The funniest thing about the chain letter is how many very important people were terrified by it.
The chain letter has been circulating for some months now, mainly in media circles all over America.
Like most chain letters, it promises you bad luck if you don't send it on and good luck if you do.
The chain letter has gone to such people as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., deputy publisher of the New York Times; Benjamin Bradlee, executive editor of a newspaper in Washington whose name I can never remember; Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times; Art Buchwald, nationally syndicated humorist, and Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
These are busy and important people. If you should send them a letter out of the blue asking them to do something for you -- like hire you or give you $5 -- I am guessing you would never get a reply. (Well, Buchwald might send you the $5. But he's a notoriously soft touch.)
Yet each and every one of these men responded to the chain letter. They had copies made, made a list of five friends to send it to, wrote a note and passed it on.
And when you read their notes, you sense something beneath their lighthearted humor: You sense their terror.
Each one was convinced that if he did something entirely sensible like throwing the chain letter in the garbage, something awful would happen to him.
And so, as reasonable as they were, they dutifully passed the letter along. I know. My chain letter arrived a few days ago. I got it from my soon-to-be-ex-friend Mark Starr, Boston bureau chief of Newsweek magazine.
The chain letter said:
"This letter originated in the Netherlands and has been passed around the world at least 20 times, bringing good luck to everyone who passed it on. The one who breaks the chain will have bad luck. DO NOT KEEP THIS LETTER. Do not send money. Just have a wonderful efficient secretary make four additional copies and send it to five of your friends to whom you wish good luck. You will see that something good happens to you four days from now if the chain is not broken. This is not a joke. You will receive good luck in four days."
Attached to this were the various notes from the past recipients.
Sulzberger wrote: "You'd think I would have more courage than to send it on to you."
Bradlee wrote: "A man will do anything out of fear."
Coffey wrote: "How can it hurt?"
Buchwald wrote: "This is the best sex I ever had" and then added "the last person to break this chain was seated next to Morton Downey Jr. at a dinner party."
Hunt wrote: "I don't fly on Friday the 13th. I don't walk under ladders; when my favorite baseball team, the Philadelphia Phillies, are winning I don't change my underwear -- thank God they've had a string of losing seasons -- and I'll be damned if I'm going to break a chain letter."
As I said, the undertone is one of fear, although I would think these guys would be even more fearful of approaching their secretaries and asking them to copy something as stupid as a chain letter. (But then I only had a secretary once, and she so terrified me that I used to bring her coffee and ask her if she minded if I took an early lunch.)
Mark Starr, the swine who sent me the letter, wrote: "The Red Sox are in first, and I don't dare risk becoming the Bill Buckner of '90. Forgive me."
Bill Buckner, as you may know, was the Red Sox first baseman who let a ground ball go through his legs in the sixth game of the World Series in 1986, allowing the winning run to score. He has never been able to explain missing that ground ball. Except maybe he forgot to pass on a chain letter.
Although I am now making fun of all this, I was genuinely angry when I got the letter. It makes you feel obli
gated and embarrassed and cowardly all at once.
I called Starr and asked him why he was participating in something so stupid.
"You want the truth or you want something funny for your column?" he said.
The truth, I said.
"The truth is I was flying in four days with my wife and daughter, and it seemed dangerously willful not to send it on," he said.
And did you get good luck? I asked.
"Well," he said, "we didn't crash."
And it's hard to ask for better luck than that.
Now, I must decide whether to send this letter on. If I do, I will have to make a ton of photocopies and spend $10 in stamps and pick five people whom I either want to help or doom.
It would be much easier for me just to sweep it off my desk and into the trash can. I am not a superstitious person.
On the other hand, I am flying in a few days.