Friday, January 6, 2017

So Far Away...Communicating Long Distance with Loved Ones Then and Now

Smoke signals: One way to send a message a long distance when you're short on time

For the next six months I will be separated from my daughter by almost four thousand miles, an ocean, and a six hour time difference. This got me thinking how recent this ease of communication has become and how much that one thing has changed in my lifetime.

The pain of separation is lessened by knowing two things: My daughter will have a great time, and I can talk to her almost anytime I want--for free, thanks to computers and smartphones. There are so many ways nowadays to keep in touch with far-flung loved ones, it makes my mind spin: email, Facebook, Skype, Messenger, and texting. Changes are coming so fast, probably a few new ones have been developed in the time it took me to type this sentence.  Not to mention via social media you can see what your loved ones are up whether they like it or not on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook to name a few.

On Tuesday night we put our daughter on a plane to London where she's going for a semester. At three in the morning I got a text from her informing us she'd landed. Okay, fair enough, we did tell her to let us know when she got there. But then at 4 a.m. I got another text. "I think I left all my money at home."
I rolled out of bed and sure enough found the envelope full of pound notes still in her room.

Then came a series of increasingly panicky texts from Heathrow. "I don't know where I'm supposed to go! I don't see the bus from school." My husband threw the covers over his head and said, "Let her figure it out."
With visions of my daughter falling victim to human trafficking or being persuaded to join a terrorist cell, I made my way down to the computer and went to the website for her college. I learned the buses left from the airport every two hours and sent her that information from my phone. There continued a number of texts, which I won't document, but the upshot is apparently there are no employees, information desks or security guards at Heathrow! Unbelievable! An airport that runs itself.

While I was trying to talk my daughter down from jumping in a taxi for a hundred dollar ride, I emailed a friend of mine who I knew would be up early doing yoga or meditating or something else that would be good for her. She had recently told me the story about her own twenty-something year old son and his plan to travel by himself to Thailand. To start off his journey he left his passport two states away. But because we live in modern times, they were able to get someone to send his passport overnight. So, off he goes passport in hand. Later when she was at work she got a text from him. "Mom, I'm in China. Where do I go from here?" By the way, did I mention her son is deaf? And alone.

Between clients at her office my friend frantically tried to access her son's itinerary which he had left at home. Searching through her emails, she was able to find his next travel step from China to Thailand and texted him the information.

Anyway, that morning she replied right away to my email with the following advice: "Take a sleeping pill and turn off your phone."

But, no, I didn't do that. I stuck to my cell phone and computer, sending emails to staff at Queen Mary University alerting them to the fact that one stressed-out American student was wandering around the airport. I also found a help number which I texted to my daughter. When I at last got a message from her that she found the bus and was on her way, I let out a big sigh of relief and forgot how annoyed I was with her over the leaving her money here thing. I also got an email from someone at her school telling me they'd found her.

Because my daughter had a friend leaving for London that night, I was able to message that friend via Facebook and arrange to give her my daughter's money to bring over. Crisis averted. My point here being, we have so many avenues in 2017 to cut through long distance complications without even leaving home. Now if these kids would have figured it out on their own or learned from their mistakes is another question.

Me (in the purple) and my roommate, London, 1980

It's easy to communicate now, but when I did my year abroad in Britain, it was a different story. It wasn't that long ago, but the only tools available to me back in 1980 were telephones and airmail. When I landed in Heathrow back in the dark ages, my parents would have no way of knowing I got there safe and sound until they got my postcard telling them so.

I had a blast that year, but now I think of my poor parents rarely hearing from me for an entire year, and as a parent myself now, I feel for them. The phones were hard to use and expensive. Besides having to work out the time difference and hoping someone was home to pick up, we had to continually feed coins into the phone in order to have a conversation.

 Mainly, we wrote letters to each other. Letters written by hand on thin blue airmail paper. If I had a problem--and believe me I had more than a few--I was on my own.

Cut back a hundred years to 1880. My great grandfather and his cousin left Evanston, IL to seek their fortune in the silver mines of Leadville, Co. I have a picture of the two men on their western adventure. I don't know much, except his cousin died while there, and my great grandfather brought his body back home. He stayed put in Evanston after that.

My great grandfather (seated) and his cousin, Colorado 1880

I can't imagine having to handle an emergency on that scale in 1880. On top of everything else, my great grandfather must have felt so isolated in a communication desert. Telephones weren't common yet, but they did have the telegraph. I imagine he sent a telegram to their families back home alerting them to the death of their relative. Maybe he wrote a long, detailed letter as well, which would travel with the speed of stagecoaches, trains and mail carriers.

America has had a postal service from almost the very beginning. The first postal system was a private enterprise, but the U.S. government bought it months after it's inception. The postage was due when the letter was received--by the recipient. They quickly figured out this wasn't the most efficient method, and in 1842 the first postage stamps were issued. The cost of sending a letter was three cents.

I was surprised to read that the first air mail delivery was in 1870, decades before the first airplanes. Over five hundreds pounds of mail was sent off attached to balloons. There is no record of any of these airmail letters reaching their correct destinations. It was an idea way ahead of its time and probably best left on someone's drawing table.

Hordes of people made their way to California during the gold rush. The expansion left many folks miles away from the reach of the railroad or stagecoach. The Pony Express was developed to tackle this problem. Riders could deliver mail to remote outposts, often having to travel through hostile Indian territories. I was almost as surprised to learn that the Pony Express only ran for 18 months as I was about the first airmail deliveries.

The big development in communication was the invention of the telegraph. The first message sent in 1844 by Professor Samuel F.B. Morse said, "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT."  Interesting first choice.

The telegraph brought on a revolution in communication. For the first time delivering news was not limited to how fast man or machine could move. Think of how this instant exchange of information over great distances was a game-changer.

But, still for the average person in their daily lives snail mail was the way they kept in touch. My thoughts go back to families that were separated by long distance for long periods of time, and I wonder how much information was lost--or how many people were lost to each other. I can't imagine the heartbreak of seeing loved ones go off for distant parts and not knowing if you'd hear from them again. My daughter can wake me up at 3 a.m. anytime to tell me she's safe. Do you have your own stories of separation in your family history?


Andrea Downing said...

Oh, lordy, Patti, ROFL. Just like you, I originally went abroad to study, but for me, it was to do my MA. I remember my parents complaining they hadn't heard from me so they phoned the university, a porter had to get on his bike and cycle down to my dorm, find me, and I had to trudge up to the phone where the call had come in. When I lived in Africa, my hubby and I drove about 250 miles to a place where you could make international calls. I paid in advance for 3 minutes, went into a booth, was connected, and luckily my folks picked up. I have to say that after the initial 'HOW ARE YOU????' there truly was very little with which to fill those 3 minutes because, of course, you couldn't really start a long, drawn out story. However, my final thought on this is that I still have those flimsy airmail letters I wrote to parents and my daughter now possesses them and can read them. Will she be able to say something similar about her times in South America? I've kept some of her emails printed out but not all, and I view it as a sad loss.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I'm laughing at your parents having to send a porter to track you down! I felt crazy emailing the school that morning, but it was actually the guy in charge of collecting all the international students from the airport, and I wanted him to look out for her. She normally is more resourceful, but it was her first time flying alone and she was exhausted and stressed out. The thing is we can know nowadays what problems our kids are encountering. One hundred years ago I imagine you saw your kids head out west and then went on the imagine the worst! Good point about the letters as keepsakes! I never thought of that before. We may have to print out the text message exchange between my daughter and I that morning for posterity. My husband was laughing over it later when he read them. Thanks for stopping by Andi!