TCS Daily


'You Have a Telegram'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 10, 2006 12:00 AM

In a desk drawer in my study in Ligonier is a piece of pale yellow paper I have kept for more than 40 years -- a telegram from the Philadelphia Inquirer inviting me to report for a tryout in the newsroom of the paper.

I still remember the thrill I experienced holding it in my hand. As a young reporter, not long out of college, it was a chance to work for a big city daily -- a dream I had held since childhood. But there was also the thrill of holding a TELEGRAM in my hand with every word PRINTED IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

I had never received a telegram before and there was still a bit of cachet, a whiff of romance and importance to the thing back in December 1963. The newspaper was serious enough about me that they could not wait for a letter to reach me. I was worth a TELEGRAM.

Well, now nothing is worth a telegram. Western Union, as you may have read, ceased its telegram business on January 27 after 155 years of informing the world of everything from a baby's birth (the now forgotten "Storkgrams") to a ship's death (Bruce Ismay's dispatch to White Star Lines New York office: "DEEPLY REGRET ADVISE YOUR TITANIC SUNK THIS MORNING FIFTEENTH AFTER COLLISION ICEBERG...)

It was altogether fitting and proper that Western Union announced the telegram's demise with a short paragraph on its web site, Westernunion.com. The message thanked the public for its "loyal patronage." That patronage had shrunk decidedly from the telegram's heyday. Only 20,000 telegrams were sent last year. There were 200 million sent in 1929.

Telegrams were still the stuff of drama back in my youth. People tore open the flimsy windowed envelope to discover tragedy ("WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU...") or joy ("OPENING NIGHT HUGE NEW HAVEN...") all conveyed without punctuation or else with each point or thought sequestered by the word "STOP." (In the world of Morse code dots and dashes, conveying punctuation electronically cost extra, but the four-letter word stop was essentially free.)

As they devoured the message, a uniformed kid with his Western Union hat stood in the doorway awaiting his tip. At least that was the way I saw it in the movies. The only telegram I personally recall reaching our humble rural Pennsylvania home was news of the death of my grandmother's cousin in California. By that time, in the late 1940s, there was no courier. The message had been read over the phone to my grandmother from the Western Union office on the town square in Ligonier. My uncle drove into town later to get the actual paper message.

But in larger towns an big cities, they were still delivered. In our county seat, Greensburg, Pa,, many people still remember "Red," who delivered telegrams all over this very hilly town on his trusty bicycle in his gray uniform. Delivery was really part of the drama, and the fun. Actor Peter Sellers was preoccupied in the study of his London apartment when the doorbell rang. His wife, Anne, left the kitchen to answer and was handed a telegram. Tearing it open she read the message: "BRING ME A CUP OF COFFEE. PETER."

There has been very little lament over the end of this era. We now talk and look at each other over cell phones, and tap out our endless e-mails and instant messages. The quaint telegram had been quietly drowning in a sea of innovative communications technology for some time.

But all over this country there are boxes in closets and attics containing those little yellow squares of paper or their other iterations, such as Bunnygrams for Easter, Candygrams and Singograms (a Western Union courier would sing "Happy Birthday" before placing the message into your stunned or embarrassed hand.). They are part of our personal archives, grim or joyous reminders of low and high points of life.

The thing that always fascinated me about telegrams was the fact that there were clearly at least two interlocutors for these sometimes very personal messages - the telegraph operators. If information is power, then the guy down at the Western Union station with his unbuttoned vest and quaint eye shade was a powerful man. Deaths, business failures, calamities of every sort, came early into his purview as his finger tapped the electric key or penciled out the deciphered pulses.

Of course, eventually this was all done automatically, printed out in those CAPITAL LETTERS. But telegrams, nonetheless, were proof of our wholesale acceptance of speed and economy over absolute privacy. During World War II, for instance, the arrival of the Western Union boy at a neighbor's house was a message in itself, and frequently a somber one.

We demanded the privacy of the mail, but with the telegram we came to terms with having critical, personal, even intimate matters trusted to an outside technology, conveyed before the eyes of third parties. There was a touching sense that the man at Western Union tucking that brief message into its envelope would mind his own business and keep to himself about our grief, our elation, our new job or our old debt.

Now, I sit before my PC screen alarmed and amused by notes from all over the world in real time. The amazing in communications has become routine. And I have come to accept at least an illusion of privacy. But, I confess that, as I am electronically importuned to enlarge a certain gland or take enriching advantage of a banking anomaly with a very respectful Nigerian, I sometimes recall with envy those telegraphic days of yore. Not for the telegrams I did receive, but for the ones I did not.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS Contributing Editor.

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