Love and war and cyber-dating

July 28, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Looking for love online? Or, like us, simply hooked on Hooking Up, ABC's documentary series about online dating that airs tonight? Today and for the next two Thursdays, we'll share a tale, as told to us by a reader, of the good, the bad and the ugly of online dating.

Caleb Johnson likes to say that Jaclyn Zendrian saved his life.

Three years ago, he was a 19-year old Marine at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Zendrian was a 20-year-old College of Notre Dame student who was living with her parents in Forest Hill. He was looking for a friend; she was looking for a pen pal.

They found each other through what was then known as excite.com. Months of computer and phone chats led to an August 2002 meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The online friends soon discovered that their connection transcended cyberspace.

During that blissful summer week, Johnson woke at 5:30 each morning, worked a full day, then made the three-hour drive from base to beach. The couple would catch a movie, walk on the sand, watch fireworks from the pier. Then Johnson would drive back to the base - by 1 a.m.

"I knew by the second day on the beach with her" (that he was in love), Johnson said. "She was in person exactly what she was like on the phone. She was so nice. I couldn't get enough of her."

Unfortunately for the romance, Johnson was deployed the following week for a six-month stint in the Mediterranean.

In the old days, the new couple would have gotten to know each other over dinners and more movies. He would have brought her flowers. She would have introduced him to her friends.

Instead, they "dated" virtually.

Through almost daily electronic missives, she discovered that he enjoyed "loud, awful metal" music. He learned how stressful she found business management classes. She comforted him when his old dog, Fonzo, was put to sleep. He supported her through exam weeks.

Then the war began and Johnson was sent to Iraq. He managed to e-mail Zendrian twice while patrolling the border towns along the Euphrates.

"It was the longest six weeks ever," Zendrian recalled.

When Johnson came home, he spent the next eight months calling, writing and occasionally driving from Camp Lejeune to visit Forest Hill.

"Then we got bad news again," Zendrian said.

Johnson was sent back to Iraq.

This time, however, he was assigned to an office setting instead of infantry duty.

Perhaps because of his penchant for writing e-mails, he says, "Someone thought that I was a computer whiz."

He figures he just may owe his life - physically and emotionally - to the cyber pen pal whom he plans to marry this fall.

Hooking Up

When: Tonight (and for the next two Thursday nights) at 9

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: An addictive and revealing look at online dating from the team that made Hopkins 24/7.

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