It was my school pal Gerry who first gave me the idea of having a pen pal. I was beginning to retreat into my shell then when it came to girls. Sure, the two of us would go to dances together, but my fear of failure when asking girls for a dance, or even conversing with them, really began to come to the fore then. If I couldn’t face a girl and talk normally to her, then what about a pen pal, the original virtual friend?
Gerry was a great fan of a TV show called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and hugely impressed me when he showed me the signed copy of a picture from David Hedison, one of the show’s stars. To think someone who was then almost a mini-God to us would actually write back was incredible.
So when I spotted a letter in the Evening Echo from Debbie Imphang in New Orleans looking for a pen pal, I thought it would be great to write and see what would happen. I think it was 10 days before her first letter arrived. I couldn’t wait to open it. And one of the reasons why is because I had told her I was facially disfigured. Why? Because to me I looked different and I thought it might be a barrier, that she might not want to write, and if I had to send her a photo and she saw my face then she might react negatively. She might be annoyed and our friendship would end before it even began. Those were my thoughts and they governed my life then. It was a defensive mechanism I was to employ with other pen pals.
To me Debbie was very exotic. While I don’t have the original picture she sent me I remember it vividly. She was standing by the stairs wearing a red mini skirt. She looked adorable. She didn’t mind how I looked – probably because she expected never to meet me – and our letters were filled with exchanges of information about America and Ireland, our tastes in TV and film (the more popular US shows generally weren’t available here then) and later music. My strong interest in America, fed by the visit of President John F Kennedy to Cork in June 1963 when my mother had taken me to see him, had grown over the years and Debbie in her letters helped add to my knowledge.
I loved writing long, meandering letters, spilling my thoughts onto paper. They not only filled time, they allowed me to escape the reality of my own existence and forget my troubles. I was building this bridge to New Orleans and Debbie was helping me escape just a little from my world and it’s problems. She told me about her family, where she lived, school life. I drank up everything she wrote and the anticipation of her letters helped keep me going. It was brilliant finding myself being absorbed into her world.
And then for some reason we drifted apart and the letters stopped. Normally if she didn’t write for a time I would fire off a missive anyway, but I was as much to blame as Debbie for the silence that followed. The weeks, became months, then years rolled by and I must still have had her address because not long before I finished school we rekindled that writing friendship. But it wouldn’t last long. Maybe a year or so. Again I’m not sure why we stopped communicating, but I missed my letters from America. And as the years went by I, in one of my really low points in life, made a bonfire of all her letters and photos. It’s something I regretted very much.
By then I had caught the bug, so when I spotted another pen pal request in the paper from New Orleans I thought why not respond. Linda Bassham was a real beauty, and in my usual fashion I told her in the first letter about my facial disfigurement, but it made no difference to her (would I ever learn?). Thus began a really wonderful relationship. In fairness, Linda was excellent at writing detailed letters and answered really personal questions. She told me about her problems and her boyfriends, and so much about New Orleans, a city that by that stage totally captivated me.
Then she told me about Gina Hamilton, a good friend of hers who was also looking for a pen pal, and would I be interested in writing to her (Gina was either in St Petersberg, Florida, then or later as a college student). And thus I had two pen pals. And they were so lovely. Gina is part-Indian – you can see that from her photos – and again she was a very good writer, always attentive and excellent at responding. I was very lucky in having such friends when I had by this stage almost stopped going out apart from work.
As the years rolled by Debbie married David and Gina wed John Ellerbe. And still we wrote. I clung to the idea of visiting Linda who encouraged me to go over, but I was extremely reserved at the time. I loved America but was afraid to travel. Fear of the unknown, you might call it, but life and my deep reservations caught me by the throat then and refused to let go. While I knew Linda a bit, all I knew was what she had told me in her letters. So I kept putting the idea out of my head. And then something happened to make me change my mind. A friend, Pat Constant, and I had made a trip to Jersey in the Channel Islands to play in an international chess tournament and combined it with a terrific holiday. We loved it so much that we planned another chess foray to the neighbouring island of Guernsey the following year, but on the day of our departure fog descended on Cork airport and our flight was cancelled. There was no chance of going for a few days, too late for the tournament. So we took our refund and while Pat went off and got married I decided I would head off to the US, which I did in August 1979.
Nothing prepared me for New Orleans. Not all the information Linda, Gina and Debbie in her time had told me, nor what I had picked up from reading (no internet then to fill in the gaps). My first nasty introduction was a customs fee for some of the presents I was carrying. I naively declared them.
My first sight of Linda and David was fine and didn’t suggest any problems. I hugged and kissed Linda and shook hands with David. Linda looked every bit as pretty as her pictures suggested.
The heat and humidity was suffocating though and I would find myself drinking gallons of Coca Cola to stay hydrated as the days went by. We drove to Linda’s parents’ home in Metairie and they were very welcoming. They sent out for Mexican food – my first ever taste! It was delicious and I liked the Basshams very much. The following day we explored the French Quarter, which had a faint look of decay, but I did hear jazz play in one or two places as we walked by, but we didn’t go into any bars. I remember we were driving down New Orleans streets and I was startled by a plane framing a doorway. It really was a remarkable city.
