A Memorable Meeting with my Penpal of 25 Years

Incredibly, all these letters and postcards have flown from South Africa to the US over a period of 25 years...

Sunday, 26 February 2012, is a day that will forever be etched upon my memory as the day on which Bobz and I finally met each other, face to face, for the very first time.

In that one instant, he had become more than his distinctive scrawl on a postcard or a letter that had winged its way across the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the US of A to land in my letterbox. He had become more than just the lines of text in an email, suddenly bing-ing into my inbox.

He was more than just a friendly voice with an (initially unfamiliar) American accent on the phone in the middle of the night, after we had again miscalculated the time zone differences between our two cities on opposite parts of the world. And he was far more than just a stream of pixels flickering across my PC screen when we began to video-Skype as recently as 2010 (an event I shared with you all on my blog).

We think this was the first letter I wrote to Bobz! I was stunned and so touched to see that he had kept all my letters and postcards through the years...

Seeing each other in real life, suddenly solidly three-dimensional and so real, was an overwhelming experience for both of us. It was the culmination of almost 25 years of long-distance communication in its various forms.

So, dear readers, dear blogfriends, dear soon-perhaps-to-become blogfriends, are you curious to hear how Bobz and I became friends – and how and under what circumstances we finally met?

Well, then, before we get started, how about we have a cup of tea, hm? Would you like some Rooibos, some Honeybush, or some Five Roses tea? Or should I pick some fresh peppermint from the herb garden outside? Do you take milk and sugar? Here you go… Now pull up a chair, and – oh, would you like a cookie? Freshly baked, chocolate chip? There you are, then, do help yourself… Make yourself at home… All comfy? Right then…

Please do help yourself to a cookie, and I shall put on the kettle for a cup of tea - or coffee, if you prefer.

Many years ago, in the 1980s, I used to listen to shortwave radio. I picked up broadcasts from all around the world: the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio France International, Radio Espana (Spain), the Deutsche Welle (Germany), Radio Canada International, Radio Japan, Radio Beijing, the United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Radio Moscow, Radio Tirana (Albania), and even a religious station from the island of Guam.

I know I sound like such a geek, but it was such fun to fill in and send off SIO and SINPO reports to the various stations, confirming the quality of received broadcasts. The SIO report is a simplified version of SINPO, which stands for Signal Strength, Interference, Noise, Propagation/Fading, and Overall. Reception varied considerably, being usually better at night time, and it was always thrilling to see what stations I might pick up during the late hours.

The departure of our 19-hour-long flight across the Atlantic is imminent

There was one radio station in particular that I liked listening to: Radio Netherlands International, broadcasting from Hilversum in The Netherlands. Every Sunday, they would have a special broadcast, called the Happy Station Show. Having been launched on shortwave radio as far back as 1928, this is the world’s longest-running international radio programme. It was cancelled in 1995, unfortunately, until it was revived in 2009 under a different infrastructure and format (a list of recent episodes and podcasts can be found here):

“Separate English and Spanish versions were broadcast, in addition to the multi-lingual version. It could be received all over the world. Popular music from Europe and various other countries was mixed with vintage recordings and multilingual chatter, switching back and forth between English, Spanish and Dutch by hosts each Sunday. It became popular since it gave listeners a chance to travel in their armchair during a period when international travel was difficult for most people.” (Wikipedia)

At the time that I began to listen to the show in the 1980s, the presenter was Tom Meijer, who was later followed by Pete Myers; currently, the presenter is Keith Perron of PCJ Media.

The Happy Station also ran a penpal club, and it is through this club, that I first started corresponding with my friend Bobz.

The word ‘penpal’ isn’t used much nowadays, and sounds a bit archaic, doesn’t it? Well, in those years, we didn’t have email or the internet or even cellphones. Instant communication was limited to the normal telephone (though international phone calls were very costly and rather awkward because of the time zone differences). Fax machines were the most high-tech method of transmitting a letter around the world. I wrote about this about four years ago. I also told you about the very first time that Bobz and I called each other on Skype, which was as recently as January 2010. It was the first time we saw each other – albeit only on video!

Time to walk to our boarding gate

Well, at the start of January this year (2012), hubby advised me that he and a group of colleagues from the SKA Cape Town office would be visiting the EVLA (Expanded Very Large Array), a radio astronomy telescope array in the mountains outside the small town of Socorro, some 120 km south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

They would be staying there for about a week. Would I be interested in coming along? We could even stay for an additional two weeks to explore some more of the country?

Once I had grasped that I might, just perhaps, be visiting that Greatest of Nations across the vast Atlantic Ocean, I promptly emailed Bobz.

Would he be willing to meet? Like for real? Could I stay with them during the week that hubby was on the other side of the country? Bobz, you see, lived in Kentucky, which I knew was vaguely in the Southeast, whereas Richard was flying to New Mexico, which was in the Southwest.

