There was static.
And then an elegant British voice filled the retirement center dining room.
“Hello, Jack,” Tess West said on a recent afternoon. “Have you gotten more snow?”
“There’s nine inches out there now,” said Jack Gobble, 84, sitting in his wheelchair and facing a laptop screen. “We’re supposed to be getting more.”
Valentine’s Day was still a few days off. But Gobble and West kept their regularly scheduled rendezvous. Friends for 40 years, they have spoken to each other at least once a month by telephone for 30 years. Until recently, they had last seen each other 20 years ago.
He lives in Lansing. She lives in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England.
But in recent weeks, Gobble and West have renewed their relationship in an unexpected way. During Christmas, the staff at the Golden LivingCenter retirement community in Lansing introduced Gobble and West to Skype.
Since then, the two longtime friends have been made visible to each other again. They have been face to face across the six time zones and approximately 4,400 miles from England to eastern Kansas and renewing a devotion that, they both insist, never needed to be physical to be satisfying.
But first — how do they look to each other?
“He still has a lot of hair,” West said on a recent afternoon.
And she to him?
“She hasn’t changed a bit,” Gobble said. “Just a few more wrinkles — just like me.”
Gobble moved into the retirement center nine months ago, said Bruce Moreau, the Lansing facility’s executive director. Gobble began telling staff members about his friend in England and how they met in 1974.
It happened in Algeria, where Gobble was helping build a natural gas processing plant. He was a senior field engineer with Pritchard Corp., a Kansas City firm active in the petroleum and petrochemical industries. Black & Veatch acquired the company in 1985.
“I was working 800 miles out in the desert,” Gobble recalled recently.
“Then I was done and they sent me to the Mediterranean coast. I was in the chow line. Fred West stood up and motioned me to his table. Then his wife, Tess, came over.
“The three of us became friends.”
Fred West, an electrician on the same natural gas facility Gobble was working on, soon received a new assignment in Thailand. He and his wife left, and several years passed before Gobble received a letter from Tess West saying that her husband had died.
They started writing to each other.
Then they started calling.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Gobble visited West several times in her Lincolnshire home. About that time, Gobble said, he and his wife, Betty Ann, had separated and were preparing to divorce. He is careful to point out that his relationship with West never has been a physical one.
“When I was over there, she stayed in one bedroom and I stayed in another,” Gobble said. “You don’t have to have a physical relationship to have a relationship, and I think we’ve proved that.”
In the 1990s, Gobble broke his back moving furniture and his days of international travel ended. But he and West continued to talk. They took care not to miss scheduled calls, and Gobble said he definitely heard about it the one time he did.
“I had moved from an apartment I was at to my daughter’s place, and I didn’t call Tess for about six weeks,” he said. “The next time we talked she said, ‘Where are you?’ and I told her.
“She said, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ ”
At the retirement facility, staff members sometimes would help Gobble dial the many digits he keys into his telephone to call West. Moreau mentioned these calls to the Golden LivingCenter marketing director, who suggested they try Skype. During Christmas, Moreau brought his laptop to work make the online video conferencing possible.
“I told him that we had a surprise for him after lunch,” Moreau said. “Then we rolled him into the conference room.”
Noel Black, the center’s activities director, hooked up the hardware. Then Gobble saw West’s face on the screen.
“Jack’s face just lit up,” Black said.
It represented the first time since the mid-1990s that he had seen West, and she him.
“I told Tess, ‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ ” Gobble said. “And she said, ‘You haven’t either.’ ”
On a recent afternoon, West, 79, confirmed the details of their relationship.
“It’s always been platonic between us,” she said. “He’s just been a longtime friend over a very long distance.”
What, West was asked, does she so like about Gobble?
“I know it may sound silly to say it, but he is just such a good friend,” she said. “He’s funny and he has always been honest with me — at least as far as I know.”
West asked about Gobble’s weight. Gobble said that he was down to 129 pounds but that he felt more comfortable than he used to at 160 pounds.
He asked about West’s two grown sons and other mutual friends.
Soon it was time to sign off.
“I love you,” Gobble said.
West said she loved him too.
“I love you,” Gobble said again.
The screen went dark.
“We’re just,” he said, “close friends.”