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Man of Letters

Tweets, telephones can't replace a handwritten missive.

By John Rasmuson
Posted // December 29,2010 - I grew up in the pre-Internet age. I relied on first-class mail for business and pleasure. In my family, not too many generations removed from Denmark, a letter was better than cardamom bread slathered with butter, even better than a telephone conversation. A letter satisfied like newsprint. It was savored and shared with visitors. On a bleak, no-mail day, you could re-read a letter and extract another ounce of pleasure from it. A three-day holiday weekend was unwelcome because it meant two days without mail—an unbearably long time for those of us who paced like caged animals until the postman arrived. The phone was a poor substitute: A telephone conversation was not only ephemeral but downright risky, given the skewed talker-to-listener ratio (who has not been set upon by a telephone-wielding narcissist?). Besides, long-distance calling was considered such an extravagance in those analog days that family news was always conveyed in envelopes. Most letters were handwritten. Some were stuffed into envelopes bulging with newspaper clippings, recipe cards or obituaries.

Such letters sustained me while I was in the Army. However, I wasn’t the only one who looked forward to mail call. Mail was the No. 1 morale factor for soldiers. You could stomach a C-ration can of congealed scrambled eggs or lima beans so long as there was a letter to read while you ate. In basic training, letters were delivered by the mail clerk just after the retreat formation each night. I remember standing in a formation of 50 soldiers, sweating and dirty after a four-mile run from a rifle range, the sound of the distant bugle fading with the sunset. The last note cued the mail clerk, a priggish corporal, who emerged from the orderly room carrying a pile of letters. He stopped in front of the formation where the platoon sergeant normally stood. “Awright! Listen up!” he barked. Then came a staccato rush of last names as he read the envelopes—“Simpson! Luring! Dixon! Potter! Gibbons!” As he read them, a flick of his wrist sent each letter skyward to flutter down into the ranks like a swirl of November oak leaves. He only paused for a perfumed letter, which he sniffed extravagantly.

All of my letters were postmarked Salt Lake City. My parents were writers of letters. They were adept at what composition textbooks call The Friendly Letter (TFL) and The Business Letter (TBL). I learned more about writing TFL from my mother than from any teacher. She has sent me countless letters in her 93 years. Literate and witty, they comprised vignettes of my extended family’s pregnancies, flooded basements, illnesses, new jobs and dog funerals. From her letters, I learned the value of detail, dialogue and simile. Sentence fragments, too.

At an early age, she insisted I write thank-you letters for Christmas presents. Mine imitated those of my older cousins, Judy and Sharon. Theirs paired exacting detail with the future tense for the sake of authenticity. For example, if you sent a pink blouse as a gift, they would respond in paragraphs explaining how the shirt would perfectly complement a khaki skirt and blue cardigan to be worn in an upcoming piano recital or ward social.

I eventually learned how to write TBL. I had an inborn talent for it. With my family’s Scandinavian dislike of confrontation, the tacit strategy was always “write to right wrongs.” Complaints, billing errors, missing rebates—all were addressed by stern but civil letters. I became so good at TBL that, like Cyrano de Bergerac, I was enlisted to help others. In one instance, my letters persuaded a Ford dealer to replace an engine at no cost for a co-worker whose negligence likely contributed to the problem, a possibility deftly omitted in my appeals. With the advent of e-mail, I adapted the TBL model to an electronic format. I e-mailed coherent, gemlike paragraphs to Orrin Hatch to point out instances of blatant hypocrisy. I scolded Jim Matheson for his self-serving support of extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. I applauded Councilman Luke Garrott for his interest in keeping the city’s sidewalks clear of ice.

My final lessons in letter writing came at the hands of a class of restless pre-pubescents. I was their teacher. They struggled with TFL and TBL. They could not conceive of a letter that didn’t begin with, “How are you?” Come Valentine’s Day, I told them the story of Cyrano and assigned what I called The Love Letter. “You are Cyrano,” I explained. “You must write to a secret Roxanne using lots of concrete detail—and no questions.” They moaned. After many false starts, one kid brought me a smudged paper on which he had written: “Dear Roxanne. You have a big butt and yummy boobies.”

“Is this what you want?” he asked earnestly.

I don’t think I have ever received a love letter. However, I once got a letter from a cute girl with whom I was friendly. She was in Hawaii at the time. That single handwritten letter changed my life. She wrote that she missed our conversations in the University of Utah cafeteria. A year later, we were married. We still are.
After all these years—countless letters received and sent—I fear that letter writers like me are as obsolete as fountain pens. No one writes TFL. TBL routinely goes unanswered. Matheson ignores my advice; Hatch stonewalls me. I suppose I could try my hand at tweets, but I don’t think I have the time. As any writer knows, it takes a lot longer to write 140 characters than 10,000. 

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Posted // January 4,2011 at 12:58 Ah, handwriting. . .My memories of handwriting letters takes me back to elderly Mrs. Shephard's 4th grade class where we were trained in the Palmer cursive method each day. She walked the room, looking over all our shoulders, coaching, lecturing and correcting. Oh, and due to her advanced age, farting silent-but-deadlies non-stop and hitting anyone who snickered or talked while learning cursive with an open slap to the face. She finally stopped the Gestapo tactics when she gave Mike Workman a bloody nose that wouldn't stop and made him cry. We all felt so badly for him and he ended up in the nurse's office with an ice pack and an old, confused woman wandering around apologizing profusely. And back then, nothing happened to teachers or coaches who manhandled students. I received a classic "Dear John" letter when I was drafted and away at basic training. I was engaged at the time to a young woman from Granger who had forgotten to tell me that she was really waiting for some asshole on a mission and I was just someone to spend some time with and that she didn't mean to accept the ring, etc. I fantasize that she ended up miserable like most women who wait for a missionary. Hand written letters home from the Army were the only means of communication other than the phone. Inmates in our jails must hand write letters home. Finally, I was speaking with a local elementary teacher a while back who told me that they aren't teaching cursive handwriting any longer because no one writes letters any more. And that's a huge loss culturally, socially and historically.


Posted // December 29,2010 at 14:21

Thanks for the article - good times (and sometimes bad) do come in the mailbox.