Don't Fear the Plain Brown Envelope
By Anthony Buccino
What were my interests in 1968? I was too young to worry about the draft. ... I had a fish tank of dubious quality. My fish, when they weren't eating each other, got white spots and died.
A large brown envelope arrived in today's snail mail from Ashtabula, Ohio. It contains copies of letters I wrote to a young woman named Mary when we were 14. We met in the northeastern Ohio township and decided to keep in touch when my summer vacation ended.
I found her on Facebook and we got in touch after four decades. When she realized I'd become a writer, she mentioned my letters in a box in her attic. Would I like copies? What could I have possible said in those letters to a relative stranger 300 miles away? And why would she save them into this millennium?
"They’re about what you'd expect a 14 year old to write about," she said.
Would I like to meet myself at 14? Not that I could go back and talk some sense into my head, but what I think about those times now and what I was actually saying at the time, well, they're mountains apart.
I'm sure I was a bad writer. I wrote those letters before I decided to become a writer. Mary does get credit for encouraging me to write about anything and everything. At five cents to mail, I guess I wrote a dozen letters.
What were my interests in 1968? I was too young to worry about the draft. I'd just learned to ice skate and dabbled in hockey. I had a fish tank of dubious quality. My fish, when they weren't eating each other, got white spots and died. Or their tails rotted off. Is that what I wrote about? Was that how I thought I'd impress this future drum majorette?
Mary was friends with Natalie who lived next door to my best friend Pete. I only ever met and talked with Mary when she was visiting in Natalie's yard. A home-made swing hung from a long thick rope tied off at the top of a thick branch of a strong old tree. Sometimes, when no one was around I'd swing on that tree. Other times, the girls might let me push them a time or two.
I take comfort that I was not writing poetry then. It would have been awful, I'm sure. I hate to look at my handwriting in those old letters. My mom called my penmanship chicken scratch. Why couldn't I write neat and nice like my older sister who put up with me visiting her in Ashtabula my teen summers? "But, Ma, she writes like a girl!"
It was my sister who got married and left Jersey for Ashtabula. Her letters home were something we all looked forward to reading. Mother answered those letters. I never wrote to my sister. Why would I? She was old and married! But I think I got the bug from her to write to someone, Mary, and, later, others. As these ancient missives resurface I wonder if letter writing as a lost art form should stay lost.
So, what do I do with this envelope of long lost and forgotten musings? Shall I open it and greet my teenage self? Discover how I chronicled my wonder years?
Or shall I leave it sealed and keep safe whatever memories of those times that still swirl and swell in my grey matter? Sealed forever or open, here's to Mary, Rhonda, Ronita, Cyndi and others, too. I'll always remember you in ink stains and sparkling synapses.
First published as My 14-Year-Old Self Came in the Mail. Should I Open? in Write Side of 50 Adapted.
So, you all want to know what was in the big brown envelope that Mary sent me four decades after I sent her a few notes. You say you’ll hang me if I try to pull off a The Lady Or The Tiger? ending to this tale.
In her cover note, Mary wrote, “Be brave… open it up…. Give yourself some time to ponder the teenager you were before you decide to write something about it. Maybe over a cup of coffee, or some skorpers!”
She calls me “Big Tony” and says “don’t be scared. Just open them and enjoy those teenage moments.”
Well, how dorky could I have been if she bothered to hold onto these letters for nearly five decades?
Oh, God! I see I didn’t have much to say but that didn’t stop me from saying it. I wonder if somewhere in my attic I might have stored Mary’s notes to me. That would be funny.
Ah, to the copies of my own notes. There are only six notes, from August 1968 to May 1969, and though there is not a lot scrawled on the pages, my mind fills in the blanks.
When we left Bula for Youngstown airport my sister’s Mustang ran out of gas and some guy came by with a gas can and got us on our way. My sister paid him ten bucks (1968 dollars) and wondered if that was enough. My mom said, "Don’t worry, he got his out of that." Sure, gas was about a quarter a gallon back then.
I can’t believe three weeks later I say I didn’t write because it rained and I got a cold. Really? Oh, well, the school nurse sent me home, so I guess I was really sick. Feeling better and back to being a freshman in high school.
