There's not an office on Capitol Hill that doesn't get its fair share of weird letters -- strange communiques from America's Outer Limits.
But this batch took the prize. Neatly addressed, some on formal notepaper, each of them carefully lettered to the senator. There was only one problem. The letters inside were blank.
Not a word. Nary a caustic comment.
They came in the space of two days. A handful in the morning mail, another bunch at noon, more the next day.
"The Silent Majority has launched a letter-writing campaign," explained one staffer.
"The Republicans have decided to compile the wit and wisdom of the new administration," suggested another.
Closer inspection showed that the letters all originated in the same northern New Jersey suburb, where folks worry about the economy, getting to work if transit fares are hiked and the high school football team's chances for a winning season.
I tipped a local reporter, but he came back empty-handed. "It's a mystery, none of our sources know what's up."
So much for investigative journalism. My own curiosity took over. One of the names on a return address was in the area's phone book.
It must have been her father who answered. The call was passed to a female voice sounding young, nervous and just a wee bit embarrassed.
"We got your letter," I said, gently, not sure of what I was going to provoke, "and the senator was wondering what sort of response you were interested in receiving. . ."
"Oh, gee, you're really from Washington? I hope we're not in any trouble."
My lawyer friends always say that the three most common lies are "the check's in the mail," "I gave at the office," and "I'm from the government and here to help." Maybe that's why I felt silly saying. "Well, no, I just thought it would help if I called to see what issue concerned you."
She giggled. The "issue," I learned, was the teacher who terrorized a high school civics class by making them research and write letters to their representatives in Congress.
"She just checks the envelopes, you know, but she doesn't look to see if we actually wrote something."
Several days filled with gossip, rubber-band-shooting contests and discussions of the spring prom while the beguiling juniors of second-semester "Government and Civic Affairs" hoodwinked an American Secondary Educator.
Thus presenting a ticklish dilemma for the bright Senate staffer: Write back and you might blow their cover. Fail to write and you might incur the teacher's lecture on the responsibilities and etiquette of congressional correspondence.
"You're not going to tell our teacher, are you?" she asked. It was more plea than query.
Ten years earlier, to the month, I had been a high school junior. Our dodge was somewhat more artful. It was the first year of the 18-year-old vote and a group in my civics class was awarded "independent study" so that we could campaign for a friend running for city council. He won, we got "A's" and I never had to go to class.
"I'll make you a deal," I said, politicking as ever. "You tell me what issues concern you and I'll have the senator send you some information."
Long pause. "Well, I don't really know too much about politics and stuff. . ." Hesitation. "Can you just make something up?"
I asked what she thought of the draft, if she worried about budget cuts for education, what her views were on the economy. No use. "I must seem pretty dumb, huh?"
Not willing to surrender, I tried one more tack. "If you could change one thing at your school or around town, what would it be?"
Then came the answer which could have filled each of the dozen blank pages.
"There's nothing around here for kids to do, you know? I mean it's really boring some times. We have clubs and stuff, like cheerleaders and pep squad [she didn't make the team, but she was trying out again senior year]. Most of my friends hang around at the mall at night and just sit and talk. You can go to the movies but they're so expensive and we don't have any money, anyway [her father was a machinist, laid off late last year when his plant shut its doors]. The guys I know are dumb; they're always showing off or something. And school's not too great. I mean, I'm a good student and everything but it's not very fun.
"I guess that's what I'd change. I'd make it more fun to go to school and to do stuff around town. You know, I'd make it okay to be in volunteer projects and things like that. But I guess that's not the kind of stuff they discuss in Washington, is it?"
No, I thought, it's not. But long after I hung up and drafted a suitable reply, I found myself wishing that it was.