Dear Penpal… is a greeting we don’t hear anymore. I crossed over the fence to middle age quite a few years ago and I remember the term penpal being a common one from the time I was in early grade school, at least through the 70’s. Trivia: The Parker Pen company got into the swing of things and actually provided a penpal matching service at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. Becoming a penpal with a solder overseas was not uncommon, and then there was the prison population who some people felt also needed a few kind words, or a bible verse to convert them to the side of redemption and goodness, or a marriage proposal because – darn it, everyone deserves some lovin’. Thanks to the U.S. and International Mail, penpals all around the world anxiously awaited their newsy, friendly letters in the familiar handwriting of someone they probably would never meet.
By the time my kids were growing up and technology was part of our household, chat room became a common term and penpal was out. Because I have a skeptical side to my nature, I pretty much taught my kids that joining chat rooms was banned because they might as well type “Dear Perv…” to the 14-y/o person on the computer screen who was actually a 40-y/o creepy man. I digress.
In 4th grade, in Cascade, Montana, I got a penpal. I may have been more excited than some of my classmates because I loved to print, draw, doodle, spell words, and was giddy that I took to cursive writing so quickly. I’m hazy on this – I believe I drew the name of Janean Myers from Auburn, Indiana out of a shoebox, but she may have picked me. (Auburn is in northeast Indiana, home to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum.) I also don’t remember a back story; however, it makes sense that my 4th grade teacher was friends with (or penpal with) Janean’s 4th grade teacher. I recall our teacher Mrs. Lovecik showed us where Auburn, Indiana was on the U.S. map she’d yank down from above the blackboard. What I’m pretty confident about is our class of maybe two dozen 4th graders has only one person who still corresponds with her/his original penpal – and that’s me. That was 1964, and how I wish I could share a picture we exchanged, or an excerpt of a letter or two, but I did not save those things, or they got lost in moves, etc.
As I think back and remember how tickled I was to get a letter with Janean’s handwriting every month or every few months, I do remember what we had in common and why we continued our letters and long-distance friendship. It’s nothing profound, but basic stuff. We were both from small towns. We both had nice families (how lovely it was that I got to meet Betty & Dallas and she got to meet Margaret & Ralph many years later). We both wanted to eventually move out of our small towns. We liked fashion and talking about clothes (I was a tomboy, but I just “knew” Indiana had to be much more sophisticated than Montana, so I re-read every sentence when she talked fashion). She had very cute hair early on; I came into cute hair later. We both had/have dimples. We wrote about our friends and we would ask about each others’ friend like we’d met them.
Janean and I have seen each other six times in the last 48 years. I won’t detail each meeting, but she was my maid of honor and her parents flew her to Great Falls, MT a few days before 8/19/72. That was our first meeting. Was it awkward? Nope, not at all. We’d known each other since age 10, after all. I was in her wedding a few years later. When my kids were about 12 and 9, we flew to Chicago for a few days. Janean got us tickets to a Chicago Bulls basketball game, which was a huge thrill to both kids, especially Jordan who was an avid Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls fan. Janean and her husband, Bernie, treated us royally and provided Hanna and Jordan some lifetime memories. Like dear friends everywhere and anywhere, many moons will go by between letters, emails and phone calls, but as much as I knew I’d found a friend after her very first letter, each time we connect it’s like a mere month went by.
Meeting #6 for Janean and I was September 8, 2012 in Hickory, NC. Janean contacted me a couple of weeks earlier and said she and Bernie were in Asheville, NC, looking at homes because they’re looking to relocate from Miami. We were able to plan a get-together because I had already arranged a road trip to the western part of the state.
I’d made plans to drive to Boone to meet my brother and his family where we’d watch the University of MT vs. Appalachian State football game. So, I just took a little detour to Hickory to meet Janean and Bernie, about a 3.5 hour drive. I met them at The Hickory Tavern – turned out to be a terrific find. After lunch, I drove the remaining 50 miles to Boone for the rest of the weekend. A nice, long lunch with lots of talking and laughing over good food was such a treat. Bernie, Janean’s husband, was as warm as I remembered him from our Chicago visit. Next time we get together, Gary will join us. I would have never imagined that Janean and I would potentially live within hours of each other.
On to Boone, a friendly, beautiful town in the mountains, 100% a college town. This was my third visit. And this weekend was a home football weekend, so this town was packed with cars and football fans! I tried to drive downtown to the Mast General Store (love that place), but traffic was moving at a snail’s place and there were no vacant parking spaces to be found. It hit me that people were parking downtown and waiting for the game to start. I went back to my hotel and waited for Billy, Tiemi and their twin boys to arrive from Charlotte. We thought it would be fun to don our UM shirts (thanks, Ralph & Karen) and be Montana fans again.
We took a shuttle to the game because of the parking situation, and ended up walking the 1.25 miles back to the hotel after the game. Nothing like a late night power walk to put you to sleep. Anyway, the boys were good sports, we all had a nice time and it was fun to be surrounded by other Montana people. Except for a couple of drunks we had around us, it was a great night. (Okay, the boys have a story about their fish tacos, but they can blog about that some day.) The Grizzlies lost, but it was a good game until the end. The App State fans were quite nice, walking up to us and thanking us for coming so far (not knowing that we drove a few hours rather than taking the fan plane cross country!).
Being in Boone and western NC is very reminiscent of western Montana, although the winters are not as long or severe, and the fall temperatures were a nice respite from the humid climate of eastern NC. This was such a memorable weekend!