Living Columns & Blogs

Pen pals across the globe forge lasting friendship. They can teach us a lesson in diplomacy.

A couple hold hands in front of La Concha beach in the Basque city of San Sebastian, northern Spain, Sunday, June 10, 2018.
A couple hold hands in front of La Concha beach in the Basque city of San Sebastian, northern Spain, Sunday, June 10, 2018. AP Photo

Have you ever had a pen pal? Many of you no doubt have. But how many pen pal friendships have lasted more than 35 years ?

Reader Elizabeth Sappenfield, now of Durham, wrote that she was in fifth grade at Raleigh’s Aldert Root school when the teacher assigned her students to write letters to students in another country.

“Each student in the class wrote a letter that introduced ourselves, i.e., ‘Hello my name is .... I’m 10 years old. I like reading books and doing puzzles. I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up’ and so on,” Sappenfield explained.

Sappenfield’s teacher sent the letters to a teacher in Victoria, Australia. A batch of letters soon arrived from that teacher and were distributed to her class. Her letter was from a fifth-grader named Heidi, who liked soccer and lived in the little Australian town of Creswick.

Eventually, Heidi’s family visited the United States. When their itinerary took them to Richmond, Va., Sappenfield’s family drove her up to meet Heidi, and the two families had dinner together and spent the night at the same hotel.

When Elizabeth was 15, Sappenfield’s family invited her to visit them.

“When I came down the stairs waving the letter about, my understanding parents set about making the trip possible,” she wrote in an email to me. “They accompanied me as far as Los Angeles.”

Over the the years, the two women exchanged visits a couple more times, as Sappenfield’s job in the hotel industry required extensive travel.

Elizabeth is now married and the mother of two young sons and a little girl.

“In the back of my mind, I’m always planning a trip where I take the kids to visit my friend in Australia,” Sappenfield wrote. “We are thinking about setting up a letter exchange for their classes in a year or two. Maybe lightning will strike twice.”

I share this correspondence with you. In our troubled country and elsewhere in the world, there is a crying need for pen pals among nations, a need for communication, friendship and getting to know one another better.

How do people fall on hard times?

The news is that the economy is booming, available jobs are on the increase and unemployment is at its lowest level in years.

If that’s the case, why are do people still need to ask for money on our sidewalks and roadways?

I often wonder what circumstances bring people to this low point in their lives.

Some years ago, I was leaving work for lunch at downtown Hudson-Belk Cafeteria when I came across a guy sitting on a flower bed curb soliciting funds. I had seen him there before.

Since I was in a hurry, I emptied my pockets of change, handed it to him and started on my way. But then I stopped, thinking, “Hey, there’s a column there.” (A columnist is always on the prowl for column material.)

So I plopped down beside him, introduced myself and started asking him questions.

I hadn’t gotten far when he turned to me and said angrily, “Cut it out, Mister! If you think you’re going to buy my life story for a measly 85 cents, you’re nuts!”

I once interviewed a roadside solicitor who told me that on a very good day, he sometimes collects up to $100. He also said the weather has some bearing on his income. Compassion runs highest on rainy or snowy days.

I try not to be judgmental of those with hands outstretched because I do not know their circumstances. I do believe that in some rare cases public begging has become a profession rather than a necessity.

As Alfred P. Dolittle says in the musical, “My Fair Lady,“ there is a difference between “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor.” Distinguishing the difference isn’t easy.