Coping at the message center

"What we have here is a failure to communicate." So goes a famous line in the film "Cool Hand Luke," and you could certainly say it again about now. The 20-cent postage stamp is promised. The 25-cent pay-telephone call is threatened.

If you decide on a little face-to-face communication, check out the latest price of airline tickets or a gallon of gas -- as though you needed to.

For people whose family is an extended village the problems in communication are enough to drive them to smoke signals and pony express. How else to keep up with the loved ones in the outlying districts?

Well, there's the good news too. New airlines -- domestic Freddy Lakers, as it were -- are providing competition for the old. Private delivery services, specializing for now in packages and overnight service, offer a partial alternative to the post office. And, of course, A.T. & T. is encountering rivalry from companies like MCI Telecommunications Corporation, sassing old Ma Bell with ads like: "Reach out and touch someone. But do it for half of what Bell charges." And: "You haven't been talking too much. You've just been paying too much."

There can never be too many ways to communicate -- to make those actual or symbolic journeys that connect the caring.

A rural friend keeps tacking up messages to his brother on a pine tree at the end of his dirt road. You have to watch out for really drenching rain, our friend says. Outside of that the system works fine. If his brother fails to pick up the message for a day or two, that's all right too. Anybody who lives half a mile down a dirt road doesn't know the meaning of the word "urgent" anyway.

We once knew of a city jogger who courted by dropping notes into the mailbox of the woman he loved as he made his 6:30 a.m. rounds. He had just crashed the six- minute mile when she accepted his proposal. So far as we know, he never jogged again.

But all the pine trees and mail boxes and coaxial cables in the world cannot quite reassure your truly passionate communicator. The best letter writer we know feels terribly threatened by the mere suggestion of no Saturday mail deliveries. His nightmare is that the whole communications system will be taken over by mass media -- everything will turn into broadcasting. There will be no private lines. There will be no two- way communication. The only mail that will get through will be junk mail. Everything he writes, including those helpful letters to the President, will end up back in his own mailbox, marked "Addressee unknown." And when he picks up the phone, every number he dials will reach a recorded message.

We have to remind him that there's an even more serious problem in communication these days. To be heard, or read, is no guarantee of being understood in the Age of Babel. At times we all despair of words -- those sieves of meaning. We feel like "saying" things through music or mime or pictograms. Even Goethe, experiencing a rare appetite for silence, declared: "We should talk less and draw more. Personally, I would like to renounce speech altogether and communicate everything I have to say in sketches."

The mood quickly passed.

Sooner or later we hunger for the voice, we thirst for a sight of handwriting. We go through life, looking in the sky for the carrier pigeon, waiting on the beach for the note in the bottle. For without our messages, received and sent, we become Robinson Crusoe, who would be the first to tell us: Compared to the need to communicate, any problem in communication is nothing.

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