We are about to fly Out Of Africa

At that time, I had no idea of the sheer intimidating size of the United States. They have nine freaking Time Zones, for goodness’ sake! In South Africa, we have one!

I may have caused some hilarity mingled with outright alarm among my blogfriends in the US, when I initially presented our complicated travel plans to them. This is what they were (so you can have a good chuckle too):

I would fly from Louisville (Kentucky) in the southeast to Albuquerque (New Mexico) in the southwest, where I would meet up with Richard and we would hire a car. Our route would play join-the-dots with the following places on our way to New York City, two weeks later: A visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona (in the southwest), a peek at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park trip (in the northwest), a long drive across the Rocky Mountains and via Mount Rushmore (in the Midwest) up to the Upper Peninsula of Lake Superior (in the north) to meet my blogfriend Kathy, another long drive along the shore of the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls (in the northeast), and a final scenic stretch to end our trip in New York.

If you live in America, or are more informed of its geography than I am, your jaw has probably dropped.

On American soil at last - Dulles International Airport in Washington DC; we all use the opportunity to check our emails on the free wifi

My friends – Bobz, Kathy, Amy-Lynn, Sher, Amy and others back home – gently and oh-so-diplomatically reminded me that it was winter in America, particularly in the Great Lakes Region and in the Rockies, with ice and snow and blizzards and generally very untravelfriendly conditions prevalent during February and March. All access routes to Yellowstone, barring one from the north, were in fact closed until April.

Did we, accustomed to the mild Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape, really feel confident driving in freezing conditions, on icy and snowbound roads, winding our way across high mountain passes, possibly in a blizzard or two? Unaccustomed to driving on the other side of the road, moreover?

And did we realise that it might be a bit of a streeeetch to cover such a distance in less than two weeks?

After Bobz and his family meet me at Cincinnati Airport - more than three hours away from their home in eastern Kentucky (!) - I sit in an American car for the first time in my life. Look! We are driving on the wrong (er... RIGHT!) side of the road!



Now that you put it like that….

I was reluctantly forced to concede that I was being overly ambitious. Back to the drawing board!

We thus decided to confine ourselves to part of the southeastern US, including the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and New York. In retrospect, far more sensible! If you are curious, have a look at our finalised route in my previous post.

In less than 6 weeks, our preparations were completed: the necessary flights had been booked, we had arranged accommodation in Socorro, Kentucky and New York, we had applied for – and been granted, yayy! Thank you so much, friendly people at the US Embassy! – a US visa, we had purchased some new sturdy suitcases to replace our 20-year-old battered-looking ones, and yours truly had used up all her internet bandwidth researching places to see, things to do, and the best route to take from A to B to C… etc.

It is beautiful in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky

At the end of February 2012, South African Airways carried us safely from Cape Town to Johannesburg and, after a halfway technical stop in Dakar, Senegal, onward to Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, where we were formally stamped into the US. An exciting moment!

I waved goodbye to Richard and his colleagues, who flew onward to Albuquerque NM, and waited for my flight to Cincinnati OH to be called, a couple of hours later.

Welcome to Our Home

It was a relatively short flight to Cincinnati, with the plane flying so low that I could clearly see the mountains and valleys, the rivers and forests, and the farms and cities below us. I was struck by the muted brown and grey tones of the landscape, and realised that these must be deciduous forests, whose trees had shed all their leaves. On the higher mountain tops, I saw snow, but it didn’t look like the pristine white (photoshopped?) blanket of snow you always see in the movies, or on postcards. I wondered whether I would finally get to build a snowman!

As the plane circled Cincinnati, dropping lower and lower on its final approach to the runway, I was so excited that my heart was pounding in my ears. I found it almost impossible to sit still.

After close on 25 years of writing, phoning, emailing and skyping, I would finally meet my friend.

The misty clouds of rain can be impenetrably dense up here in the mountains

At last, the plane came to a stop, and we began to disembark. It seemed to take an eternity. Suddenly, we were inside the airport terminal, and walking towards the exit. I emerged from the passage, together with all the other passengers who had been on my flight.

As we reached the end of the passage, I immediately recognised Bobz and his family, patiently – or perhaps not so patiently! – waiting for me.

For one breathless moment, we were both stunned into silence.

The world seemed to have gone completely quiet.

Time had stopped.

I was only peripherally aware of all the other passengers barging past me with their luggage.

But when the sun comes out, the view takes your breath away

And then, the spell was broken, as we rushed towards each other, laughing and hugging and crying with happiness, and speaking all at the same time….

It was as though the sluice gates had opened. I don’t think Bobz and I stopped talking to each other for the entire six wonderful days I spent with him and his family. We talked, as though we had to fill in the gaps in each other’s lives during the almost-25 years of writing and emailing. We were recapturing memories, reminding each other of episodes and events in our lives, asking questions, so many questions, and sharing our experiences…

Every so often, we would skid to a halt in mid-sentence, and look at each other in shared astonishment, marvelling at the fact that we had finally met!

