Randy Tucker: Annihilating the present

If I made it to the post office right after practice, the letter I wrote earlier in the day, most often during my planning period would make it to Greybull the following morning. If Sue did the same after teaching second grade at Greybull Elementary all day, I had a letter waiting in my box in Lusk.

We were engaged for a year, me teaching and coaching in Lusk in my second year, she in her first year after graduating from the University of Wyoming in Big Horn County.

It was 308 miles from Lusk to Greybull, I became very familiar with the route over the ensuing 10 months from the time she took the job until we were married the following June.

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We often wondered how two mailboxes, over 300 miles apart could send and receive often in less than 14 hours in an analog age.

I kept every letter Sue wrote to me, and stumbled onto the shoebox I stored them in under a storage shelf in my shop two years ago. Sue has my letters stored safely, and concisely somewhere in the house.

There was a magic connection in those letters than transcends time when I open that box. I wasn’t always an aging, jaded individual. I won’t say I wasn’t cynical, since those glimpses of 40 years ago still reveal that personality trait, but my view of the world was different. I hadn’t been beaten down by life yet and was still 10 feet tall and bulletproof.

Letters are a magic mix of information and have the ability to bridge the gap of time.

“To write a letter is to send a message to the future; to speak of the present with an addressee who is not there, knowing nothing about how that person is, in what spirit while we write and, above all, later while reading over what we have written. Correspondence is the utopian form of conversation because it annihilates the present and turns the future into the only possible place for dialogue,” said Argentinean writer Ricardo Piglia.

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Though his prose was originally in Spanish, his message rings true.

We now live in an era where a personal letter is becoming extinct. E-mail, text, and phone calls are just so much easier, but they don’t have the same magic that a letter has. The irony is that our mailboxes are full of junk passing as letters. Bills, advertisements, and those idiotic political campaign ads that I use as fire starters. The letter has fallen on hard times.

As a guy with a historical sense of nearly everything, letters from long ago are priceless.

I read one my grandfather wrote to his sister in Switzerland soon after he arrived in Wyoming back in the early 1920s. The friendly tone and unrequited confidence in his abilities as a strong young man facing the wilderness alone were far different than the elderly gentlemen I knew and loved as a youngster and teenager.

His views were eerily similar to mine on the world, including his cynical view of politicians, and his sarcastic bent. It was a slice of time arriving to me a century after he wrote it. Yes, it was the essence of what Piglia meant when he wrote that a letter can annihilate the present and turn the future into a place of dialogue. Deep stuff, I know.

I often think of the nearly 16,000 stories I’ve had published in newspapers, magazines, and now online, and wonder if, when, or how they’ll be viewed when someone stumbles onto them long after I’m gone from this mortal plane. It’s a thought that all serious writers consider when producing their final products.

As a historian, the letters from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II are often poignant and pointed at the same time. These men lived in very different eras than ours, but the sentiments they expressed, the fears they suffered, and the families they loved come out clearly in their correspondence.

The letters they received from wives, girlfriends, and in the case of World War I and II, their mothers, were equally fascinating, and an equally clear glimpse into the anxiety those hoping and praying on the home front felt for their sons fighting far away in unknown lands.

The utter helplessness and heart wrenching solitude of women trying to survive alone on the Great Plains while their husbands were away trying to support the family are a gut punch, a punch clearly expressed in their letters to loved ones back home.  

Producer Ken Burns built his career on these bits of correspondence that survived the decades to bring messages from long ago. The annihilation of the present in messages to the future.

Soon we won’t have those links any longer. For those that claim it will all be preserved forever on the “Cloud” I can only say, “I doubt it.”

How many memories did you think would be preserved forever on those 5 ¼ inch floppy disks, or maybe that CD that has cracked, or even on those old VHS tapes?

Technology eats its own, that’s just the process and nothing we do will preserve it. What is new and innovative today becomes the industry standard and all those files you wrote on WordPerfect can’t be read by anything you own.

Technology delivers, but it doesn’t preserve.

As an IT professional, I knew too well that people were relying on e-mail accounts for far too much, and they trusted their valuable personal messages with the faith of a small child, a faith that was destroyed almost every time a new software platform was put in place.

You won’t find that with a letter.

Hopefully, my granddaughters will learn cursive writing so they can read their grandparent’s letters. Sue’s cursive is flawless. My writing, a version of printing with a smidge of cursive, handcrafted as if I were riding in the back of a bus on a heavily rutted, washboard road are surprisingly easier to read for those that don’t comprehend cursive. A knuckle dragging, semi-simian form of written communication on my part, but one that will transcend time as long as the paper lasts and the ink written on it does not fade.

We already live in a society focused on the “here and now” with little regard for the future, and no regard at all for the past. Once the written word, as preserved in little bits of paper disappear from our world, it will be a tragically lesser place.

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