04 March 2011

A Word from Ruthie

A different Ruthie. Very different.

I have been thinking lately about Ruthie; I miss hearing from her. For years while I worked at CBS News, I could count on two or three letters from her each day, chatty missives in which she improvised her own boldface type, tracing again and again over the words she wanted to emphasize in her childish, open cursive. Sometimes in her ardor, her ballpoint pen carved right through the notepaper; usually, she signed off with a cheerful “Luv ya.”

Ruthie was one of the more benign of the “Frequent Flyers,” as I dubbed the women who wrote so often to Dan.* Unlike them, Ruthie didn’t seem to expect anything of him, and she harbored no resentments for his failure to connect with her; if she believed, as the others did, that Dan was her destiny, she didn’t harp on the subject. And unlike many of them, Ruthie did not believe that Dan could hear her when he reported the Evening News.

It took me a while to figure out that, very often, Ruthie wrote while watching the broadcast, and that seemingly random statements (“Why, no, I did not know that about President Reagan”) were her responses to things Dan had said. It was a little harder to tell whether she thought Dan spoke directly to her — most of the other Frequent Flyers were absolutely convinced that the TV set was a two-way communications system devised solely for secret lovers. Mostly, Ruthie preferred to reciprocate, with reports on the news of her day.

We got a lot of viewer mail,
but I looked forward to Ruthie’s updates.

Much of this was charming:
“First, I need my shoes fixed. Next, I need my teeth fixed. Next, I need my hair fixed. Then, I’m ready for Christmas!”
But her day-to-day life was fraught with anxiety and torment, as she made clear in her exhaustive chronicles.

Her greatest concern was “peepers,” who had begun to spy on her during a stint in a mental hospital (where, presumably, she was held under observation) and who continued to harass her even now that she was living on her own again, in an apartment in a small Midwestern city. No sidewalk, no window, and no shower curtain (least of all!) was safe, it seemed.

The “peepers” were backed up by a vast army of malicious gossips, tattle-tales, and rich people who laughed behind her back. From her letters, I deduced that all these folks had been authorized by some provision of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was Ruthie’s bête noire, although it had never been voted and had long since fallen out of everyday discourse most places. In Ruthie’s estimation, the E.R.A. was the law of the land, and an abomination. She was a pious, churchgoing soul who proudly linked her name to that of the Rev. Billy Graham’s wife, but anger sometimes spurred strong language on her part, and she wrote often of “the damned E.R.A.”

Ruthie’s other great nemesis was the horde of “cheaters” who stood behind every cash register in town, or so it seemed. Never did she go to the bank, and seldom did she make any sort of purchase, without being shortchanged, sometimes grievously. She wrote about this in detail, too:
“I had 5 dollars today, and then I went to the store. The toothpaste cost $1.75, so now I should have $3.25. Where did my change go? Cheaters!!!
Living abroad and conducting transactions on the fly, in a foreign tongue (in which “ninety-five” translates to “four twenties-fifiteen” — as if doing sums in my head weren’t trial enough), I often find myself walking out of a store and replaying the scene, in the uneasy possibility that I’ve been shortchanged.

If I were only a little more like Ruthie, I surely would write out these scenes and share them with you, more or less as they happened. I might share my reactions to TV shows, too, and to the news of the day.

And now you know why I don’t have a Twitter account.

*NOTE: We didn’t show any of the Frequent Flyer mail to Dan or even discuss it with him. A man gets nervous enough, going in front of millions of people every night, without reminders that some of those people are pixilated.


Anne said...

Brilliant! Ruthie is now a character in my life. Your writing is a gift, Bill!

Zaira Vascalo said...

Whoa! Billy Graham and his wife meet president Nixon!!!