"Any mail for me today, Mom?" I tossed my school books on the kitchen table and snatched an apple from the fruit bowl.
"One letter. It's on the buffet." She was at the sink, scraping carrots for the evening meal. "The stamp is foreign," she added with a smile.
I shouted with joy. "My first pen pal!" I rushed into the dining room, grabbed the envelope, and returned. "I've been waiting a long time for this." I sat down to read.
In 1934, long before worldwide airmail service was established, ordinary international mail was sent by ship. Sometimes weeks passed between letter and reply.
One month before the exciting arrival of the letter in question, I had joined a pen-pal club through The Christian Science Monitor. There, at the bottom of the Young People's Page, in a special box entitled "Our Mail Bag," a request had appeared, which seemed directed at me, except for one small detail.
It was from a teenager in Leipzig, Germany, who was eager to correspond with an American teen. His interests were reading, biking, music, and philosophy.
That night I asked my father about philosophy. "I know what it is," he said. "But for your own good, I want you to look it up in the dictionary." I refrained from saying that this was a dodge used by parents when they didn't know the answer, and followed his advice.
" 'Philosophy: The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.' " I read this aloud to Dad.
"Just as I thought," he said. "But why did you want to know?" I showed him the request from the teen in Leipzig. "Reading, biking, and music are things I like, but I don't know anything about philosophy."
"Well, you might learn something new," he said. "Why not give it a try?"
In my first letter I described my family, my school, my hobbies, and told him something about Los Angeles. I confessed that I didn't know anything about philosophy except what I had read in the dictionary. "But if you want to give me a chance, maybe I can learn something."
His reply was direct and honest.
Dear Betsy. I am so glad to have an answer from an American, because I need to practice writing in English. As for the philosophy, next year I hope to enter the University, and it is a subject I must have for admission in my chosen course of study, which is World Literature. Just now we learn about the writings of Plato. Do you know of him? I find his writings very interesting, even though they are still beyond me. Still I keep trying.
There followed a brief description of his family and school, and his beautiful old city. At the end he added a postscript:
I also am interested in aviation, especially in airships. Last weekend I went with my parents to see the new Zeppelin-Luftschiff. It is a marvel. The biggest airship in the world!
Most sincerely yours,
He enclosed two picture postcards of the Zeppelin; one taken in an enormous hangar and one showing it in the air, looking like a huge silver cucumber. I paid no attention to the strange crooked cross on its tail.
My correspondence with Rolf continued for several years, during which time I obtained more pen pals. I began to feel like a citizen of the world. I saved and traded stamps. I pored over atlases and reference books at the library. I enlarged my knowledge of geography and world events.
I would rush home to sort through the mail. It was a great day when I found something for me on the buffet, and I was in pen-pal heaven when several letters arrived.
Rolf and I traded information about books we were reading. He liked the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper and "anything of cowboys, especially Mr. Zane Grey's latest novel, 'Code of the West.' " We didn't discuss philosophy. I had struggled through an article on Plato and his Republic, and pledged to myself that I would read more when I was older.
Rolf graduated from high school a year and a half before I did, and entered a university in Frankfurt. He sent me a graduation photo taken in July 1936 with "Foto-Atelier C. Pinkau, Leipzig" stamped on the back. It shows a smooth-faced boy with the softness of childhood still upon him. His fair hair is newly cut, and slicked back from a broad untroubled forehead. It is a handsome face, an innocent one.
I showed his picture to my parents. Dad sighed. "You know, Bets, strange things are happening in Germany. News is leaking out. Some of it is pretty awful. I wonder how your young friend will fare."
WHEN I graduated from high school my life accelerated. I couldn't concentrate on anything except the whirl of changes I encountered in college: new friends, new teachers, new studies. There was an exciting social life: dances, football games, community sings. I lived in a world of perpetual sunshine and gave little thought to gathering war clouds.
Soon there were quizzes, papers to write, and finals. No time for pen pals. Similar things were happening to my correspondents. We drifted apart. One day I received this:
Thank you for all your fine letters. I have enjoyed your friendship. Now I must say goodbye. Your friend, Rolf.
After that came America's entry into World War II, and for me, marriage, children, and a teaching career. I have often wondered about Rolf, the boy who was studying philosophy and who loved books about cowboys and Indians. Did his interest in airships overwhelm his "rational investigation of truths and principles of being, knowledge, and conduct"?
I worked hard to believe the best.