It's not just strangers you can meet on the Net. Long-lost friends and relatives can come back to haunt you, too, as Bruce Tober discovered
It's amazing the things that can pop up in a person's e-mail. In November last year there was a letter from my most recent ex-wife. It was the first I'd heard from her since I'd divorced her eight years earlier. A rather friendly series of e-mail messages ensued for a short while. Not surprisingly, it ended after about three months.

Then last night, I found the following missive:

"Dear T Bruce Tober

"I came across your freelance info in searching the Web today. The name sounded close enough to the name of a special student I taught in high school in New Jersey in the Wonder Years: 1961-1964.

"The school was Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, NJ, where I was the newspaper advisor (HoofPrints) and where one Bruce Tober was the staff photographer."

Mr McNally, the e-mail's author, was one of the leading influences on my going into journalism (though, since he left the school before I graduated, and it had therefore been nearly 35 years since I'd last seen or heard from him, he never knew that).

In the past two years I've heard from a select few other friends and relatives with whom I'd drifted out of touch for as much as 15 years and who located me via the Net. Of course, I'm not alone in experiencing this phenomenon. Many others, especially those of us who are very active on the Net, have had similar experiences.

Some of these virtual "reunions" are wonderful and long-lasting. Others, rather more negative and short-lived. And some are just downright weird.

For example, early last year I received an e-mail message from one Steve Miller. He explained he was working on a genealogical chart of his family. In doing the research for it, he found my name on the Net. Steve is my nephew by my late first wife.

We had lost touch about 15 years ago. Since his message to me we have exchanged information and pictures of family and had a good time renewing an old friendship.

Then there's my ex-wife. She contacted me wanting my son's e-mail address. We had some friendly correspondence back and forth for about three months until, just after last Christmas, it appeared I might be moving back to the States.

She heard about this from my son and decided I was doing it to be near/with her. She warned me in an e-mail against my doing so and terminated the correspondence. Ah well, my reasons for the possible move (which never did happen after all) had absolutely nothing to do with her, but hey...

And then there was the e-mail I received from a former colleague. He wondered if I was the same Bruce Tober he had worked with at a paper in New England. I responded that I was. I never got another message from him even though I wrote him a second message. Never could figure that out.

So how to go about finding a long-lost friend or relative on the Net? Well, chance encounters are always fun. Participating in newsgroups and mailing lists will often result in you recognising the names of such people who share a similar interest or career.

Slightly less chancy is the use of one of the major search engines. Mainly geared to Web site searches, they will also do searches of Usenet newsgroups. To search Usenet specifically, there are search engines such as DejaNews (www.dejanews.com) and Reference.COM (www.reference.com), both of which are very powerful.

But to really key in to finding people, the most effective means is the use of "white pages" search engines such as Four11 (www.four11.com) (that's four-one-one, not four-ell-ell) or Internet Address Finder (www.iaf.net). Four11 and some other directory sites allow you to enter search criteria other than just the person's name.

Such sites also allow the searcher to enter the age, employers, schools and other criteria for the person they are seeking. This is possible because the sites have databases that visitors can use to set up their own records. For example, I could enter my birth year and place, the name of my high school and the names of some of the newspapers I used to work for.

Who knows, doing such searches you might find that girl you left behind on your long-ago holiday in Florida. And when you do get in touch, you could find she now lives just down the road from you. Or perhaps you'll find the guy you had a crush on in college all those years ago and that he, like you, is again single and still holds a torch for you

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