Pen Pals (Part 1)
[First of a two-part post.]
They arrived in envelopes with handwritten lettering, maybe in colored pen.
Soon I’d be receiving a slew of those blue, tissue-thin, airmail envelopes in the late summer of 1981.
You see, two months before Grandma Adams died, I’d commenced a couple of important things: landing a full-time job, and corresponding with three young women in England.
There’s no mention of the job in the 1981–’82 journal, so I wasn’t sure exactly when I’d started at a print shop just a couple miles from the Family Project farm in Minnetrista. So I’m relying on a Xeroxed copy of one of the first letters I sent to an English girl named Kim Perkins.
It’s dated Thursday, Aug. 6, 1981, sent to an address in Hertsfordshire. I’d decided to respond to her ad in a publication called the “Hermes-Verlag catalog.”
“This past June I graduated from a small two-year community college,” I wrote, totally stretching the truth, “and now I plan to work for a print shop in my hometown.”
Dad was dogging my heels to land a job, that is, if I wanted to keep living at the farm. Likely I was in full agreement, since reaching out to pen pals across the Atlantic meant things must’ve been pretty dull at home.
At the time I was also corresponding with my high school friend Terry Hollingsworth. We talked on the phone, but we also liked to send letters. Writing letters served more as a personal record in that shadowy period between childhood diaries and half-hearted journals. “You know I like the mail,” I wrote to him in an Aug. 19 letter.
Meanwhile, I’d probably overwhelmed Ms. Perkins. She did respond, and I replied on Aug. 29 (a whopping 4-page, single-spaced letter), but it must’ve come across as the epistolary equivalent of a tidal wave. She never responded.
The very day Grandma Adams died, Sept. 25, 1981, I received a letter from one “Milford Shapiro, President” of a correspondence club out of Brooklyn called “Harmony.” I’d answered their ad, wondering if they had pen pals in England. Shapiro responded: “I have many young men and women around your age in England. … Try my service. I will put you next to compatible new friends and into an enjoyable experience. You have an opportunity to enrich your life. Take it…”
Take it. It sounded like a magical incantation.
So, I took it.
With earnings from the new job, I mailed in $20 and waited to hear back.
And oh, that new job. I was hired as pre-press and bindery assistant at SOS Printing in Mound. SOS stood for “Smith Offset Services,” its owner being Gerald Smith, longtime local printer. Gerry was a hawk-nosed, somewhat stooped guy, always with a cigarette poised in one hand and smoothing back receding thin hair with the other.
Darkroom work was my preferred thing to do after Lakewood College, over and above running presses or estimating printing costs. My darkroom at SOS Printing was in the basement, just beyond the presses. Manning the AB Dick 360 presses were two older guys, Mark and John, who chain-smoked and traded bemused smirks when I asked how they wanted negatives lithostripped and plates burned.
Part of my job included setting up new account files in long gray folders, labeled on the outside and into which all the necessary job materials went. Upstairs, Judy and Rachel worked the front desk, with Rachel and Gerry doing most of the keylining and typesetting, Judy answering phones and taking print orders. It was a very small operation.
And when the workday was done, the upstairs office headed over to the Legion Hall next door for cocktails, while “the boys downstairs” flipped a coin to see who would run across the street to the municipal liquor store and buy a 12-pack of Special Export. Johnny and Mark then cleaned up their presses and schlepped incoming paper deliveries, while I put away the darkroom chemicals and wiped down the light table. Cigarettes were fired up and beer cans were cracked open.
It took Mark and John a while to get comfortable with “the new kid” in the shop. They would step out to smoke a joint and return, eyes aglow, to finish packing up, suck down their beers and go home to their wives.
And when, after a few beers, this new kid got to talking about pen pals he had in England, and how he was going to travel there and write books…
…well, yeah. I do recall the stoned laughter.