- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

BASSETT, Va. (AP) David Ballard kept the letters in a cardboard box in his top dresser drawer. He saw them each time he opened the drawer, and he wondered what became of the Austrian girl who wrote them.

Nearly a half-century had passed since he joined the Navy and lost track of his old "pen friend."

Mr. Ballard was in fifth grade in Bristol, Tenn., in 1946 when his teacher asked students to bring in clothes to send to Europe for the post-World War II recovery effort. Mr. Ballard brought in a dress his mother gave him, and safety-pinned a note to it with his name, age and address.

Nearly two years later, a letter covered in ornate orange stamps arrived at his house. Somehow, his note made it to 15-year-old Gerlinde Preis at a Catholic boarding school in Russian-occupied Vienna, Austria.

"I know very well that you Americans want to make peace in the world and our people are very thankful therefore," she wrote in the first letter. She signed it, "Your pen friend, Linde."

Miss Preis wrote of the fun she had at school. She'd wait until after the sisters turned out the lights to turn her lamp on and write. Many of her friends had pen pals, but none were boys.

"My fellow pupils begged me to ask you for addresses of comrades," she wrote. "Our convent sisters are rather severe against all letters coming from boys. But I said to one of her, she must not be afraid of you. There is the ocean between."

But times were tense in postwar Austria. The envelopes containing Miss Preis' letters were often taped shut, apparently after being opened and read before delivery. One had sections removed with scissors.

Once Miss Preis went to a camp for children from all over Europe. She wrote a letter from camp that read: "This is the first time I can write to you without being endangered that my lines will be catched by the Russian censorship."

In 1952, the correspondence ended, but Mr. Ballard kept Miss Preis' letters.

A friend once visited Vienna and sought information on Miss Preis at her old school, but had no luck. Mr. Ballard's brother, who lived for a while in Germany, searched unsuccessfully for her, too.

Last spring, Mr. Ballard wrote to the Austrian ambassador in Washington, who forwarded his letter to the Viennese police.

On Dec. 5, Mr. Ballard found a letter in his mailbox covered with unusual, ornate stamps. He knew exactly what it was.

Miss Preis is now Gerlinde Fitx, a college professor. She is 68 and married to a civil engineer.

Mr. Ballard is 66 and retired from a career in the Naval Reserve and in management in the furniture industry. His wife, Yvonne, is not at all jealous of Mrs. Fitx.

Mrs. Fitx, who speaks four languages, has three children, all boys: a doctor, a civil engineer and a lawyer. The Ballards have a son and a daughter, an airport manager and a laboratory scientist.

When she saw Mr. Ballard's address, she looked up Bassett on a road map left from one of her five trips across the United States.

"It seems to be a destiny having found each other after so many years," she wrote.

The best Christmas present he'll get this year, Mr. Ballard wrote to his pen pal, is the letter from her.

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