An unforgettable moment: Meeting my penpal of 25 years

Hello, Bobz.

Hello, Reggie. Welcome to America!

Thank you, Bobz – and D1 and D2 😉 – for making me feel so welcome, and for sharing your lives with me with such joy. And a profoundly heartfelt Thank You to Tom Meijer and the Happy Station Show of Radio Netherlands International for bringing us all together in the first place!

30 thoughts on “A Memorable Meeting with my Penpal of 25 Years

  1. I LOVE that you met Bobz. I adore Bobz through your words about him. (And, yes, my jaw dropped when you shared your initial traveling plans in the U.S. I didn’t quite know how to break it to you that your plan was a little–just a little–ambitious for three weeks!)

    • LOL! Thank you, Kathy! You’ll note I said that you were all very diplomatic, did you? It was soo sweet. Without such sensible input from our friends, I think we’d have been completely exhausted. As it is, we didn’t see everything there was to see along our route! You live in such a multifaceted and diverse – culturally, geographically, historically – country, Kathy.

  2. A homemade cookie and some Five Roses tea please. 🙂

    There is something extra special about pen pals. Sometimes you can explain more about what you think in writing than you can through spoken words. Is it because we put more care into what we write than what we say? But yet, there was some ‘catching up’ to do that prompted you to talk non-stop through your days visiting in person. Could those letters have built a solid foundation that is sometimes missing from other types of friendships?

    When I was a teenager, I used to play backgammon (in person) with a friend who was a passionate ham radio operator. He loved having that connection with people around the world and often played games with them over the air waves.

    Not sure if you’re into watching Star Trek, but there’s a Next Generation episode entitled ‘Pen Pals.’ When I first watched it years ago, it made me wonder that humans will always be reaching out to others beyond our borders of space and time to connect with the unknown.

    Ok, time for another cup of tea… and another cookie 🙂

    • Here you go, Amy, enjoy your tea and cookies!

      You are so correct in what you say about penpals and writing, Amy; because we’d shared so many of our life’s experiences with each other in writing, over such a long time, has definitely built a solid foundation. When we finally met, it felt as though I was meeting and getting to spend time with a family I hadn’t even known I had. Bobz is also a ham radio operator! Isn’t that cool?!

      And Richard and I also love StarTrek! We grew up watching the first series on the television, but I’ve somehow missed all the follow-up series, which is such a pity. I would love to see that episode – and all the rest of them too. I always found them quite thought-provoking and insightful.

  3. I am so happy that you and Bobz got to meet in person. That would have been fun to hear you two chat.

    I have enjoyed KY every time I have visited there; and I am glad that you all avoided the storms. In the spring, the weather patterns in the South and Plains states can be really tricky.

    • My gosh, Scott, we talked and talked and talked… it was wonderful!

      Richard and I hadn’t realised that we might encounter tornadoes in Kentucky and Tennessee – I think we were extremely lucky that we weren’t in the wrong place!

  4. Reggie, what a wonderful story! So nice to have been penpal for so long – and then meeting each other.
    Maybe you will meet a Danish friend in Denmark or South Africa – before 25 years has gone? 😉

    • Thank you for your kind words, Truels. And I also hope that we will one day have an opportunity to visit Denmark and see all the places that you and Birgitte write about on your blogs.

    • I do sent quick emails at a time. Your blog is quite wonderful…I liked the once a week piece…the blog is a joy to read…reading yours and Regg’s is a way I re-charge

      • See, Kathy, did you know that Bobz liked reading your blog too? Isn’t that wonderful? I totally love it! And Richard and I will never ever forget meeting Kiah in New York; it was *almost* like meeting you too. May there be a next time where we will all meet!

    • Welcome to my blog, Cestlavie22, and thank you kindly for your comment. I had a lot of penpals when I was in high school and at university, but most of those also faded away through the years.

      In the old days (before the convenience of email, the internet and digital photography), it took a lot more time, effort and commitment to develop a long-distance friendship with someone you’d never met before; it is far easier today – but paradoxically, I think it is also easier to have far more casual and ‘shallow’ relationship (for want of a better word).

  5. Reggie- such a special story. Amazing to me to think you met a penpal after writing to him for 25 years. Miracle one writing for 25 years and then miracle two coming together. On an aside i also think it interesting that you have had a male penpal as I haven’t known very many men — other than professional writers or professors that can sustain such correspondence. Anyway- so glad you finally did meet and that your enjoyed your trip to the US. next time a west visit might be in order — hint – hint. Sher

    • You have summed that up well, Sher – but Bobz and I still have more than another 25 years to go before we reach the record set by Judy Harper Williams and Betty Moebis Fawns, who became penpals in 1958; you can read the article about that here. Interestingly, Ms Williams also lives in Kentucky!

      Oh, Sher, I had actually thought of including a trip up to Mulesprings Farm, but it was just too far – I do hope we can visit sometime though.

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