Ernest Hemingway once said that he loved to write letters because it was fun to get letters back. The 500-plus members of the Voicespondence Club love sending tapes to each other for the same reason -- they love getting tapes back. Indeed the main requirements of the club, now 29 years old, are that one have a recorder and an interest in people.
"The youngest member I know of is 13, and the oldest is 89," says Charles Owen, the club president. "They run all the way in between. They're all the kinds of people you meet when you walk down the street."
They are not just gregarious people, either. In fact, he says, there are probably more introverts than extroverts.
"Introverts tend to be somewhat isolated and less outgoing," says Mr. Owen. "But the exchange of tapes is an excellent way to overcome isolation. For example, persons who are isolated for geographical reasons find it wonderful. People who live in tiny little towns in the West, like South Dakota or somewhere , miles and miles from the nearest city, and the city to them is something with 5,000 people in it, they just eat this up because all of a sudden they've got friends all over."
People isolated because of physical handicaps also get a thrill out of it.
"Someone who's paraplegic, or blind --they are the ones who come in the greatest numbers. They're not isolated or segregated in the directory. They can pick up somebody and talk to them, and unless they want to say, 'I'm blind,' nobody knows. They're treated as equals, which for many blind people is kind of a touchy point -- they often feel that the sighted world discriminates against them."
The $5 annual dues pay for the club's quarterly magazine and membership directory, which lists members' occupations and interests. When a member sees someone he or she finds interesting, they get in touch.
"We suggest they write rather than send a tape, because the person might be overwhelmed," says Mr. Owen. "He writes and says, 'I'd like to talk to you. I'll be glad to send a tape, if it's all right with you.' The other guy or girl writes back and says, 'Sure, send it along,' and that's how it gets started."
If you're afraid you aren't interesting enough to make a tape anyone would want to hear, the club offers demonstration tapes.
"We try to show how you can sit down and talk about what happened this morning as you went downtown to work, or went out to get a newspaper," says Mr. Owen. "We emphasize how ordinary things in life, church services, meeting people in civic organizations, or just sitting home and watching television and then telling other people what kind of programs you like are things you could share with others and they'd like to share with you."
But he says the Voicespondence Club is by no means a "lonely hearts club."
"We try to discourage lonely hearts people because that's not what we are. From my own personal viewpoint there's nothing but trouble there. How do you know the other person is really suitable? And if he or she isn't, who are you going to blame, not yourself but the club. We are mature intelligent people, generally speaking, who want to talk to other people of the same sort."
For blind people who can't afford a recorder or tapes, a special fund makes it possible to purchase such items at less than cost.
Often the tapes are just generally chatty.
But they can also be much more. Mr. Owen tells of one young woman who suddenly felt she didn't want to live any more and sent a "last tape" to three of her Voicespondence friends. The return tapes from people she had never seen and who lived hundreds of miles away came back so quickly and were so full of love and support that it gave her the strength to continue living.
Less dramatic, but just as meaningful was the voicespondence between a blind couple in Louisiana and a sighted couple in Cincinatti.
"In one tape, the sighted couple announced very proudly the approach of a blessed event --Owen. "The blind couple thought that was marvelous. Then after about the third or fourth tape, the blind couple sent one that said, 'Guess what , Mary is pregnant, too.'"
Mr. Owen continues, "The sighted couple, it being their first child, of course bought all the usual baby books and decided they were going to raise the baby according to the newspaper columns, or whatever. And they did all the right things, or supposedly did, as they had their baby.
"The blind couple, lagging behind by about 6 to 8 months got the benefit of that experience. Each time the sighted couple read a book or article saying what you should do when say the baby is teething, they made a tape for the blind couple. The blind couple said, 'Fine, in a couple months we're going to need that.' So they raised their baby with the he lp of the sighted couple in Cincinnati."