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Mail Call - Waiting for the Note in the Bottle

EVERY afternoon, when the mail truck pulls up to a high-rise condominium in Florida, a small drama begins to unfold. As if on cue, residents emerge from elevators and hurry toward the mail room. Some hover around the mailman, waiting impatiently for envelopes bearing their names. Others assume an air of nonchalance, quietly reading notices on the bulletin board until the mail is distributed. But whatever the individual pose, the mood is unmistakable - the anticipation and hope that accompany mail calls everywhere.

For some, the mailbox will yield a bounty - a letter from a daughter in the Midwest, perhaps, or a postcard from a grandson in California. For others, it will contain only a disappointing mix of bills, junk mail, and catalogs - or, worse, no mail at all.

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This daily gathering of Sunbelt retirees at the mailbox makes a touching scene. It is a reminder of a ritual repeated in homes and apartments, colleges and camps, barracks and prisons around the world. It reflects a universal longing - the hunger for words that come in the familiar handwriting of relatives and friends. Yet in an electronic age, when phones are more expedient than pens, personal letters seem increasingly quaint - remnants of a quill-pen age that existed long before faxes, voice mail, and telephone credit cards. The old request, ``Drop me a line,'' has been replaced by a new imperative: ``Give me a call.''

As if to remind the reach-out-and-touch-someone crowd that letters offer something that even the chattiest phone call cannot, The Times of London last month printed two pages of letters Nelson Mandela sent to his family during his 27 years in prison. As husband and father in absentia, Mr. Mandela emphasized the importance of family letters - and the anguish of days when mail call yielded nothing.

``As long as I don't hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert,'' he wrote to his wife, Winnie, when she was detained by authorities and unable to correspond. ``Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.'' Then he added, ``Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love.''

Mandela's letters are reminiscent of those of another famous political prisoner, Vaclav Havel, whose prison correspondence to his wife was published last year in the book ``Letters to Olga.''

``...I'm sitting down to write you because the day on which letters may be sent is drawing near,'' Mr. Havel explained. ``First of all, I forgot, as usual, to wish you a happy birthday. Forgive me! ... I'll buy you a present when I get out because as I remember, you don't hold much with presents from prison, especially the kind made out of bread.''

Yet even the restrictions on prison mail outlined in these ``Dear Winnie'' and ``Dear Olga'' missives remain a luxury unknown to 18 Westerners being held hostage in Lebanon. Today is the fifth anniversary of Terry Anderson's captivity. Beyond the physical cruelties he and his fellow prisoners have endured, there is the mental cruelty of spending five years without once sending a letter home, or opening an envelope containing firsthand news of loved ones.

The value of a letter can be measured only by those condemned to do without.

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The voice on the phone is a quick fix for being separated. A letter is a lifeline. One cannot imagine a play being constructed out of a series of telephone calls the way A.R. Gurney has composed a full-scale drama out of ``Love Letters.''

It is not just Abelard writing to Heloise or Ellen Terry to her beloved George Bernard Shaw. Every personal letter may become an act of love on one level or another - something to keep life going for both writer and recipient.

Nelson Mandela spoke the final word for himself and for all letter-hungry people, from Florida condos to political prisons, when he wrote his daughter Zeni that it was the letters and family photos ``reminding me of the happy days, when we were together, that makes life sweet and that fills the heart with hope.''

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