I gave some more thought yesterday to how much has changed in the 40-plus years since I gained my first real insight into the wider world through listening to shortwave radio.
Aside from television, the local newspaper, World Book Encyclopedia and a few other books, shortwave radio was about the only access a kid from small-town northwest Alabama had to the outside world in the 1970’s.
In a very real sense, so much of what has been achieved in the last few decades in terms of creating a more interconnected planet really boils down to the immense strides we have made in expanding bandwidth, particularly digital bandwidth.
As recently as the 1970’s, many of the encounters via communications media available to ordinary people amounted to a kind of passing on choppy seas in the midst of a storm – or in the case of Citizens Band Radio, cars passing on a highway – with no guarantee of making contact again. But that’s not surprising, considering that Ham and Citizens Band radio were wireless media and, consequently, affected by atmospheric conditions and a host of other factors. Now, of course, with a Twitter or Facebook account, it’s a lot easier to nail down those contacts and to forge long-term relationships.
How Distance Killed Friendship
Thinking about it, bandwidth restrictions also limited the benefits gained from long distance travel. Decades ago in the summer of 1976, I befriended a bunch of kids from all across the United States when dad was on active duty for a couple of weeks at Ft. Leavenworth.
I have no idea where they ended up – not one of them – because way back then, staying in touch via letter writing was just too great an expenditure of time and effort for the average teenager. Long distance calling was no option because of its cost – at least, as far as my parents were concerned.
The daunting obstacles to maintaining friendships over such long distances were grimly driven home to me in the weeks after I returned home and despite all the promises we made to keep in touch, in spite of the challenges.
This takes me back to a bittersweet scene in the movie that served as the pilot for the promising but regrettably short-lived 1970’s TV series, “James at 15:” James (played by Lance Kerwin) and his girlfriend (portrayed by Melissa Sue Anderson) embracing for the last time in his family’s empty Oregon living room as James’ parents finish loading their station wagon in preparation for the long trek to their new home in Massachusetts.
Despite their expressed determination to carry on in spite of everything, we knew how the story would end.
Second Life through Social Media
Facebook, Skype and Twitter changed all of that. The prospects for carrying on friendships over vast distances are much brighter. Just a few weeks ago, someone who had recently located his family to the Deep South from the upper Midwest told me that his daughter continues to maintain relationships with her boyfriend and other friends despite the thousands of miles of distance.
We have come a long way technologically since 1976.
With that in mind, I’ll employ digital media to make one more attempt to connect with my lost friends. Marcia and Mark Gilman, Amy Cole and Susan Troisi: If you see this and happen to remember the fun times we had in Leavenworth, Kansas, in the summer of 1976 while our fathers completed Command and General Staff College, drop me a line.
It has been an awfully long time, and we have a lot of catching up to do.