When Lisel Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry recently, she commented, “It’s been a long time since I got a telegram.”
In this fax and phone and e-mail age, does anyone get any news by telegram? Are Midwesterners still traveling to California in Conestoga wagons?
Most people I know wouldn’t know how to send a telegram if the odd idea crossed their minds. At best, they can spot a telegram in memory’s distant mists, recall some ancient condolence or congratulation, some urgent invitation, some event or thought made memorable by its appearance on a telegram’s yellow sheet.
Still, it’s comforting to know telegrams are still around, occasionally dispensing news and not, as most of them now do, mere money. Telegrams are like trains and trans-Atlantic steamers. We may not use them, but the world would seem shrunken if they disappeared.
Americans sent 200 million telegrams in 1929, the telegram’s peak year, and in that slower time, telegrams changed lives. Anyone who watches old movies knows that telegrams were often the pivots on which plots turned. Lovers, deals and wars were won or lost by telegram.
Telegrams often starred in what became generic movie scenes: A bicycle messenger stands on a front porch and hands a telegram to a weary soldier’s mother.
A soldier bolts into the general’s tent waving the telegraphed news of troops on the western front.
A bellhop raps on a hotel door and caws, “Telegram for Miss Snootzel!”
Both the art and the urgency of the telegram have disappeared, though the form remains. For $31.90, you can send 15 words that will arrive in five hours.
You could also send the kind of telegram the Pulitzer board uses: Western Union phones the recipient, then sends a hard copy.
Or you could make the call yourself and spend 30 bucks on dinner.
“We’ve thought about different ways to let people know they’ve won but haven’t come up with anything that would work as well,” said Claudia Weissberg, the administrative assistant in the Pulitzer office at Columbia University, noting the need to notify the winners simultaneously on award day. Besides, she added, “We like the tradition.”
If the news is good, it’s a tradition worth tasting. I received my only telegram when I was 19, in Paris and dying for a job on a yacht whose French owner had advertised for a cook. MEET ME AT MY HOTEL, he telegraphed after receiving my application. I did, and the rest is another story.
It’s a good story, too, all the better because it started with a telegram. No e-mail, no phone call, no fax has ever beat that hand-delivered message for urgency, for brevity, for drama.
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