My next letter at the end of October, in all of eight lines, talks about the weather, my dog cutting his paw, me getting a pet turtle, my dad building a new coop for his homing pigeons, and that the camera they used to take our school pictures broke so we have to do it again. Not even one 'so ugly I broke the camera' joke there!
“My stupid dog cut his rear paw and should have gotten stitches but my father wouldn’t take Butch to the vet. It has healed up quite well, but it just won’t be the same.
“Besides my three canaries and dog, I bought a turtle. He just sits in his dish and sleeps.
“Speaking on line [really said “on line”, in 1968] of animals, my father is building a pigeon coop in the garage.”
About a month later my next note says the turtle is dead and I’m still waiting for a school picture to send her.
“Tragedy, Tragedy, Tragedy, my turtle is now deceased. Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice! I got a better one.”
And I got to practice my newfound, and much-mangled French, in my sign-off, “Comment-alley vous, je vais bien.” And finally, “Au Revoir”.
These notes don’t really get much more interesting. Well, not without a lot of fill-in-the-blanks.
By my next letter in February I was up to four turtles.
“I had 4 turtles at one time. One died a few days before Christmas. Another died two weeks ago. Another died today. One is still alive. I decided to give up on turtles and keep tropical fish. My dog is healthy, my canary eggs didn’t hatch.”
I wasn’t the canary’s husband, though it reads that way. We had one canary and dad brought home a female so that we could raise canaries in our kitchen. As if it might have been as easy as handling a loft of 200 pedigree homers. But the eggs didn't hatch and it was probably because the male was too old. Dead turtles, infertile eggs, the dog was lucky I didn't try to patch his paw. That sealed my future in animal husbandry.
In May I wrote about tearing my pants climbing a fence, my sister’s visit, my dead turtles and my dad’s pigeons.
"I'm writing and listening to my 45's. I know your (sic) not supposed to listen to it loud but if you listen to it soft, it loses something. Your (sic) the musician you explain it."
Take that, you instrument player, you!
"My English isn't too good but my French is better. We got our report cards again. I got the same as the last time but I went down in math.
"All my turtles are dead. I now have tropical fish.
"I'll probably be out in July so I can come home for August for the (pigeon) racing season."
I did make it out that summer but I didn't see her in the neighborhood. I was definitely not forward-enough to actually walk around the block and knock on her door. I guess it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t a friendly sort of teenager, just shy.
That summer I met the original 'Girl From Walnut Beach' and we walked around the North End Fair on Walnut Beach, a hundred yards or so from where Lake Erie laps at the shore. This new girl, with an odd name I can still remember but won't repeat, walked me around, showing me off to all her friends.
"This is Tony. From New Joisey," she'd say.
She talked and talked. She explained the local custom of the high school kids and pre-engagements. "It's not like going steady, it's like you're going to get engaged, like maybe after high school."
I was too cheap to spend money on the rides or the sideshows for the mummified heads and freakish animals, so we just walked around and around, and she talked and showed me off until it was time to say goodnight. She was someone I never sent a letter.
I was back in good old Belleville, New Jersey, in August listening to reports on the radio of a big traffic jam at some music concert in Upstate New York. The next year, I met another Ashtabula girl and we sat on her cousin's steps listening to the "Fish Cheer" and other songs from the tape in the eight-track. One day that first kiss will come.
As for Mary, we never saw each other again. Yes, Mary and my notes. Remembering yourself can be a dangerous thing.
Thanks, Mary for saving these. I think.
Je me souviens.
Girl From Walnut Beach in A Father's Place, An Eclectic Collectionby Carl E. Feather
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Collected writings referencing vacations and visits to the northeastern Ohio city on Lake Erie.
Essays, photography, military history, more
New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.
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PO Box 110252 Nutley NJ 07110
My first kiss came on a cold November night,
A Saturday after Thanksgiving in a stranger’s church.
My first kiss was a surprise, not for me,
I’d been thinking about it all night.
But she was surprised when she tried
to shake my hand in peace I charged in and stole that kiss.
Her light blue eyes – I am still remembering
And the round cheeks of her smiling face
That Saturday I kissed her.
It was the only time.
On Monday we headed back to Jersey
And I never saw her again.
- By Anthony Buccino