The bubbly 15-year-old American girl and the 19-year-old British man had nothing in common.
She loved Sonny and Cher and The Beatles. He loved science fiction novels and American blues and soul music.
But the unlikely bond they forged as pen pals in 1965 still thrives today.
Last week, 65-year-old Gay Smith, of Baton Rouge, and 69-year-old Dave Wood, who now lives in Spain, celebrated their 50th anniversary of writing each other and sharing their everyday lives.
“We hit it off in a strange way,” Wood said while visiting Louisiana. “We had virtually nothing in common, not only in our personalities, but in our lifestyles, which were worlds apart.”
In September 1965, Smith was the president of the Sonny and Cher fan club and living in northern California. Her sister’s English pen pal had mailed her a photo of a new band clipped out of a British music magazine.
Smith noticed the other side of the clipping had readers’ letters and included the writers’ addresses. So she sent letters to all the letter writers, asking them to be pen pals and to join the Sonny and Cher club.
When Wood received the letter, he had several pen pals from the United States, Japan, Canada and South America, connections made through the science fiction world. He had no interest in Sonny and Cher and wrote a ridiculous, nonsensical letter back to Smith.
“I am 3 feet tall, with a crooked nose, crossed eyes, bandy legs, protruding teeth and long hairy arms,” he wrote.
“It was a very silly letter,” Wood said. “And incredibly, she replied to that. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Smith was intrigued.
“He sounded so interesting,” she said. “I had to keep writing so I could find out what the heck this guy was about.”
They wrote about their regular lives. She would tell him about school and her girl friends. He would write about work at the post office and the “folksy” band he and his friends had started.
He thought California was the most exciting place in the late 1960s, while she viewed England as the center of the musical world. Like many teenagers, she loved The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and other British bands. He loved American musicians, such as Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett.
“If it had been that dull, it wouldn’t have lasted,” Wood said. “There was something going on there.”
The pair never talked about politics or anything very deep, they said.
When Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, or other major news events occurred, they mentioned them in passing.
“I would laugh out loud at his letters,” Smith said. “He had a very dry wit. I was always bubbly.”
While they claim their letters were mundane, they were obviously special. Each wrote two letters a month, and they would dash off postcards if nothing interesting was happening.
“It reached the point where if I didn’t write to her and she didn’t write to me, we would have felt really bad,” Wood said. “We felt comfortable with each other in spite of our differences.”
Their relationship grew, even as Wood did not approve of Smith’s exploration of drugs as a teen. He warned her repeatedly that “she was going to end up lying flat on her back in the gutter.”
For a year, they argued about drugs, but they never stopped writing.
“Then, we got back to the way we were,” Smith said.
They grew up, Smith living the flower child life in California, and Wood working at the post office. He married, became a father and eventually moved to his wife’s hometown in Spain, where he has lived since 1989. She married a man from Baton Rouge and moved here in 1983.
Over the years they have visited each other a few times. In the 1990s, they started faxing letters to one another, then Wood finally got a computer about a decade ago so they could email.
Wood’s wife passed away last year, and Smith’s ex-husband died a few years ago.
To celebrate their half-century together, Wood flew to Baton Rouge, and Smith made him a plaque engraved with copies of their first letters. She still wears a necklace he had made for her 20 years ago with his traditional letter greeting: Dear Gay.
“It is amazing,” Smith said. “Every time we think about it, it’s amazing. He’s such a big part of my life.”