ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY:   An unusual pen pal

© Another Day in the Country

The other day, deep in conversation with friends, one of them asked, “Have you ever had a pen pal?” (Just the phrase “a pen pal” dates you!) One person said, “Yes, for a while in grade school,” another shook her head “No” and I started to say “No,” with the added caveat that I have always written letters to friends but never to strangers and then I remembered Betty.

“Now here’s a topper,” I said. “My friend Betty had two pen pals who she wrote to for more than 70 years, and one was a French girl whom Betty wrote to in French.”

As I recall the story, Betty was taking high school French and the subject of “pen pals” came up as a good way to be able to practice your newly acquired language skills. Many years later, the faithful pen pals actually met.

Our conversation meandered through subjects like acquiring a second language, what it’s like to have long-time friends, comparisons between e-mail and real letters, how the interaction with people changes us whether in person or in writing, and then it hit me.

“Wait a minute, you guys,” I blurted out, “I didn’t think I’d ever had a pen pal, but I do.”

Then I got rather embarrassed because I suddenly realized how weird the rest of the sentence was going to sound; but I forged ahead. “I’ve been corresponding with an inmate on death row for 25 years. I didn’t think of him as a pen pal; but he is!”

Many years ago I had a radio program. It was an hour-long live broadcast, where I interviewed people. One week my guests were a couple who carried on a ministry at a federal prison. Their particular mission, that day, was to get folks interested in corresponding with prisoners who had no outside contact.

They told stories of inmates whose lives had been changed just by receiving letters of encouragement.

“It is safe,” they assured our listeners, “You can write anonymously through our address, use a pen name, the letters are screened.”

I listened and smiled and encouraged my audience to respond.

When we were off the air, one of my guests asked, “What about you? Would you consider writing to someone?”

I laughed.

“I don’t need another job,” I said. “No thanks.”

Then came the pitch.

“Well, we have this young man whom we haven’t been able to place because he is on death row and he’s very eager to have someone to correspond with.”

That was it. I rather naively took up the challenge. Long story short, we’ve been writing back and forth every few months for more than 25 years. After a few years I got brave enough to actually meet him. He has become a dear friend. I’ve not been the only pen pal that Eddie writes to, just the first one.

Corresponding with the “outside world” has changed his life — even though his is a very confined life. He began stretching his reading ability to books and has educated himself. He became, what I call a “health nut.” He became a Christian. An irrational, desperate boy became a very different man. I changed, too.

Every time I walked away from that prison facility, the outside world looked ever more beautiful to me. All my troubles seemed trivial. I was reminded how precious freedom is, how good fresh air smells, what a privilege it is to mow a lawn or pick a flower, how grateful I am to my parents and how I was raised. I’ve been blessed, in so many ways, by this rather unusual pen-pal experience.

Every year in January, I compile the columns that I’ve written the previous 12 months in the Marion County Record and put them into book form on the internet — just one copy, usually — a record for me. And this year, because my computer at home was so out of date, I had to print out all those columns and re-key them onto the publishing site using the more efficient computers available at Marion City Library.

When I was done, I started to toss all those pages of “Another Day in the Country” into the recycling bin and suddenly had an idea.

“I should send these to Eddie. Maybe he’d enjoy hearing about country life?”

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about this new kind of “recycling” before.

Within a few days I had a letter from my pen pal.

“I haven’t read them all, yet,” he wrote, “but it’s like the old days when you used to go on vacation and tell me stories about what you’d seen.”

His world is so limited and suddenly a new view opened up — not just for him, but once again, for me, too. An extra dose of gratitude kicks in. No matter if the weather in Kansas is cold as the mischief, the car had to have new brakes, the gas bill doubled or I lost my little hen “Goldie” to old age during the last storm, I am oh so lucky to be spending another day in the country.

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