The sound of dial-up Internet filled the room, computerized burps and wails, a strange music that symbolized new technology. I was a junior in high school and my family had just purchased our first home computer. After some cajoling, we had begged mom to let us purchase a monthly subscription to America Online, and she had finally agreed.
The computer connected directly to our home phone line. When we got online, no one could call in, just ringing busy, so we had to restrict our time on the computer. We were paying $40 per month for 500 minutes per month online. Each minute we went over, we were billed more. Internet was available in the high school library as well, but we had to sign up for times in advance.
The feeling of being online was sheer excitement, like the crest of a roller coaster. I could create an Email account and correspond with friends! I could create my own personalized MySpace page, where friends could add me and see my posts! I could search for my favorite comic book characters and read about their history! I could play games on my computer against other people! I could research encyclopedia entries for high school essays! If I was super careful, I could even look at dirty pictures online!
But somehow, most exciting of all, I could join chatrooms and talk to other people around the world.
I could still remember the T.I. Basic made by Texas Instruments that we had had as kids. We purchased a book that would allow us to type in coded computer games, like Hangman. It would take an hour or two, typing the lines of careful code, making double sure not to confuse Ohs for Zeroes, or hyphens for dashes, because a simple mistake would cause an error in the program. And then we would play for a bit, turn the computer off, and lose the game until the next time we decided to type it.
Then in junior high, we got our first Nintendo and could play Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, with amazing graphics! But the Internet represented something completely new. We were being wired in to other people around the world, and we had 500 entire minutes to do it!
After creating my own individual AOL account with the name ‘hellochadman’, I created another account on Yahoo, and I could join chat rooms in other places. And so in the evenings, with my sister Sheri looking over my shoulder, we began chatting with people from around the world. We could chat in groups or in private.
“Idaho kids here, anyone want to chat?”
Within the first few days of chat, we had met Soleil, a 15-year-old girl from New York City. She was funny and witty and sarcastic, and both Sheri and I would chat with her regularly in the evenings. Soon we began exchanging Emails, and eventually letters with pictures enclosed. We chatted with a lot of people, but Soleil was our favorite. After a month of chatting, she called us both on a Sunday afternoon, using expensive long distance rates.
Soleil’s real name was Dana, and she was a gorgeous Italian-American girl from Brooklyn. We had led very different lives. I told her about my huge family of seven kids, my upbringing in Missouri, and my enduring faith in the Book of Mormon, even sending her a copy of one in the mail. Dana was Italian through-and-through, and she came from a very loud Italian Catholic family. Her father didn’t have much to do with her, and her mother had died of cancer, so she and her brother were being raised by her grandmother Rosemary.
We corresponded with Dana off and on for several months, and then I stopped doing so so much, with AOL Chat being much less magical than it had been before. Sheri continued her correspondence, almost obsessively, Emailing, writing letters, and even making plans to visit Dana in New York some time.
And then I graduated high school, and then I went on a Mormon mission. I wrote Dana a letter to tell her, and she promised to write me and stay in touch. I had only been a missionary for one month, living with my trainer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when I got a call from my mission president, saying to call him back immediately as it was an emergency.
I was baffled, and worried that something had happened. The mission president explained that a woman from New York City named Rosemary had called him, explaining that her granddaughter Dana had run away from home and that the police were looking for her. Rosmarye told the president that Dana had a “missionary boyfriend” that she might be running off to see. The president asked me if I was inviting a girl to my apartment, or if I knew where she was. I was flabbergasted, and he believed I didn’t know anything, giving me permission to call Rosemary directly.
I called Rosemary, the Italian Catholic grandmother, in New York City, that day, and she told me with relief that they had just found Dana, that she had run off with some boy to “Alabama or some place”, and that the police weren’t looking for her anymore. She apologized for inconveniencing me and the call ended.
Two days later, I got a letter from Rosemary in the mail,and of course I wrote back. Thus began a weekly letter exchange with the most unlikely of people. In letters that we both looked forward to, I told Rosemary all about my missionary work, and she eventually agreed to let her local missionaries visit her, though they had no success in actually converting her. She told me about her life in New York, falling in love and having children and watching them grow, losing her husband, losing her daughter to cancer, and raising her grandchildren. She was passionate and funny, vibrant and full of life. She’d send me photos of herself, having written on them in blue or black ink, ‘Here I am. Ugly, Fat Rosemary.’ She was delightful.
Toward the end of my mission, Rosemary died of a heart attack, and Dana sent me a letter telling me about it. Dana had stayed with the guy in Alabama, marrying him and having a handful of children by her early 20s, but she eventually divorced him when he proved to be abusive. She returned to New York and remarried, and I lost track of her after that.
And now, in a cardboard box in my apartment, I have a stack of letters from Rosemary, an Italian grandmother that I never met.