You can find pen pals in the most interesting places
Teenagers tend to make friends over shared interests. Sports, movies, and music are all pretty common ways to bond…“I think ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is far out, you dig it too? Cool.”
But what happens when your interests are a little more esoteric than a record album that sold millions of copies? What if you live in a world where everyone’s main concerns are work and sports, but you have a taste for fantasy and adventure? What if you know that somewhere, someone else must care about the same things that you do? How do you find them?
I grew up in that world. Well, with one foot in it, anyway. My hometown in the 1970s seemed to be a decade or two out of step with the rest of the planet. A factory town filled with taverns, churches, and veterans clubs. A culture steeped in the harsh realities of the Great Depression and WWII. Catholic mass was still offered in traditional Latin, the bars served hard liquor for men who wanted to get drunk in a hurry, and the duffers at the VFW talked tough about the Russkies. Everything felt a little old-fashioned to me. And very, very down to earth.
My other foot was planted in New York City, just 40 miles away. I looked to Manhattan as a gateway to promise and potential. I was excited by journalism, graphic design, filmmaking, theater—things that were alive and well on the other side of the Hudson River. Unfortunately I was too young to visit the Big Apple on my own. At home, I had few opportunities to explore these interests—and fewer people of any age to share them with.
So I subscribed to magazines as a way to learn more and enjoy my interests vicariously. Periodicals would come and go at our local newsstand. When I discovered a good one, I saved my allowance for a whole year’s subscription, not wanting to miss a single issue. Subs cost eight or ten bucks, but it was worth it. Film Comment for scholarly reviews and history. Popular Science to learn how gadgets work. Cinefantastique to feed my “sense of wonder.” That was my happy place.
Then in late 1974 I found something a little different. This was a tabloid newspaper, on cheap newsprint, with a garishly colored yellow face on an electric blue background. The headlines promised stories about Wolfman Jack! Plastic Man! Hammer’s House of Horrors! Great Movie Death Scenes! And a Free Giant Color Poster Inside!
Of course I had to buy a copy of The Monster Times, “The world’s first newspaper of horror, sci-fi and fantasy.” Picture The New York Post or The National Enquirer, but with a candy-colored portrait of Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Without irony, for just 60¢ an issue. At fifteen years of age, I was not disappointed. As I scanned the back page, to clip the subscription coupon, I found an unexpected offer…
EXTRA MONSTER BONUS! – With every subscription of one year or longer, you get a FREE 25-word classified ad to be run in our Fan-Fair classified page. You can advertise comics or stills or pulps, etc. for trade, or for anything else – provided it’s in good taste!
I didn’t have anything to sell, but I did know what I wanted. Connection. Access. Friends.
So along with my $6 I sent along a want ad… looking for pen-pals. “I love Kubrick, Harryhausen and Apes movies. Looking for others interested in stop motion and special effects and how to make our own super-8 movies!” (I added the exclamation point, because that seemed to be the lingua franca of the publication.) Then I dropped my envelope in the corner mailbox and waited.
This is one of the key aspects of the so-called “good old days”—waiting. I waited weeks for my next issue, which did not include my classified ad, and another month for it to finally appear. And then I waited some more, at which point I had kind of forgotten the whole thing.
Of course, that’s when the letters began to arrive. There’s something wonderful about getting a letter in the mail, especially when it’s hand-written with your name on it. It’s like getting a birthday present or some other gift, completely personalized and private. I love the flash of anticipation as I scan the return address and postmark, looking for clues as to the provenance of this epistolary treat. So imagine my thrill to get a crisp, bright no. 9 envelope with a crude-but-recognizable sketch of the allosaurus from The Valley of Gwangi in blue magic marker, snarling right at me.
Over the next six months I would receive 30 letters from over a dozen potential pen-pals. Some were short notes from kids younger than me, which I dismissed with a polite thank you. A few were more promising, leading to longer exchanges. You can tell a lot from a letter, especially hand written as most of them were. The designer in me tried to read something psychological into the scrawled printing, tortured penmanship or fussy script on the page. I often judged the authors on the basis of their legibility. What can I say, I was a snob. But my printing was pretty good.
Early on, I got a letter from a guy in Pennsylvania who was very interesting. Tom was a little older than me, and had been conducting sophisticated experiments with cameras and models. We shared a few long letters, with xeroxed drawings, photos and diagrams. I was always excited to hear from him, but his responses grew fewer and farther between—until he excused himself to concentrate at college. Years later, I was shocked (but not at all surprised) to see his name in the end credits of major motion pictures like The Terminator.
I got into a pissing match with a punk named Randy (from Cleveland) who challenged my opinions with snarky remarks and stupid questions, but for a while I took the bait and tried to have a dialog. It’s remarkable to me now that the sort of verbal firefight that we see on message boards and comments today could take place in slow motion, over the course of several weeks, on paper deeply indented by clutched ball-points and sealed with the bitter saliva of testy adolescence. I guess we had more spare time then.
I actually met a couple of my correspondents. One was a younger guy who was within driving distance, and I spent a pleasant afternoon at his house. But a couple of years age difference can feel significant in high school, and we fell out of contact. Until recently, when we bumped into each other on Facebook. Hi Bill!
The other guy I met was something else altogether. Ralph lived in Newark, midway between me and NYC. He was a couple years older and working at the Post Office. His working class family didn’t understand or encourage his interests. But he loved the same things that I did, and was both artistic and mechanically inclined. His penmanship was good, his knowledge extensive, and he glued photos of King Kong and Fay Wray on the outside of his envelopes. This was the guy I’d been looking for.
I would write two or three pages, and Ralph would give as good as he got. Pretty soon we were writing a letter a week, which led to a few epic, late-night phone calls (until the monthly bills showed up, and we realized the mail was much more affordable.) We started working on film projects, designing monsters and building spaceships and brainstorming spectacular special effects. He had the passion and intensity to do the job of three. Pretty soon we were spending long Saturdays together working on a 16mm sci-fi film, until I picked up and moved to San Francisco.
That was not the end of our friendship because we still had the US Postal Service. I didn't want to miss out on any of his crazy ideas and wacky jokes. I got a P.O. Box because his missives tended to be oversized with heavily decorated envelopes, and I didn’t want them jammed into a tiny mailbox or left by the curb. I spent many hours in line, waiting to pick up those packages, wondering what magic I’d find. I was not disappointed.
My brothers Steve and Rob couldn’t afford the long distance calls from New Jersey either, so we started writing letters as well. The 1980s may have been an unhappy time for me, but it was a peak period for written correspondence. All that writing taught me a lot about organizing my thoughts and finding my feelings. I exchanged literally hundreds of letters, notes and postcards over that decade, and still have a crate of them to prove it.
Of course the habit of letter writing fell away. My life grew and changed and there wasn’t time to write, or the same need. I miss the anticipation of receiving a letter and the satisfaction of completing one.
At least I still have the continuing friendship of my old buddy Ralph. We can afford the phone calls now. He quit that job at the Post Office and went on to cobble together a career as an illustrator, sign painter and entrepreneur. He likes to say it’s all my fault. I prefer to blame it on The Monster Times. And maybe, on the tens of thousands of words written between us.
Postscript 2022: Thanks to a mutual friend in Hollywood, I was able to reach out to my one-time pen-pal Tom and ask him if he remembered our correspondence. He was polite, but had no memory of it—even after seeing one of his own letters. But as a result of the same industry connections, I did get to design a coffee-table book by the very artist who painted the Lon Chaney cover of The Monster Times. That’s showbiz!
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books