Pen Pals (Part 2)
[Last of a two-part post.]
I was feeling restless on Junior’s farm.
And, I was quickly becoming an anglophile.
It began after returning from Lakewood Community College that summer of 1980 and continued into the fall of 1981.
“For now—Summer of 1980,” typewritten at the bottom of a sheet of paper with the heading “Tentative Programme for Trip to Britain,” was a list of things I’d need for traveling through England and France for a month, from July 15, 1981, until mid-August of that year.
While at Lakewood, Pat Ciernia, his then-girlfriend Jill Kummel, and I talked about trekking to Australia for God-knows-how-long. When they broke up after the school year, the plan evolved to just me and Pat flying to Britain. After the senior year high school Germany trip, my passport was still valid until 1985. The timing seemed right. We first needed to save up funds.
But then it all fell through. So there I was, on the farm, sending off airmail letters to two new pen pals via the “Harmony” correspondence club out of Brooklyn, NY: Lindsay Clarke in Manchester, and Abigail Bilkus in Glasgow, Scotland.
Just the thought of revisiting this period of my life gives me pause.
You see, what began in mid-October 1981 led to years of letters, postcards, and—in the correspondence with Abi—cassette tapes of conversation and music.
Writing about all that writing seems daunting.
So instead of trying to take in the whole forest, it’s probably best to look at just a tree or two.
When the correspondence with Kim Perkins fell through, I quickly redoubled my effort. Milford Shapiro at Harmony sent a list of five pen pal candidates: two guys and three girls. Lindsay and Abi were the last two. Lindsay’s description read: “21 … interests are pop and classical music, astrology, hiking, dramatic clothes, art and reading.” Seemed intriguing.
Abi’s read: “20 year old Caucasian female, a Psych student at Glasgow Univ. and she enjoys playing the piano, theatre, cinema, foreing [sic] travel and food, swimming, a lunatic intellectual, healthy, happy, fit and fun loving.”
A lunatic intellectual. Please, do tell more.
However I wrote to Lindsay first, keeping a Xerox copy of the letter so I could remember what I’d written if and when she replied. It was Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1981. I’d typed it out, two pages, single-spaced:
“I’m living at home with my parents, but hope to have an apartment after New Year … my private aspiration is to become a professional writer, but writing is something I would rather like to keep between myself and friends. I don’t write just to sell, I write to understand and be understood.”
She responded on Oct. 25, in longhand, with a four-page letter, about her favorite music (Beethoven, “I can listen to at any time”) and art (Turner, Rembrandt, and the French Impressionists, but disliking Rossetti, “Every painting has the same woman in it, and she’s got huge too-red lips. I wonder that he never got fed up of her”).
I replied on Nov. 4, also in longhand, at two-and-a-half pages. She wrote in response: “If writing by hand makes you turn out letters which are as warm and friendly as your last, then keep that pen in hand!” Apparently I’d nearly frightened her off with my opening salvo, striking her as “some stern, saturnine critic” who’d cause her to “clam up and never write another word.”
Her honesty was refreshing; it was a great start to a potential new friendship.
Meanwhile, I’d sent a first letter to Abi Bilkus on Monday, Oct. 19, 1981. It was typewritten, again photocopied, coming in at a page and a half. I had to comment on her “lunatic intellectual” statement, saying I felt I’d found a kindred spirit but, joking: “…I like to think that I don’t just read Kierkegaard when the moon is full…”
I asked her about university and whether she’d been to the Scottish Highlands. She wrote back immediately (letter no longer extant), so in longhand I responded on Nov. 3:
“I don’t much like living at home. When I was attending school I enjoyed the independence of prolific drinking and loose, iconoclastic thinking, the ‘free-to-go-as-you-please’ attitude of students out of the parental nest. Do you know that I wrote some of my best prose when I lived away from home? Now I feel like I’m intellectually impotent. I have to fight to spit out a good sentence. …I’d much rather live far, far away from my parents for a while, but that’s financially unfeasible…”
Finally, someone to talk to, honestly, about how I felt under the weight of the Family Project:
“Last night I got into an argument with my father & slammed out of the house for a couple of hours. Before he has told me that we are very similar personalities, and I believe that we are very different, and in the end only divine intervention will tell.”
Unlike the correspondence with Lindsay, which became more polite, friendly and reflective over time, Abi and I fired each other up—frisson right from the start.
“What,” I wrote in that second letter, “would you think if I called you long distance? Just a thought.”
“…You know what? I wish that I could read to you. I’ve got mountains of things I could read to you. I’d rather read out loud. I’ve got a good reading voice. I’m never running out of things to say, I just run out of energy.”
So Abi took me up on the offer. She suggested we send cassette tapes, play music, talk or read to each other, sometimes with letters enclosed, sometimes not.
By Jan. 1, 1982, we became mix-tape pen pals.