The following is a letter I sent my sister for Christmas 1988 in my best attempt to explain why her present would be late. She kept the letter, the dot-matrix ink faded with the years, so I now get to share with you a very early story of mine.
For those of you who are younger, I need to explain that 1988 was the dark ages. We were still a decade away from the founding of Google. Six years before Amazon. The internet was not in common use, so you couldn’t pull up a retailer’s website and order online. Companies couldn’t email you with updates because few people had email accounts or personal computers. You received actual catalogues in the mail, called a toll-free number for a customer service center, placed your order, and read your credit card number to them.
Your purchases were packaged by the selling company and shipped to arrive several days later. The concept of overnight package shipments was fairly new, quite expensive, and not quite reliable, so few people were using it for Christmas presents. And since one company dominated the overnight delivery system at the time, to “Fed Ex” something meant to send it overnight.
Most importantly to this story, you couldn’t track packages online. Not only was the internet not in common use, but few companies placed data online for others to view. Fortunately, I worked for a large company, so Federal Express had assigned customer service representatives that we could call and they would look up a package status on their internal network. Laugh now, but we thought that was quite cutting edge at the time.
With all of that in mind, envision my sister reading the following letter, Christmas Morning 1988:
Once upon a time (the Monday after Thanksgiving) in a land far, far away (Hickory North Carolina), a loving brother (me) placed an order with a catalogue company in an even further land (Maine) for a Christmas present (yours).
The customer service agent regretted to inform me that the item was backordered. Yes, the dreaded curse of the wicked backorder. But the company promised, “We will send your package just as soon as we can.”
Three weeks later, this past Monday, six days before Christmas, I received a phone call. “Your package has just been shipped via Federal Express.”
Federal Express. Great, after all, this company’s slogan is “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”
So ends Monday.
Tuesday dawned. Federal Express came to the office and delivered many packages. Ellen, our receptionist, sorted the packages and called me with the verdict. Zilch.
I called Federal Express. Cindy answered my query, “Yes, sir, we can locate your package without any problem. What is the package number?”
“The package number. What is the Federal Express number on the shipping order?”
I am receiving the package, not shipping it, so how could I have the shipping number? I called the shipping company and the courteous staff provided me with the shipping number.
I got Federal Express back on the line, asked for Cindy, and gave her the number. “Yes, sir, let me just key in your package number and we can locate your . . . uh, oh.”
For some strange reason, I realized that these were Mike Smith’s last words just before the space shuttle he was piloting exploded over the Florida skies. Shaking this thought off, I asked her to explain her words.
Instead, she replied, “Can I call you right back?”
Did I hear anything else that day? Of course not.
So ends Tuesday.
Wednesday dawned. Federal Express came to the office and delivered many, many packages. Guess what? Have you heard this story before?
Empty-handed, I called Cindy at Federal Express again, started off by thanking her for calling me back the day before, and then asked for a status report.
“Yes, sir. We located the package yesterday in Miami.”
Florida? I wanted to ask how Miami got into this, but I decided that some things are best left alone. I simply asked when I would be receiving the package.
“You mean you didn’t get the package today?”
Why would I be calling if I had received the package? To congratulate them on their success?
“Oh. Well, let me just key in the package number and we can locate your . . . uh, oh.”
We have been here before.
“Can I call you right back?”
Promises, promises. But, like a fool, I agreed.
The phone was quiet for the rest of the day.
So ends Wednesday.
Thursday dawned. Federal Express came to the office and delivered many, many, many packages. I don’t think I need to explain the result, so let’s just skip to the phone call.
“Yes, sir, it got sent through Atlanta rather than straight to Memphis.”
Atlanta? By chance, do we know where the traveling package is at the moment?
“You mean you didn’t get the package today?”
I did not even bother to speak.
“Oh, I guess not.” Federal Express obviously has a genius test you must take before obtaining a job. “Well, let me just key in your package number and we can locate your . . . Ummm, that’s not too good.”
I had to ask. I just had to.
“Well, the computer says your package arrived in Memphis but then was placed on the wrong flight.”
“Uh, well, it was accidentally placed on a westbound flight.”
Exactly how far westbound?
“Uh, well, Los Angeles.”
I guess it could have been worse, but, at the moment, nothing came to mind. Instead, I asked Cindy a simple question. What had I done to offend Federal Express?
“Excuse me, sir?”
Never mind. Can we possibly get the package by Friday?
“No problem, sir, I will have them mark it for special treatment.”
So ends Thursday.
Friday dawned and Federal Express came to the office and delivered many, many, many, many packages. But . . .
I picked up the phone and pressed the two-digit code – since I had now programmed Federal Express’ number into speed dial.
Cindy answered the phone, heard who it was, and asked, “Did the package not arrive?”
A growl escaped me.
“Well, let me just key in your package number and . . . Hmmmm. I don’t understand that.”
“The computer says, well, . . . hmmmmm.”
Cindy called out, “Bob, can you come look at this? What does this mean?”
Fear hit an all-time high as I envisioned a foreign port being listed on her screen. If only I had been so lucky.
Bob picked up an extension phone. “Sir, we seem to have misplaced your package.”
I wanted to ask what the rest of the week fell under if we had just now reached the misplaced stage. Instead, I asked, my voice quaking in fear, where?
In the most professional voice Bob could muster, he replied, “We don’t rightly know.”
I was so caught off guard by this answer that all I could do was stutter, excuse me?
“The location is blank.”
I considered threatening terrorism in Memphis, but instead I fell back on sarcasm:
Sir, this present is very special. It is for my sister and I wanted to give it to her for Christmas. But, hey, no problem, I can solve this for both of us. You see, her birthday is September 22 and I can just give it to her then if you can guarantee delivery by then. If not, well, Christmas 1989 is right around the corner.
Bob did not have a sense of humor. But, he did keep his temper which was good for both of us. “Sir, I will personally guarantee that this package will be in your office on Tuesday morning.”
I asked Bob if he was a betting man. Bob still had no sense of humor.
So ends Friday.
Out there somewhere is a lonely package. Or, perhaps, not so lonely since other packages were surely marked for special treatment by Cindy. When, and if, it ever arrives, I will send it to you.
But not by Federal Express.
By the way, Bob asked me to wish you a Merry Christmas. Honestly.
Your loving brother
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