Don’t break the chain

First, my best friend got struck by lightning. The next day, my high-school buddy suffered a heart attack while boarding a bus. But the upside is that a man who works near me is now $7 million richer.

Such would all be true if certain threats and promises really came true.

But first some background:

One of my teachers at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Ständige Angst, did a good job of convincing us of consequences. “If you fail to put others first, you will suffer,” she reminded us.

Many of us in the fifth grade class in 1949, must have carried around this fear of retribution most of our lives. Specifically, there’s still something in my early parochial schooling training that puts fear into me over broken promises and failing to do what’s asked.

I struggled with this for years, around the time chain letters made the rounds. Out of nowhere, I’d receive a letter from a prior acquaintance who never knew I existed.

In this letter were instructions: pass it on to 10 friends, with the stipulation that each of them do the same. Have any idea how quickly things multiply? Are there enough stamps in circulation to accommodate all the recipients? What is 10 to the 30th power, for example? That number would soon be many times the world’s population. And think of the revenue the Postal Service would accrue, and the work mail carriers would need to perform.

And for what? To exchange a recipe. To insert a whole dollar. To send a prayer or poem.

The most recent e-mail I received came from a woman in Springer. The header says, “Read this alone.” Accordingly, I adjourned to the smallest room in the house, away from prying distaff eyes, to what? A poem that encourages some good old-fashioned virtues like being kind, helping others, not procrastinating. But great poetry it was not.

Before the poem appears, the reader wades through various scenarios. In one case, a woman fails to forward the poem and loses her love, who gets killed in traffic.

In Case No. 2, the recipient doesn’t forward the mail to enough people and meets a horrible fate.

And what’s behind Door No. 3? The recipient sends the e-mail to the required 10 people within the specified 45-minute span, and now is blissful, humming, “Just Molly and me, and babies make five . . .”

Invoking the nun’s lesson on promises, I thought back to when I placed duty on the par with promise. That is, if asked to do something, such as forwarding a chain letter, I often complied.

The nitty-gritty of the e-mail, the poem, refers to two old friends, one always on the verge of dropping by to visit the other. But, as Macbeth would say, “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ to the last syllable of recorded time.”

The upshot is that good intentions are not enough. He waited too long, and one day he received a telegram announcing that his friend had died. The scenario is believable — sort of — until we learn he got a telegram. Who receives telegrams anymore?

Often, chain letters remain alive because of fears of what happens when people break the chain. In my youth, I kept the chain going because I heeded some of the consequences indelibly impressed on us by Sister Ständige Angst.

Chain letters often thrive because participants heed the horror stories about those who refuse to play the game. And what if, given the laws of chance, a person were to become injured after discarding the chain letter? Well, we need to be sure the deletion caused the catastrophe and didn’t merely precede it.

The uncertainty could be the reason chain letters thrive, even if the postage and duplicating costs for mailing 10 letters is a fortune.

I believe any time I get a chain letter, it will have been sent under duress: the sender feels obligated to pass it on, fearful of consequences.

A common chain letter contains names of people in the mix. If the chain breaks at any point, that eliminates thousands of prospective zillionaires. Remember, if the “donation” is 10 dollars, your 10 friends will have chipped in 100 dollars; they in turn spawn 100 people worth $1,000, then $10,000, up to $100,000, and more. But by the time the 12th generation appears, we’re talking trillions of dollars.

I confess to having participated because of the fear of depriving others of a chance at wealth and happiness. I believe only once I won a game of Old Maid, in my youth, and therefore have never deluded myself into aspiring to win the lottery or anything else. I leave such aims to new millionaire J.P. Baca of KFUN radio.

Chain letters have been around for eons. A post card from the 1930s instructs the recipient to copy and forward the card to 10 others. The terms are simple: Do it and receive good luck; fail to do it and you will have bad luck.

Way back then, before Xerox machines, presumably people needed to hand-write or type each forwarded letter. Today it’s oh-so easy to pull out a bunch of names from our computer’s address book, hit the forward button, and the deed is done. In fact, I’m about to hit the “enter” key now.

… But in spite of cyber-age technology, I got carried away writing this column and failed to forward the poem to 10 others, in the allotted 45-minute span.

I blew it! Here come seven years of bad luck.

One thought on “Don’t break the chain

  1. Ben Moffett

    May I sent this out to everyone who sends me a letter with a threat in it, because I get one nearly everyday. I am guilty of keeping my extended family in extended poverty, I guess.

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