Carroll Dale Short

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We Networked Socially Before It Was Cool

By Dale Short

I'm not as old as I look.

In fact, the Social Networking movement so popular and influential today was already starting to get off the ground when I was in grammar school. Back then, though, they called it “pen pals.”

There were several cultural organizations that thought it was a good idea for American schoolkids to exchange letters with their counterparts in other countries. So all the students in our fifth grade at Colley Elementary in West Jefferson were assigned overseas pen pals.

We randomly drew index cards with addresses from all over the world. My pen pal, as luck would have it, was from Japan. I couldn't believe my good fortune, since I'd learned just enough geography by then to realize that Japan is about as far from Alabama as you can possibly get, without going into outer space.

As often happens with me, I got a little obsessed with the idea. Just the sheer syllables of the name and address sounded so cool I memorized them, and spent hours daydreaming about what this kid, his parents, his house, his school, etc., actually looked like, and how their voices sounded when they talked to one another.

I was soon corresponding with one Masao Nemoto, who lived on a street named Oohbu in the neighborhood of Kisaraju, in a city called Chiba, Japan. I looked it up in the library and found that Chiba was an industrial city about the size of Birmingham, and that Chiba was roughly the same distance from the metropolis of Tokyo as West Jefferson was from Birmingham, which helped me kind of keep everything in perspective.

Obviously this was 20-something years before the computer revolution, but don't presume that our methods of correspondence were low-tech. For writing overseas, we used a fancy contraption called an Air Mail Envelope. It was basically a piece of light-blue stationery that folded into its own container. And to save on weight, since it had so far to fly, it was slightly more flimsy than a sheet of bargain toilet paper.

Trying to write on it with a ballpoint or pencil without accidentally punching holes in it was a great test of manual dexterity for our young fingers. As an added advantage, when our parents tried to show us how to do so but ended up punching holes in the paper themselves, we learned intriguing new vocabulary words that would come in handy in later life.

In any event, my back-and-forth letters with Masao were pretty uneventful and mundane, on either end. Could part of this have been the language barrier? Possibly. It never occurred to me why the pen pals all wrote us in English but we would never have to learn their own languages. I guess I assumed it was a law or something.

Our correspondence rocked along in this fashion for several months until my lack of patience got the better of me and I suggested to Masao that we swap school pictures so we wouldn't have to keep imagining what each other looked like. I went first, sending the very tiniest and thinnest wallet-size photo possible so as to not exceed postal weight limits.

So far, so good, I thought.

Except that I never received another letter from Japan. Masao and Oohbu and Kisaraju and Chiba may as well have vanished, the way cities in Japan always did when Godzilla and Mothra and those other movie monsters got through stomping and flapping on them.

I was not distraught or anything, but I was clearly bummed out. My mom and teacher offered various theories as to why our promising young international friendship had gotten nipped in the bud.

What if Masao's father had taken a job in a different city, and during the confusion of packing and moving they lost my address? Or, what if the Nemotos didn't have much money, weren't able to afford pictures, but Masao was embarrassed to tell me this?

These weren't happy scenarios, but they sure beat the ones going through my head—such as the possibility that he'd seen from my photo what a dork I was, and had moved on to better things. It wasn't exactly like losing a friend, I decided, because I didn't even know what he looked or sounded like. So I moved on, too, to my next obsession: the American space program.

In the years since, when I've been at particularly large libraries, I've made half-hearted efforts to look Nemoto up. All I found was that the name that had sounded so exotic to me was somewhat the Japanese equivalent of William Jones, so even if I had a Tokyo phone book I wouldn't be much better off.

This week, on a pure whim (or as we call it in Shanghi, Alabama, a “wild hair”) I decided to search on the Internet. Facebook has two guys by that name but both are in their 20s, so I can exclude them.

Google, however, has a ton of information on a Masao Nemoto—coincidentally, my age--who's a high-level executive for Toyota, and is author of the book “Total Quality Control for Management: Strategies and Techniques.”

Considering my lifelong experiences with managers and quality control, I'm probably his worst nightmare.

Sometimes things work for the best. Sayonara, buddy.

You sure make a good car, though.

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