Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

Penman for Monday, August 5, 2013

FROM INDIA, last week, came the news that the company that handles that subcontinent’s telegram service had sent out its last telegram, ending a facility that had been available to Indians since 1850. It was also from India that, two years ago, we received word of the demise of the last operating manufacturer of typewriters in the world, a company called Godrej and Boyce, which was still making up to 12,000 typewriters a year until 2009.

It might seem then that the horizon of obsolete technologies lies somewhere between Srinagar and Chennai, but of course we Pinoys know differently. For even in this age of Twitter, Instagram, SMS, and FaceTime, many Filipinos—the oldest and the poorest of us, that is—still have one foot firmly planted in the 20th century, and it will be a while before we’ll learn to let go, at least in our minds, of the things that made our life easier back in 1963.

A surprisingly comprehensive history of the Philippine telecommunications industry, written and published online by Federico and Rafael Oquindo, says that the Spanish began laying out a telegraphic service in the Philippines in 1867.

I’m not sure if we can actually still send paper telegrams to one another, since the old telegraphic companies have either died out or been taken over by telecoms giants more interested in moving money than messages. Your relatives would surely be more interested in receiving a MoneyGram from you, anyway, than your telegraphic best wishes. If you’re feeling wacky, you could also send them a singing telegram, which—for around P2,000—will include a box of chocolates to go with the guitarist and singer, and your favorite song.

But where has the old-fashioned, STOP-punctuated slip of paper gone? Gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage and the steam engine and the carrier pigeon, it would seem, replaced by faster, sexier, and maybe even cheaper ways of getting a message from A to B. In the US, Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

To be perfectly dry-eyed about it, few 21st-century citizens will miss and mourn the telegram. To send one, you had to go to an office and scrawl your message on a pad of paper—a message that, depending on your agent’s sharpness of eye and adequacy of mind, could come out garbled on the other end. The cost of the telegram was computed by the word, and how fast it traveled depended on how much of a premium you were willing to pay; I remember that “NLT”, or night letter, was the cheapest option, because you had to wait for some night clerk to attend to your message after everything else went out for the day. And then your telegram, encased in a flimsy plastic envelope, had to ride along with a bagful of others in the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to cross rivers and mountains to get to its recipient, two or three days after pushed your message across the counter.

It all seems too cumbersome and too quaint now, but there was a reason for the telegram’s popularity in its day. Very often, it went out to people and places without telephones (yes, there was such a country and such a time), and it was much faster than a regular letter, albeit more tight-lipped. Arguably, the telegram was unique in the power it conveyed and the significance it implied, for only the most important—both the saddest and the happiest—of messages merited a telegram.

Unlike SMS, or even the pager (remember EasyCall?) that preceded the cellular phone, the telegram was too slow for casual banter, too terse for courtship or argument. It worked best at bringing you the good news and the bad news: prizes won, loved ones lost, congratulations, condolences, reminders, pleadings.

I have a soft spot for the telegram, because it figured prominently in my literary career, starting with one I received in May 1969, informing me that I—then a high school senior—had won a national essay competition. Over the next two decades, at around this time of year, I would scan the horizon for the RCPI messenger, the bearer of the only telegram that mattered to me and hundreds of other aspiring Filipino writers: one sent by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Foundation, telling us that we had won and inviting us to the September 1st awarding ceremony. (Our exuberant imagination supplied the rest of the unspoken message, which understandably would have cost the Palancas too much to tack on to their congratulations: “You’re a wizard of words, a literary lion, a paladin of prose whose works will sell a million copies, attract hordes of screaming fans, foment revolutions, and uplift human life and civilization!”) I did receive a number of those telegrams, a few of which I still keep as souvenirs, reminders of the Jobsian admonition to “stay hungry.”

There was one telegram I remember sending, sometime in the mid-1970s, from my small hometown in Romblon where I had gone on a short visit with my father and had quickly run out of cash, not having had much to bring in the first place. In desperation, I cabled my new bride Beng, whom I had to leave behind in Manila: “MISSUS I MISS US HONEY SEND MONEY.” And so she did.

And that’s all the old telegram companies do these days—send money to presumably happy recipients. Let text and Twitter take care of the bad stuff. If it’s the physical telegram itself you really want to send or to get, just so you can relive the good old days when people got inky fingers from writing long letters with fountain pens and licked postage stamps and waited for weeks to get something back in the mail, there’s hope for you. A company will still deliver a telegram to a Philippine address (and to over 200 other countries), for $24.95 plus 88 cents per word (no NLT option here); you’ll just need to go online at www.itelegram.com to avail yourself of this charming if pricey service.

SPEAKING OF other countries, it’s always good to read positive things about the Philippines when you’re abroad, even if they happen to be advertisements. In Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, I beamed when I turned to the travel pages of a local newspaper and saw how many ads featured our national tourism tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines!” The ads offered special packages for Manila (read: the new Solaire casino) and other parts of the country (read: Boracay) via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.

Now, I’m one of those guys who—no matter how strongly I might criticize our foibles and follies back home—like to wave the Philippine flag when they’re on the road. Any chance I get, I invite my foreign friends to come and visit, allaying their usual fears by pointing out that they could get mugged in New York or robbed in Prague, anyway—they might as well enjoy our sunshine! Lord knows we need all the plugging we can get, with neighbors like Thailand roping in some 22 million tourists a year versus our 4 million.

I’m wondering now if it was schadenfreude—that wicked burst of pleasure you get when something nasty happens to your neighbor but not to you—that coursed through my veins when I came across an article in The Standard noted that traveling to Thailand was fraught with danger “from jet-ski scams to robbery, assault and even police extortion.” Hah! I thought—that’s what I’d been trying to tell my Hong Kong friends—it’s more fun in the Philippines!

Then I read on, turning the page: “Britain said Thailand is the country where its citizens are second most likely to require consular assistance, behind the Philippines.” Ooops! Sounds like we need to do a little more work in the Philippines.

(Image from philippinephilatest.net)

One thought on “Penman No. 58: Hello STOP Goodbye STOP

  1. I used to play with typewriters when I was a kid! 🙂 I never experienced receiving a telegraph message.. Snail mails, I did, but quite few. Totally, zero on telegraph message!

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