Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How News Travels

Once upon a time a baby boy was born in Goroka, Papua New Guinea. The year was 1975, and the baby boy's parents were missionaries in the mountainous jungle. Of course the parents were eager to share the news of their infant's birth with their own parents, who lived far away in BC, Canada, and in Florida, USA. There was a telephone available to them at mission headquarters, where, for an exorbitant long-distance rate, they could call home with the news.

Details followed in a blue aerogram, folded up, licked shut, and put it in the mail. About three weeks later the message arrived, and the extended family rejoiced to hear the details of the baby's safe birth. The same protocol was followed for the birth of their second son in 1976 and their daughter in 1977.

In 1980, a baby boy was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Once again the parents of this little boy wanted to share their joy with their relatives in North America. The grandparents who lived in BC, Canada, also wanted to know that their youngest daughter had safely arrived to visit her sister and help care for the little family. Telephone service was even more erratic from this country, and these missionaries couldn't afford the rates.

A friend of theirs, a ham radio buff, set out to get all this news north over the airwaves. He contacted an operator in Panama, who located an operator in California, who found one in Washington state, who phoned the baby's grandparents collect. All these ham radio operators relayed the messages back and forth: "We had a baby boy, and the baby's auntie arrived safely for her visit." And then, "Congratulations!"

Into this extended family no more babies were born overseas. But three of the five sisters served as career missionaries in Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Senegal. Blue aerograms regularly flew back and forth over the oceans, and occasionally fat envelopes with photos. One year out of five, the families returned to North America and the grandparents got in all the loving they could in the brief time they had.

In 1998 the grandfather of the clan suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes. By an act of God, his daughter from PNG had visited just six weeks before, and the other four daughters were all at his bedside that week, comforting him and their mother and each other in the days before his death. But by this time internet had been invented, and with it, email. Although the sister in PNG did not have internet access in her tribal location, the mission headquarters in Goroka did. Every day emails were sent to Goroka to be read to their other sister over the regular radio skid. She did not have to wait until a little blue aerogram arrived in the mail weeks later, telling her that her daddy had departed for heaven.

Now it is 2010, and the youngest of the five sisters became a grandmother for the first time sixteen days ago. This precious baby girl's other grandparents live in Chile, not far from the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck the day before she was born. This did slow down the news of her safe arrival somewhat because phone, internet, and power lines were in a state of disrepair. Still, within a few hours of their granddaughter's birth, the news found them. By the third day, they could access their email and download a dozen photos. Not long after that, they watched the baby wiggle and squirm in her daddy's arms via video Skype while hearing all the details in real time.

Technology has wrought tremendous change in the way we communicate around the world in just the past thirty-five years. How has your family measured these changes?

Valerie Comer is the youngest sister in this true story--true as far as she remembers the details, at least. She is the sister who visited Bolivia in 1980 and became a grandmother on February 28, 2010. She writes novels of romance, fantasy, and faith from a farm in Western Canada, though these days she finds it hard to tear herself away from her granddaughter long enough to accomplish anything else.


  1. When we returned to the US in 1998 we were amazed at how many people still didn't know much about Internet. We missionary types had jumped on the band wagon early because it made such an incredible difference in our lives! When my eldest was born in Brazil in 1978, I was able to telephone my mother (for a few expensive minutes!), but when I wrote one of those aerograms, it would take 3 weeks to reach her, and another three weeks for me to get her reply. Once we made the mistake of sending photos and the negatives for copies in the same envelope, which tore open in the PO and arrived empty. I feel very blessed to see my grandchildren so easily even when we are on opposite sides of the earth.

    Congratulations, Gran!

  2. Oh yes! I have a whole box full of precious blue airmails from when we lived in East Africa and that was our only contact with home! What I would have given for a phone or the internet, but since we didn't always have electricity or water, what hope was there of a phone???

  3. LeAnne, when my husband and I got internet and, with it, email in 1998, we knew almost no one with an email address! What a hard lesson on the photos and negatives.

    Heckety, for my sister in Senegal it was the same. Internet took much longer to become available to them in the eastern corner of the country, and they did without for most of their years there (1980-2000). As they also did without any but home-generated electricity.

  4. Valerie, great post! It's easy to forget how difficult it used to be to communicate long distance. Gorgeous photo of your granddaughter - congratulations :-)

  5. Valerie,
    Great post and beautiful granddaughter - congrats!
    We got our first email connection in South Africa when our daughter and family went to the mission field in Venezuela, but communication was difficult, with dial-up and erratic phone lines.
    Then they moved to Kazakhstan, where we now enjoy contact with them, albeit not that often, through Skype. How wonderful the way technology improves communication.