There are some things in life that are reminders of who we once were, yet also of how we’ve changed into who we are now. The telephone is one such item.
As I recently dialed my parents phone number, just to check in on them, I thought about how their set of 10 numbers, randomly assigned to them by Ma Bell when Lyndon Johnson was the president, has been a constant for my family for over five decades. No matter where I’ve been in the world, if I needed them, had good news or bad news, or just wanted to say ‘hello,’ I could dial those numbers and instantly reach them. And I still can.
The telephone has become so much more than Alexander Graham Bell could have ever imagined.
It’s gone from something that only those who had quite a bit of money could afford, to being quite common and affordable for most people.
In the early years of my life, my family didn’t have a phone. If someone needed to reach us during an emergency, they would call the nearest neighbor, who would walk over and tell us we had a phone call.
Neighbors were a lot closer and friendlier in those days than they are now.
It must have been when I was in about third grade when my parents were able to include a phone in the monthly budget. The telephone man arrived and, under my mom’s direction, he installed a phone on the kitchen wall in that small house on Beech Street.
It was a yellow phone with a long cord that allowed my mom to either sit at the Formica dinette table and talk, or hold the receiver between her shoulder and chin so that she could carry on a conversation while making a meal.
I watched her cook many a cast iron skillet full of fried potatoes and breaded cutlets while laughing and talking to her mom or one of her siblings.
Suddenly, we were uptown. We had a phone. No air conditioning (that would come later), but we had a phone.
It’s probably difficult for younger people to imagine a time when a phone was a luxury and there was only one in a house. And, its use was highly policed by the parents. Kids weren’t allowed to just pick up the phone and call anyone they wanted. If your grandmother called you or an aunt dialed you up to say ‘Happy Birthday,’ it was a big deal to be able to use the phone.
Also, calling long distance was almost prohibitive. All phones then were operated by one phone company. Consequently, they could charge whatever they wanted for a minute of talk time. That’s how monopolies work. So, it was rare to be able to speak to a family member or friend in another state, or even one town over. Sixty seconds of talk time could cost an hour’s wage, or more.
Many an argument and teenage groundings occurred when a phone bill would arrive and someone had run up the bill talking to a boyfriend or girlfriend that was a long distance call.
So few people had a phone in my hometown that you only had to dial the last few numbers to reach someone. That made it easy for me to remember any number I needed to reach my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or people from church.
Today, thanks to cellphones, I remember very few numbers now. All I have to do is open my phone and tap someone’s name to ring them up.
Something else that’s changed: Younger people these days will never know what a dial tone or a busy signal sounds like. Used to be, if you called someone, the dial tone (called that because almost all phones then had rotary dials) would be there from the time you took the receiver off the hook and when you began dialing the number.
There were pros and cons to this. If someone talked a lot, you had to keep trying to reach them if you got a busy signal (beep, beep, beep). That told you one of two things: They were home, but talking to someone else, so you had to wait your turn, or they had taken the phone off the hook because they didn’t want to talk to anyone.
With all of the telemarketers today, that’s a feature I miss. Wouldn’t it be great if you could still take the phone off the hook if you just wanted to be left alone for awhile? You can turn your cellphone off, but leaving the receiver off the hook looked and felt more defiant.
Also, there used to be a bit of excitement when the phone rang. You never knew who it was. There was no caller ID, so you found out who was ringing you when you answered the phone. Not today. You see who’s calling and can either let it go to voicemail, put them on hold, or conference them in with the person you’re talking to so that everybody on the line can have a chat.
Phones today also have replaced many other things that used to have a role in our world. Taking photographs used to be an expensive proposition, especially if you were using color film. Most cameras took film rolls that held up to 36-exposures, which would then have to be mailed off to be developed. It could take a month for the photo prints to return, and you weren’t guaranteed that they’d all be good. Some could be blurry, or poorly lit, but you paid anyway and got what you got.
Today, our cellphones can take thousands of photos, and if we don’t like them, we can delete them and take another. We can then instantly send that photo to someone else’s phone or computer. We also now can talk live to each other through video on our phones. I’m still astounded by all of this.
Modern phones also have calculators, weather information, news, and through the internet, access to any information we want. Information that used to require looking through the set of encyclopedias your parents bought for you on a payment plan, or from a trip to the library.
And all of this is quite affordable. Amazing.
For those who are still young, I’m sure that all of this is taken for granted. But, every time I use my cellphone, I’m still in awe of the fact that I don’t have to stand in the kitchen to talk on a phone that’s bolted to the wall.
Except at my parents house. They still have a phone that is plugged into the wall. The phone is now cordless, but that landline is still how they communicate. That same set of 10 numbers is what I dial if I need them, have good news or bad news, or just want to say ‘hello.’ I like that I can still dial those numbers and instantly reach them.
It’s one thing that’s been constant. And I like the way that makes me feel.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.