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Full Circle: Ring, ring, ding-a-ling

No doubt about it. I’m a telephone dunderhead. I used to be really good at telephone technology whereas now I am a gormless, pitiful, backward loser. The bald truth is — and I’m not proud of admitting this — I live in the dark, neanderthal phone ages. I might as well get out my old buffalo robe and return to my cave.

On the good side, I am shamelessly content being so dreadfully out of step. Actually, I’m not even going to apologize for it. I like an un-tethered life and freedom from constant verbal contact. Furthermore, in my off-the-line life, I never ever have to worry about disrupting a concert or a movie because my phone blares off in the middle of a presentation. Neither will I bring down a plane because I forgot to tap a button. And when I sit across the table from someone, I do so with undivided attention. My ears are all theirs.

It is also unnecessary for me to ever see a chiropractor because I additionally have very good neck health. You see, my head is never bent downward at a sharp angle as I squint at a tiny screen that’s lying on my lap.

Still, I will admit to envying the smarts it takes to use one of the newfangled phones. Gosh, they do everything! And how appropriate it was to name them “smart” phones. Sheesh! A whole lot smarter than I!

The telephone was invented 141 years ago by Alexander G. Bell. Since then his company has often been referred to as “Ma Bell.” (I’m not exactly sure about this, but it seems likely this may have had something to do with his mom.) But, just consider what would have happened if his assistant, Tom Watson, a Boston machine shop employee, had not been in the office when Bell first called him on that contraption? And if the famous words … “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” had never been heard? I mean what are the odds? Watson could have been in the bathroom or on a doughnut break. And if so, would we all still be talking to each other through empty Campbell soup cans held up to our ears with long, taut strings attached?

The truth is that no one will ever know for certain if Alex was truly the first person to invent the phone: three others also fervently claimed this title. All we know for sure is that the clever — and fast Bell boy — was the first to get to the patent office to register his invention. He beat out Elisha Gray by only two hours. And that is precisely why the phone company has never been called “Ma Gray!”

Some of you may recall with fondness the old telephone party line. It came through a wall-mounted, oaken-encased crank phone that in old photos always seemed to have been nailed too high up on the wall, just barely out of the comfortable reach of most females. Check out the old movies where the girls are always on their tip toes yelling upward into the mouth piece, giving the impression that talking on the phone was not only iffy, but also came with the risk of hurting one’s back or developing a severe crick in one’s neck. The caller was required to crank the handle to get an operator on the other end. (The operator, it should be known, was also the town fount of all good and bad information since she clandestinely heard it first, right along with her customers!)

When the phone rang, you listened for a combination of long and short rings. Each family had their own unique set. If it wasn’t for you, it was up to you and your high Presbyterian moral upbringing as to whether or not you listened in on the neighbor’s calls. Women were particularly good at doing this, but men with their hair-whistley noses and heavy breathing didn’t fare so well. Despite the juiciness of this clandestine act, listening in could be a very tiring activity as it required not only the woman to be deathly quiet, but also that no sounds come from her end of the line. The sign of a true expert was how well she hung up the handle in the middle of the neighbor’s conversation without making a speck of noise. Obviously this took some expertise, arrived at only through lots of practice!

The next major step in telephone development was the candlestick phone that was popular in the 1890s to 1930s. It had a long, droopy, cloth-covered cord attached to two pieces: the candlestick base with the mouth piece on top and a receiver that was held up to one’s ear. At first there was no rotating dial. Later this was added. At my house, we had the later model. My mom loved it. She especially liked it’s design during her four pregnancies, because the phone balanced so beautifully on the advancing shelf of her protruding stomach. As the pregnancies progressed into the ninth month, she could be heard boastfully exclaiming, “Look, Pa, no hands!”

The next iteration was a molded mouth piece and receiver in one black, boxy unit called the rotary phone. This required a finger to be stuck in the appropriately numbered hole, whirled around and then a wait for the dial to rewind itself so the process could repeated for the next number. I always thought that women who had long, red-polished fingernails looked especially classy sticking their sophisticated pointy fingers in those holes. I would add that only a few women in Austin had so suave a look.

Rotary phones came with a tightly coiled wire which resembled an extremely long corkscrew curl. I often noted that in some of my messier friends’ houses, these coils were in a jumbled twisted state, whereas I always made sure the one at our house was as God and Ma Bell intended it to be. Perfectly corkscrewed.

Who can forget the trepidation of making long distance calls? First you had to dial up the operator, give her the number you were calling and then wait while she called the number. The scary part came next when the operator asked the answering party if they’d accept the charges. This is where you got all sweaty and held your breath. The only people I ever called were my folks when I went away to college. I always hoped they’d be happy that it was me and they’d gladly accept the charges, the other option being unthinkable. Still I had nightmares of their leaving me abandoned with a dead phone in my hand … visions of eating gruel forevermore in an orphanage for college students.

Of course, the worst phones ever were the public pay phones. And that dastardly three minute rule! So skimpy and unfair. Whoever had the right change? Oh, the anxiety of counting out the coins on that itty bitty shelf, only to find you were a dime short. It seemed it was always your luck to have someone impatiently waiting in line outside the tall glass box, stomping his feet while frowning every time you glanced his way. To add to the stress of the gut wrenching experience, it was always either too dark to see inside the booth or it was raining! Usually both.

I will say this about the old phones, though. You didn’t have to know how to read or spell in order to use one as speaking or dialing the numbers was enough. One day my folks told me our old number had been changed. It was no longer Hemlock 3-5834. Now it was just plaine 433-5834. I regretted losing the “Hemlock” part because I thought it had a decidedly classy ring to it. Just try imagining Liz Taylor without her “Butterfield 8” and you’ll know what I mean. 

Who remembers Maxwell Smart, that bumbling agent in the TV series “Get Smart”? Think back to his mobile phone. It looked like he had a great big black shoe up against his ear with an antennae rising into the clouds. But, wait! He did! Admit it. We thought he — and it — were ultra jet set cool, never imagining ourselves having anything so mod. Wow! Who could have predicted the future of the mobile phone? And aren’t we happy Steve Jobs didn’t have a shoe fetish?

In 1983, Gordon Gekko had the first Motorola Dynatec 8000x mobile handheld phone. It was an off-white clumsy monster weighing 2 pounds. At 13” long, Gordon affectionately referred to it as “the brick.” It cost his studio $3,995, which in today’s market would be $8,806, an expensive brick by anyone’s estimation. This was the one cellular phone available and in only a year’s time there were 91,600 cellular service subscribers in the U.S. One year later that number had jumped to 340,213 with a waiting list in the thousands.

Truth be told, I actually do have a cell phone. It is one of those flippy phones designed for simple folk like myself. I never turn it on, but nonetheless faithfully carry it in my purse in the event of an emergency. I find it annoying that it must be charged up, while at the same time grateful there have been no emergencies for which it was needed. No one knows my cell phone number, including me. I wrote it on the cover.

So, now you’ve got the picture. Where it remains true that I am in awe of smart phone users and their ability to, in a moment, call up the cyber universe, I remain staunchly backward, still unconvinced I need to join them. Seems I’m somewhere back there with Lily Tomlin seated in front of her old fashioned switchboard. Her hair is done up in large sausage-sized curls and through her deeply rouged and repetitiously licked lips, she is speaking in a lispy, nasally, snorting voice, “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” Something tells me that Lily may be also struggling with smart phones.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing maggiemamm16@gmail.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”