ST. PETER, Minn. — From growing up in rural South Dakota in the 1950s to graduating from high school, moving to Minnesota, the milestones of marriage and children, and the ebbing and flowing of life's good and bad times, Lorraine Knutson's friendship with Merle Cantrell was unwavering. Since they were young teenagers, the friends corresponded from a distance of 9,000 miles, though they'd never met in person.
The St. Peter mother of eight just returned from a trip to Tasmania where she met her pen pal of 65 years for the first, and likely only, time.
"It was soon after I started writing, maybe five or 10 years after that I thought I really would like to meet her," Knutson told The Free Press . "But at one point I got the feeling she would never be able to come here because of her husband's health. So I thought OK, it's up to me. I just decided it's now or never, I'm not getting any younger and neither is she."
As a 13-year-old, Knutson's country school started a pen pal program through the International Friendship League based in New York, an organization that fosters global cultural connections. They put her in touch with a girl from England and a girl from Tasmania. While the correspondence with the British girl lasted a year, she continued to write to Cantrell in Australia.
"I think her and I just had more in common," Knutson said. "We were just always on the same wavelength of doing everything."
The two quickly bonded as teenagers. Later they found common ground as they balanced work, parenting and marriage, and both were fascinated with each other's lives on the other side of the world. Knutson had a map of Tasmania, but other than that her knowledge of Australia and Tasmania came from Cantrell, who had an equal fascination with the United States.
"I always had questions and she'd respond," she said. "She'd have more questions and I'd respond. It was always back-and-forth questions."
At first the letters arrived by boat, taking three months to get from one country to the next. Now a letter takes two weeks to arrive. Knutson estimates they've exchanged up to 400 letters.
The 10-day trip Knutson took with her daughter, Brenda, flew by quickly. After spending a couple of days in Sydney, they took a cruise ship to Hobart, Tasmania, a city of 200,000 where Cantrell and her husband live in a modest brick home. Cantrell doesn't have email, so the only photos Knutson had were dated. She still has the black and white wedding photo Cantrell sent decades ago.
The two met at the visitor center in Hobart.
"I looked at her and thought, I've seen her before," Knutson said. "Her face hadn't changed from so many years ago."
The two embraced and began to walk. Although she was nervous before they met, Knutson said they immediately connected like old friends.
"I had no idea what it was going to be like," she said. "I just visualized this friendly place, because of her."
She said it felt like time stood still. They talked about their families, politics, culture and the differences in health care systems. They met Cantrell's orange adopted cat named Pumpkin and talked about Tasmania's history of convicts making up the original population. Cantrell traces her ancestry to a convict who eventually learned a trade, raised a family and reformed himself.
That afternoon, Cantrell and her husband drove Lorraine and Brenda Knutson around the city, visiting the beaches and historical buildings, proud to show off their hometown. Brenda Knutson remembers driving over a major bridge connecting the city. Cantrell's husband, Jack, reflected on a life-changing event had happened at that exact location when he was a young man.
In 1975, a cargo ship crashed into the bridge, killing 12 people.
"Jack was actually a couple seconds from going over the bridge in Hobart when it collapsed," Brenda Knutson said. "He stopped his car, got out of it and tried waving other cars back, but they kept going down into the basin river there."
After spending the evening with their hosts, Brenda and Lorraine Knutson said goodbye and returned to their cruise ship for the voyage back to Sydney.
"I felt really emotional for a while, thinking how did this happen? And then it finally happened," Lorraine Knutson said.
When she got back to Minnesota, she did what she had done for 65 years; she wrote Cantrell a letter, filling her in one the trip home after seeing one of her best friends for the first and only time. She still goes back and reads through the hundreds of letters she's collected from Cantrell over the years, going all the way to 1953.
"It's fun reading back through them," she said. "It's just like two kids in school talking to each other. That's just the way it's always been."
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