In the former case, the operator would ask for the named recipient, and if they weren't there you weren't charged for the call.  Station to station meant that you'd talk to anyone.  If no one answered, the operator would keep trying until a specified time, and when someone answered the phone the operator would call you back and connect you.  No, I'm not joking.  The service also included directory information, which was courteous, helpful, and staffed by women.  AT&T refused to hire men because in the bad old days of the switchboard, it was discovered that men became bored and would, in the name of fun, randomly reassign plugs to outlets, listen in on calls, and call other operators in different parts of the country just for fun.  Women didn't do any of these things.

The telephone alternative was the U.S. Post Office, who would faithfully deliver your letters despite rain, snow, heat, gloom of night, or unfriendly dogs.  We had airmail, which cost a lot extra, and there were special airmail envelopes and paper that were extra thin and light.  Weight, you see, mattered.  If someone mailed you a letter, your post office generally knew you (and not from the pictures on the wall) and would make certain you got your mail.

So we'd write to each other, most often in ink.  That meant you had to compose the paragraph in your head, run it through your own grammar and spell checker, then legibly write your missive out in cursive.  This required time, skill, and effort.

If you were writing a business letter, your secretary (female - men need not apply) would type it on a manual typewriter, and she'd know all about grammar, spelling and punctuation.  Such things mattered, and people were judged on the quality of their business letters.  Personal letters too, for that matter.  If your young nephew Linda wrote you a letter that had spelling or grammatical errors, you might forgive her due to her age, but you'd wonder where her mother was or what she was thinking in not paying attention to what her daughter was sending out.  The quality of your letter was a direct reflection on a child's mother, and the familial rumors that my younger brother is retarded (an old expression meaning mentally deranged cognitively disabled) are absolutely untrue.

My handwriting is not good.  I lack dexterity, and to make matters worse, my hands were never strong enough to use a manual typewriter successfully.  Electric typewriters were fiendishly expensive, so we didn't have one.  As a result, I'd do the best I could, and my relatives enjoyed hearing from me.  At least they said they did, and in retrospect I suppose they did.

At the end of this diatribe is the fact that if you received a letter from someone back then, you could be assured that a lot of work went into it.  The author cared enough about you and their relationship with you to put the time and effort into writing to you.  I had one great aunt who's calligraphy and diction made her missives a real work of art.  I'm sorry none of these survived, as they were quite beautiful just to look at.

Just like my great aunt's letters, this era is gone, and I think our lives are poorer because of it.

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