In my youth there were occasional periods when an ardent swain would write to me every day. But it was not until recently, at the ripe age of 72, that I began to be wooed by an attractive man who has sent me not just one, but often four and five letters a day. His name is Edward Kennedy.
The deluge of unsolicited mail from politicians had not yet started a year ago when, upon returning from a three-week trip, I searched through a half-bushel basket of mail to find less than a dozen bills and personal letters. As I searched, I became impressed with the number of times the same organization had sent me the same letter.
Picking out the 10 most frequent repeaters, I decided to see how often they wrote to me during the year. Two population-control groups accounted for 57 pieces of mail, including one letter that came 10 times. Three woman's rights groups sent a total of 45 letters, one of them repeated 12 times. Mail from two gun-control groups added up to 33. Two international relief agencies ranked next with a total of 29. And one obscure medical college sent nine letters, eight of them identical.
Altogether, these 10 organizations accounted for 173 pieces of mail and added almost 15 pounds to the annual load the postman brought and the trashman carried away.
Actually, they made up a rather small part of the annual contents of my mailbox. None was among the 35 organizations that won checks from me, not to mention the far larger number of others that did not.
According to the U.S. Postal Service, 7.3 billion of the 27.5 billion pieces of third-class mail last year came from nonprofit agencies. Postage alone cost these agencies $213 million even though twe taxpayers also contributed $423 million in subsidies to help them keep our mailboxes filled. The totals include pleas to my neighbor for causes - anti-abortion, pro-gun for example -- that my letters opposed. With his checks, and mine, and yours, the volume grows.
Can it be curbed? Unlikely. Widespread use of computerized fund-raising techniques dates from the early 1960s and has now become big business. The local Yellow Pages lists 28 firms under "Fund Raising Counselors & Organizations," and this does not even include the two biggies: Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company for liberal causes and Richard A. Viguerie Co. for conservative causes.
Mass mailing seems like a shining El Dorado for almost any cause. If you can beg, borrow or steal enough money for your first "small" mailing of 50,000 to 500,000 and employ a firm that is competent to produce and test an appealing product, select good mailing lists and analyze results, you are on your way.
One national organization, struggling along with 8,000 true believers, "went public" (the jargon for embarking on mass mail campaigns) just three years ago and now has 78,000 contributors who finance an annual mailing of four million pieces to 500 mailing lists plus a vastly expanded action program. Many more such examples indicate that, once hooked, people tend to stay hooked.
Should the flood of unsolicited mail be curbed? On days when you throw all your mail away or see a favorite candidate defeated by single-issue voters whose passions have been stirred by demagogic letters, you'd surely say yes.
On the other hand, when you feel impelled to do something about a human need or public issue and a letter comes along offering you just the chance you wanted, you -- and according to one survey, 81 percent of the rest of the public -- are willing to put up with the "junk" for the occasional "jewel."
So, until some genius finds a better way to support the causes that depend upon our contributions, the mailman will continue to stagger to your door and mine.
I no longer count the mail from the 10 who wrote most frequently over the past year, but there seems to be no letdown in their efforts. Ted Kennedy is less faithful. I fear he has dropped me, but this blow has been softened by a new correspondent. John Anderson is now "my jo," as the poet Robert Burns wrote of another John Anderson long ago. I got five letters from him in just one recent day!
So even if the Postal Service fails in its current campaign to get people to write personal letters, I can count on a full mailbox which, I guess, is better after all than a forlornly empty one.