Monday, December 6, 2010


Good friend Emily ran the California International Marathon last Sunday. She had set herself a goal of finishing under 4 hours, and, being Emily, she achieved her goal.

I wanted to send Emily some token of my rejoicing in her achievement. Had I been cheering on the sidelines in Sacramento, I could have given several blasts on the regimental bugle I bought in Scotland 20 years ago. Or of course I could have sent flowers. I mean, if running the Kentucky Derby's two kilometers in under two minutes merits a horseshoe of roses around a Thoroughbred's neck, surely it couldn't be considered a sissy gift for someone who runs non-stop for almost four hours. But as intensely as I love getting flowers, there's a dramatic spark missing there, an immediacy. Flowers are clearly tops for birthdays, and for new-born babies, for Mothers Day and for winning Harvard prizes. But when someone crosses the marathon finish line in under four hours, you want to do something FAST, something BANG! that will celebrate with the runner while the blood is still chasing around the body, and the sweat still fresh.

There used to be such a thing. It was called a telegram.

Please. Don't tell me about Twitter and Twinkle and emails and your grinning face on someone's cell phone. There is still nothing comparable to having a boy in a uniform knock on your door and hand you a yellow envelope still warm with an urgent message. "It's a boy. Eight pounds. Red hair." Or "Wish we could attend wedding. Will try to make honeymoon. Watch for us."

The story of how they crossed the continent with telegraph poles is a thrilling one. (President Lincoln considered it impossible; he feared Indians would cut down the poles as fast as they went up. Ah, well, even Homer said dumb things.) In those early days, a telegram could cost $20--as much as a good horse. Western Union got in gear in 1856; the last hand-delivered telegram was sent in 2006, but long before that, the great tradition had essentially disappeared. And it was a great tradition.

In the heyday, though, you could send a ten-word telegram within a city for twenty cents.

Messages sent further cost more, a set price per word; senders became skilled at saying a lot in a few words. A self-important movie producer once needed to know Cary Grant's age. He wired the star, "HOW OLD CARY GRANT?" Grant responded, "OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?" Succinct wit sparkled because of the need for brevity. In 1897, while Mark Twain was in England, U.S. newspapers announced that the humorist had died. Twain telegraphed back, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." The shortest telegram was sent by Oscar Wilde to his publisher. Wanting to know how well his latest book was selling, Wilde wired, "?" The publisher replied, "!"

I received only a couple of telegrams in my life. One informed me I had won a substantial scholarship to the University of Arizona. Standing in our living room, the yellow telegram in my hand, I told my mother the good news. For a reason I still don't understand, she shook her head and said , irritated, "You did NOT!" Then, reading the brief wire, she added, "See? It says, 'letter follows.' " Somehow, the telegram, so very rare in her experience (and mine), was simply not to be trusted. Only when a typed letter on heavy bond paper came did she accept the news.

Telegrams were dramatic. They were delivered by a Messenger, with bugles implied if not actually present. Unlike phone calls, they were permanent. With their unique form, they stood out from letters or greeting cards. You could paste them in scrapbooks and cherish them long after the red-headed baby boy had become bald. They celebrated life's Major Events, whether sad or joyous.

Ah well. I have never been very good at brevity anyway. But hurrah for you, Emily, and on to Boston!