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Pen Pals 50 Years Later

Letters (and e-mails) from Australia

I was out in the garage digging through boxed-up possessions and miscellaneous junk when I came across treasures from my boyhood.

I uncovered my old collection of model cars and planes. I was amazed to find a sleek Continental Mark II still in its original packaging. Then I found a worn Nestlé’s candy box. Inside were several black-and-white photos and a small collection of beautiful shells from Australia’s east coast.

The memories of 50 years ago washed in, and for a moment I was taken back, as if awakened from a dream.

The bright green box had faded over the decades, and the tissue wrap had yellowed, but the magnificent shells inside (cowries, cardiums, abalones and Australian scallops) were still miraculously intact. I gently examined each shell, amazed by their beauty and delicate features.

I carefully handled each photo as if rare currency, gently touching the images with their old-fashioned scrolled borders. They, too, had stood the test of time with only minimal discoloration and surface wear. In the photos, I recognized a tall, lanky young man and his younger brother and sister posing separately on the lawn of their home and at the rock entrance of a park.

The scenes were rather mundane and could have been taken anywhere. But I knew they were from halfway around the world—from my Aussie pen pal.

In the late 1950s, when I was a teenager attending Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hallettsville, our teacher encouraged us to take part in an international pen pal program. At the time, I had seldom traveled farther than the Texas Gulf Coast, and so I thought it intriguing to learn how people lived far away from my little town, halfway between San Antonio and Houston. I picked three pen pals my own age—two in the States and one in Australia.

I remember mostly the correspondence with John Kilpatrick, my Aussie friend. Each time a letter from him arrived in our mailbox, I carefully opened the envelope, not wanting to harm the odd-looking Australian stamps. I learned that John resided in the small town of Yass, about an hour from Canberra, Australia’s capital. We wrote to each other for some time, sending each other photos and other souvenirs. He always seemed so proper in all that he did. His short letters were always carefully creased, the cursive writing properly spaced and the postage stamp never askew. His pithy prose contrasted with my profuse ramblings. The contrast in our personalities was helpful to each of us, providing a view of the world from a different perspective.

Over time, I grew more interested in cars, girls and dating, and having a pen pal was no longer “cool.” We stopped writing each other, and the ties of adolescence faded into obscurity.

But as I was out in the garage looking at photos of John and his family, I began to wonder if he was still shy and reserved—traits that were evidenced by his adroit, laconic prose. What was his occupation? What were his interests? Did he ever marry? Have kids? But mostly I wondered: Was he still alive? And if so, would he still be living in the same town where he had grown up?

I sat down at our home computer and entered my old friend’s name and location into an Internet search engine. But no clues were apparent in the listings that came up. Admittedly, I am among the many sexagenarians (I am now 66) who are not very proficient when it comes to using the Internet. But I decided to continue searching. Next, I checked a list of places in the area of his hometown and came across a website that promoted the small community where he grew up. I wrote an e-mail to a contact person and asked for any information about John Kilpatrick.

Amazingly, within 24 hours, a website volunteer had not only found a relative of John’s, but also had gone to the person’s home—on his bicycle. As it turned out, a gentleman was house-sitting for the woman who owned the place while she was away in Sydney. Apparently, she had been married to John’s uncle. The man supplied an address for him in another city. The volunteer e-mailed all this information and wished me luck.

Soon I tracked John to Kambah, Australia, another town not far from Canberra. I wrote to him the same day I obtained his mailing address. (Not having his e-mail address, I used the old-fashioned method we used a half-century earlier: regular mail.) Weeks later, I felt a familiar excitement when I received an Australian-postmarked letter in the mail. It came from his wife, who reported that her husband was on his annual walkabout, the term Australians use for a temporary return to aboriginal custom by traveling through the Australian bush. I learned that he was married, had two grown boys and was semiretired from his administrative role in local government. Coincidentally, not only do John and I share the same first name, our wives have the same name, too: Margaret.

I scanned and sent photos of our four grown children and eight grandkids, along with copies of his old photos. He wrote that he was most grateful, since their family photos had been lost long ago when a water heater flooded the basement of his parents’ home.

After all this time, I felt as if we’d caught up with the past. He seems the same kind and reticent soul he was back then, a man of few words, but with an enthusiasm for adventure and living life to the fullest. (Early last Christmas Eve he e-mailed me a warm—but concise—note: “As Margaret is wrapping our Xmas presents (except one), I thought I might wish you a Merry Xmas. Love from us.”)

I hope that one day John and I will have the opportunity to meet in person, say hello to each other’s families and possibly imbibe a pint or two (Foster’s, of course, or maybe I’ll introduce him to Shiner Bock). Until then, I look forward to swapping stories and photos via e-mail. After 50 years, there are many stories to share. Now, if there were only 50 more years in which to tell them.

John Rothbauer splits his time between Galveston and the Huntsville area, where he and his wife are members of Houston County Electric Cooperative.