I also recall leaving New Orleans one day to visit an old Confederate fort (can’t remember which one) and watching at one point the weather change from beautiful sunshine to menacing clouds, and out in the Gulf I saw these huge dark funnels. Turned out they were water spouts. Another night we went to a live theatre performance outside the city. We sat in the amphitheatre while the stage, set on what appeared to be a small island, witnessed the firing of a cannon. I was totally overawed.
And then Linda and David took me to their home in Alexandria, a small town in south west Louisiana, about the size of Waterford. What staggered me and made me apprehensive was that Alexandria had a reputation for violence, and a murder rate second only to New Orleans – 70-odd murders that year up to my visit. It was so wholly unexpected and yet that discovery was replaced by another: there was something not quite right between David and Linda. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a certain reserve between them that added to my growing insecurity.
David’s parents owned a cotton plant in the area, so we went there one day. I remember noting the shacks that surrounded the plant, with lots of blacks mostly sitting around outside. David said matter-of-factly that they all worked in the factory at one stage, but they were useless like most blacks. It was my first experience of racism but wouldn’t be my last. I got to meet David’s parents at their lovely colonial-style home and had my first introduction to iced tea. Delicious.
To be honest, I was like a fish out of water. I couldn’t exert myself and sample certain American cultural experiences, like going to a drive-in movie, or a McDonald’s. But Linda and David hadn’t taken time off when I was there, which meant I was alone a lot with precious little to do. Oh, I did go with her one day when she went for her regular riding lesson; another day I sat in on a university class she was taking in Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
I visited the local Time Talk newspaper and made a hash of an interview with one of their reporters. My naivety in answering questions meant I gave an honest answer when they didn’t want to know the truth! Exit me blushing. And we did visit the Times Picayune offices in New Orleans where I met the editor and got a terrific tour. This was a new slick operation, and the last printer was about to leave the building, so I could see my future in the Examiner right before me. A real eye-opener. Debbie’s father still worked in the Times Picayune with Dixie magazine, but I felt too awkward about ringing and trying to connect with Debbie. Too much time had passed, and besides, I was with Linda.
I was suffering a fair bit when Gina and John arrived from Minneapolis. They had insisted on travelling down to meet me, and to be honest I was greatly relieved. They were excellent company, very friendly, and stayed for a few days, which meant Linda and David were forced to go out a little. I’m glad to say Gina was really good to me, and she and John told me that if I was unhappy with Linda I should go with them to Minneapolis for the remainder of my holiday. Easier said than done. I worried how I could possibly organise transport back from there for my flight to Cork, so I reluctantly decided to stay where I was. And I also stayed out of loyalty to Linda and David because they had invited me over. It was very difficult.
Eventually, I left for home. Unfortunately, Linda never wrote to me again though I sent her a few letters. Maybe I had annoyed her in some way. I don’t know. All I do know is that Gina wrote to me not long afterwards to say that Linda’s marriage was in trouble. It was no surprise that they later split up and divorced. I was deeply upset because I did enjoy Linda’s friendship but she seemed almost indifferent to me when I got to the US and that hurt.
I continued writing to Gina, but after a time, once I married and had a couple of children, we lost touch in the early 1990s. The end of the road for pen pals? Well, not quite.
In the late 1990s, having never forgotten Debbie, I looked Imphang up on the internet and up popped her dad’s address. I was certain it could only be him as the address sounded familiar. So I wrote a letter explaining who I was, and asking if he could put me in touch with his daughter. And he did. Yes, Debbie was still very much around, working then with the New York Yankees. She was now divorced with two sons and a daughter, but faxed me a letter (which I still have) in 1999. And so we resumed writing, although when she moved back to New Orleans to take up a position with the New Orleans Saints our contact became more of emails, but rarely anything now. But we remain Facebook friends, have exchanged a couple of phone calls and I’m even friends on Facebook with her daughter, Lauren, who became engaged on St Valentine’s Day this year.
And again thanks to the internet I located Gina on Facebook a few years ago. I had searched for her several times in the past but nothing ever showed up. Then I spotted her son who I remembered because I have photos of him as a little boy. I got in touch and he remembered his mum talking about me and was delighted I had contacted him. With the click of a friendship request Gina and I were back again. We had a lot of catching up to do.
There was one final twist. Once we connected we talked about Linda. A day later Gina sent me a message to say Linda had died just a few days earlier at the age of 53. A school teacher, Linda had remarried and had several children. She didn’t deserve such an early deaths and the circumstances left both Gina and I shocked. Tragically, Linda’s father died a few months later.
Gina and I stay in touch. I’m still interested in her life and we have a connection going for almost 40 years now. And of course Debbie is still around on Facebook even if we don’t engage much. A remarkable journey for me and I really owe a debt to these women who distracted me – if that’s the right word – from my own problems. I loved every letter and the anticipation of their arrival. Those pen pals influenced me in in many ways but mainly they gave me hope. If pretty girls like them took the time to write and stay in touch with me, then it gave me some belief that not all girls cared about my face. They treated me like a normal human being and lifted my spirits. I have told them this in the past but I’m not sure they quite understood how much it meant to me. I valued – and value – their friendships.