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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

Stolen Kisses Thanks to Chain Mail

How a Valentine’s Day chain letter brought on the kissing in college.

How a Valentine’s Day chain letter brought on the kissing in college
Stolen Kisses Thanks to Chain Mail

How a chain letter multiplied romance.

I picked up an anthology a while back because the title caught my eye, If I Had My Life to Live Over I Would Pick More Daisies. It’s a collection of stories and poems that begins with an essay by 85-year-old Nadine Stair:

If I had my life to live over... I’d dare to make mistakes next time. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.” 

Excellent advice. Advice to act on: February is a prime month for taking chances with Valentine’s Day smack in the middle.

First, I know the holiday’s widely known for celebrating romantic love. This year’s date-night is a Sunday (still need to nudge my husband -- eat in? Or make a dinner reservation?). It’s estimated that six million couples are likely to get engaged on Valentine’s Day this year. OK that can count for launching an adventure. 

And then there’s the grade-school tradition. I remember in childhood, since my mom was a kindergarten teacher, there were several years that we four kids hunched around the kitchen table with assembly-line efficiency to help her make 50 home-made “mouse” hearts (a heart cut out of pink construction paper, folded in half, with globs of glue to attach black felt eyes and a “tail” string) for her two classes. Yes, Mom taught two half-day classes with 25 kids in each! Now that was an adventure.

But one of my favorite kinds of adventures is experiences of taking chances that blow through boundaries and go with the flow and have fun and irreverence and bring about unexpected results. Valentine’s Day reminds me of one of these events where we threw a little caution to the wind and decided not to take ourselves too seriously. Remembering this is like a lesson to me – why haven’t I retained that spontaneity over the years? -- because what we found out then is that like throwing a boomerang, when you fling a little fun out into the universe it can joyously spin back compounded and bigger and better than you ever imagined or intended.

Snowy Senior Plot I remember we thought we were bold our senior year in college. We were bold and confident and sarcastic (Pam) and an instigator (Vicki) and maybe a little bored and ready for just about anything (me). It was our own version of the Year of Living Dangerously. We had rebelled (9-month protest: eventually lost); we had schemed (proposal for the first co-ed dorm: eventually won); we had streaked (another blog). 

We all attended a really great, mid-size liberal arts college perched idyllically on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Though tucked away in Illinois, the campus had an eclectic vibe, drawing students from across the country. Pam and Vicki and I had been lucky our freshman year. We each had upper-class roommates that were close friends and so introduced us to each other. It took about 60-seconds-flat for a PamVickiJoan solidarity to lock in. 

Pam was a Southern California girl with a witty streak of sarcasm she liked to toss out alongside the flip of her long hair. Her quiet remarks hit bullseyes of hilarity. When I met her, she’d already travelled to Europe a bunch and I thought of her as fearless and confident, a “world citizen” comfortable anywhere. Vicki was confident, too, because she was scary-good at making friends - thanks in part to a childhood of constantly moving as an Army kid - and I was attracted to her quick laugh and impressed by how she could connect so quickly with others. 

Our senior year we were just simply ready to graduate and get on with our very big, sure-to-be-wonderful lives when we found ourselves late one snowy February night, lounging around in the yearbook office, and talking about Valentine’s Day.  

Pam was editor of the yearbook so only the privileged few could be inside its musty room. This was before the digital age so it had actual metal file cabinets and boxes of photo prints and a couple of sleek electric typewriters. Vicki and I would unceremoniously shove aside whatever piles were around and sit where we wanted while Pam reigned in her editor chair. It was private and a favorite hangout. 

On the calendar loomed the traditional winter formal Valentine’s Day dance. Girlfriends in our dorm were buzzing about dates and dresses; rumors forecast that the decoration theme was “under the sea.” In previous years we had each gone to the dance either with crushes or current boyfriends; it had been fine, it had been fun. But frankly, now it lacked a little romantic luster. 

We tiredly talked through a list of guys as potential dates. Like playing cards we picked up names and put them down again. The dance’s implied sentimentality put us off. We didn’t want to signal romance when none was intended!

Our conversation meandered. We talked about past Valentine’s Days and high-school crushes and then middle school and then chain letters -- a middle-school staple. Today’s chain letters are usually sent via social media posts but back then they were snail-mailed. (The most common chain letter contained a list of people’s names. The letter instructed the recipient to send a dollar to each individual on the list, and then retype the letter, removing the first person’s name on the list, adding one’s own name, and then mailing the letter out to a half-dozen friends.) 

Yes, it was a pyramid scheme. Yet, it promised great riches! It also threatened dire consequences -- bad luck or even physical catastrophe -- if you “broke the chain” by not sending it.

An idea dawned: Instead of worrying about dance dates, should we send a valentine chain letter? We thought about our list of guys. Cute, fun, flirty friends...and drafted a letter: 

Dear Sweetheart,           This is a valentine chain letter. If you follow the instructions in this letter you will receive 15,769 kisses by February 14, 1981.           DON’T BREAK THIS CHAIN!           A man in Amarillo, Texas, broke this chain and was forced into a monastery while walking down a back alley. A woman from Paris, Arkansas, broke this chain. On her wedding day, when she turned to kiss her groom, he tripped on her dress, fell, and was in a coma for five months.           DON’T TAKE THIS RISK!           Here are the instructions: On Valentine’s Day, kiss the first three people on this list, then add your name to the bottom and mail the letter to six of your own friends immediately.            Pam *****            Vicki *********            Joan ******           HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

We looked at each other; well, the electronic typewriter was right there. Twenty minutes later we had 25 personalized letters. Disguising our handwriting we carefully addressed and sealed the envelopes then dashed upstairs. There was the interoffice mail slot. Maybe we had one pause of hesitation? Carpe diem! We dropped the envelopes in.

It was a Saturday night so we had to wait for the mail to be delivered on Monday.

And Valentine’s Day was not until the next weekend.

So we waited. 

We looked for signals, some kind of response from our chain-letter recipients? Nothing. 

So we waited some more. 

And some more.

And then the kisses began. 

Sidewalk swoop. Dining room dive. Hallway tackle. The first day I counted five. Library lunge. Classroom spring. The next day up to 13. Honestly, this was pretty fun. 

We got to be able to spot the look just before the kiss. We found a guy’s intentions to lay a wet one on you are a gleam in their eyes that can be spotted 20 yards away. Like they decided, yes, I’m going in.  

We lost count. Some kisses were brief, a few on the cheek. Some a little more committed. A few free-lancers jumped in! All good-natured; none were bad. And then always followed by laughter and hilarity. 

But the best, at least for me, the very best was George. George who carefully saved and tucked away the kiss promise, waiting patiently until weeks later and the end of the quarter when we were all stressed out by finals and Valentine’s Day was long forgotten. George who saw me exhausted from a long all-nighter of studying chose his moment and kissed me right then. Surprised I looked at him. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” he grinned. 

Reciprocal Love Thinking back now I really wish I’d remembered to be more spontaneous over the years. Not so careful or cautious. For after our innocent Valentine’s Day caper all of those friendships had buoyancy, a light-heartedness that lifts my heart even now.  

Does a light-hearted friend come to your mind? Someone from childhood that shared your secrets and dreams? Pranks? Does an individual come to mind? Then send them a mental Valentine note of thanks – now -- without delay. If you feel like it, share the name with me in our Comments or via email.

Nadine Stair must have felt an urge to celebrate light-heartedness too for her essay concludes,

“If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.”*

Break a rule. Have fun. Steal kisses. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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