Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
This idiom is one I’ve reflected on many times in my life. It seems apropos given our current situation. Absence, and the consequent longing it creates, I am going to argue here are positive states. I have many examples to draw from, but being a Gen X’er, the generation that grew up with the advent of the Internet, absence and longing were quite normal in my formative years; the instant access and gratification so pervasive today were not my normal.
I am going to once again reach back into my military career here. The army constituted almost half my life; more than 20 years. My first deployments were in the 90’s. That is an important fact as it means they occurred before we understood and utilized the Internet as we do now. On one of my first deployments I had neither a mobile phone nor an email (or really, any proper knowledge of the Internet at all). During the Ice Storm of 1998, the only contact I had with family, and my, at-the-time girlfriend, was when we were lucky enough to happen upon a public pay phone. Luckier still if it had power. There weren’t many.
Longing Due To Separation
I did eventually find a phone that worked. Collect-calls were my only option because I did not have any change, and credit card swiping was not ubiquitous as it is now. There were no stores operating to make change – plus, as a private in the army it wasn’t like I could just ‘break ranks’ and go hunting for change. I only managed one phone call in the 3 weeks I was deployed during the Ice Storm, if memory serves; it is often cloudy now.
I only met my girlfriend’s parents a few times before this deployment, it being a relatively new relationship. So, when I did make that collect call, the man, I now affectionately refer to as Pa, didn’t recognize the caller and refused the charge – or so I am led to understand 😉
That was it; I don’t think I got another chance until our deployment was over.
Thankfully, my, now, wife, was pretty upset with her father over this. When I was back at base and able to call again it was easy to pick up where we left off, have a laugh, and there was no need to explain why I didn’t call during my time away. I’m grateful for this as I don’t believe I was able to let her know I was deploying so she was on her own to figure it out. The reunion was amazing. Absence indeed incited longing, and that anticipation made the heart grow stronger – much stronger.
The Romance Of ‘Wartime’ Letters
The next few months involved a lot of missed weekends and numerous long gaps in seeing each other. I didn’t get my first mobile phone for some time, and when I did, the reception sucked. When it worked though, we did talk a lot. I deployed to Bosnia shortly after the Ice Storm and ended up in a platoon house some 70 miles from the main base. We’d spend weeks out there with only occasional trips into base; a treat, and normally associated with a laundry run or re-supply.
There were two phones at the main base, again, if memory serves. Those two phones were accessed via a sign-up sheet. Even if the wait happened to be short, the limit was 15 minutes once a week. Those 15 minutes were monitored and the phone cut off at exactly the 15-minute mark. Not a great experience to have that phone die mid-sentence. The most satisfying way to stay in touch in those days was by mail; snail mail. That mail took weeks to make its journey, sometimes it took another week or more to then get between the base and the platoon house, and vice versa when letters were sent home.
That mail and the care packages from home were the best things ever. They were a lifeline in its truest sense. Getting mail was something remarkably special. The letters, whether sent alone or as part of a package, where generally long, and very intimate. It was a different experience to put words on paper and release them knowing so much time would pass between posting and receipt. You became powerless for weeks, not knowing how it would be received and not expecting any timely reply to validate or substantiate your feelings and expressions.
Now, there was one other option available to us, which I’ll call here computer generated messages. Not email, and not snail mail; I already told you I didn’t have email and just explained the traditional mail process.
Ready for this?
Online Dating ‘Old Skool’
At our platoon house there was one computer. It was for the officer and senior enlisted leaders that had the need to generate reports. It was off bounds during the day and was not connected to the Internet. On occasion, at night, we could gain – limited – access to that computer. The way this worked? You would type up a letter (a word document; I’m not sure which program). You would then save that letter to a floppy disk; 3.5”, not 5” – it wasn’t that long ago. That floppy disk held all the ‘letters’ we troops were able to squeeze onto it. On the next laundry run back to base that floppy’s contents would be downloaded and then emailed to your designated recipient by a central account, from the one computer on base with an Internet (or maybe it was intranet) connection.
When the replies came back they were printed off, the letter was folded over and stapled, and then it came to you as ‘mail’. You can imagine how puritan these letters were, having to go through so many hands, and eyes. Still, this ‘high-tech’ method, and the use of the computer, was a novelty, and so was eagerly used it.
Longing In The 21st Century
I was back in Bosnia in 2001. Watched the towers come down from very far away that year. The difference 2-3 years made in technological advancement were exponential. In 2001, there was a computer trailer. This trailer had, maybe, 8 computers and all were connected to the Internet. There were also 4 phone cubicles and the lines to use them were not very long given the computer access; however, the same monitored 15-minute rules applied, only not just once a week anymore.
I did have an email account this time. The line-ups for the computers were long and time-restricted, but this was a whole new world. Years later, and after getting married, my wife, as a Valentine’s gift printed off some of our best correspondence from those first deployments and early years in our relationship. She gave it to me in a nicely packaged presentation. I love that my courtship with my wife was tempered by time and distance. It grew from longing and anticipation. It was intimate in a way only love letters can be. I guarantee you that emails, as they are now, and texts cannot capture the same intimacy nor depth; even, and if only because there is no longer any distance in space or time to create longing and anticipation. The world has shrunk, time too is now truncated with the new normal of instant response and gratification.
A Lost Romanticism?
The longing of the heart and thrill of anticipation was something I fear nobody born in the 21st century will ever get the chance to experience in the same way. They might think they do; they don’t, probably even can’t properly imagine it. That kind of longing needs distance, where time allows for a build-up of anticipation. It is of a different age, and generation.
I deployed to Afghanistan a few times in the 2000’s. A totally different experience. Real-time conversations with unlimited access to phones. Internet everywhere – everything was Wi-Fi’d. There were few restrictions to access and it was not easily regulated. I found it harder to stay focused on the war with almost daily contact with family. There was no separation, and the two realities overlapped and sometimes clashed. It became that you had to deal with your home life as much as your in situ reality.
Mail remained important, but it often came well after its contents had already been revealed in a phone conversation or email. The longing had become diluted. The anticipation and the excitement it promised was harder to realize. There was certainly some value to this new technology – I could talk to my kids that I now had, I could easily call on the holidays, my wife could find support directly from me and not have to seek it elsewhere. Oh, but so much more was lost as a result of this advancement in technology. There will be less romanticism due to this world of immediate and unrestricted communication.
A Chance To Experience Longing ‘Old Skool’
COVID-19 is our new reality. Take this time distanced from your friends and family and let it grow your heart. Look forward to and become eager and excited about our reunions. Take time to reflect on how important these people are to your life. Let the longing hurt a little, but in that hurt know that the reunion will be so much sweeter. This is the only lens many will have into the longing of yesteryear, and to understand why those octogenarians you see are still holding hands as they walk and laugh together after 60 years of marriage. The foundation of their relationship is strong; it was built on longing and anticipation, and their hearts grew fond in a way that we may never know again.
Stay Safe And Be Kind
I wish you well and safety. I offer gratitude as always and hope our collective hearts, like the Grinch holding onto that slipping sleigh, can grow 3 sizes, or perhaps times stronger, from this necessary period of isolation.
Spring is upon us. Life anew. Take time to experience the little things; like the sunrise and the birds. This time with your family is precious. You may need to step away occasionally, that’s okay. Let your heart grow and become fonder for the absence.