Thursday, January 20, 2011

Letters from another era

World travel as we know it today would be a source of shock and awe for someone whose travel ceased in the early sixties. My father would faint—I’m sure—if he could see the sweat-suits, the shorts and tees, the floppy, sloppy clothing we Americans travel the world in. Not to mention the lightweight wheeled suitcases we drag. He used heavy leather luggage (almost heavier empty than my current suitcase full) engineered to endure the trials of plane and rail travel, and he wore a suit, starched shirt and necktie on every segment of his three-month journey.

He toted his business supplies, too: paper, pens, business cards, stationery, English dictionary (for spell check in reports mailed to his office), and note cards to organize his fact finding. A bit heavier and more difficult to travel with than a laptop.

His luggage contained a week’s worth of starched white shirts, an array of ties, several silk and seersucker suits, plus a straw hat for the tropics; a wool suit, overcoat and felt hat (for the Aleutian Islands refueling stopover); a sport coat and un-starched shirts for leisure sightseeing. In addition to the usual accoutrements, such as shaving supplies, tie-clips and cuff links, handkerchiefs and belts, not to mention underwear, pajamas and even slippers, he lugged gifts for the wives and children of associates who invited him into their homes, and gifts for the businessmen who entertained or hosted him on sightseeing trips. He took small amounts of currency for each country, in case the banks were closed when he got there (no ATMS), and letters of credit in case more currency was needed. Remember, this was before Visa cards!

I find my jaw dropping occasionally, as I read the letters written by my dad during his first out-of-the-country business trip. He spent three months and visited Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. He had done his homework about each country—its culture, its highlights, its business climate—all without the benefit of Google or Wikipedia. He was curious, gracious, and remarkably open minded. In that first trip, he saw as much of each country as he could squeeze in, made acquaintance with hundreds of people in his field, deftly accomplishing his business goals.

And then, every two or three nights, he sat in his hotel room and wrote, in longhand, letters—each one between 1,000 and 1,500 words—to share with his family his experiences. Thirty-two letters are in my possession, and he mentions other letters and cards he wrote to friends, as well. It makes texting and tweeting and phonecards seem almost ludicrous in contrast.


Anonymous said...

What a elegant man you father was. I can hardly wait to read the first installments of his trip to the Far East. I love how you have set the stage for the time minus credit cards, Google, and laptops.

ginicar said...

This made me laugh and groan. Carrying all that stuff, wow. Much as I love travel I undoubtedly would have crawled under the covers and stayed there rather than endure all the complicated planning, organizing, packing, carrying, not to mention the wearing of all that proper garb. Thanks for the window into that nearly forgotten era, with all its joys and irritants.