Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I was listening to Michael Feldman’s “What Do You Know” program on National Public Radio last Saturday when the host made a statement to the effect that high school kids today have never known a time without cell phones. That simple remark set me spinning on the subject of how fast things are changing. Just on the topic of telephones alone, I have lived through an amazing array of technology.

The first telephone experience that I remember happened before I even started to elementary school. We were living in an old house in Goodman, MO., that was equipped with a crank phone hanging on the wall. My mom asked me to call my dad for some reason, perhaps to see if he was coming home for lunch. I pushed a chair up to the wall so that I could reach the telephone, cranked the handle, and put the ear piece to my ear. Violet, the operator, came on and tried to connect me, but it was just starting to storm and a loud noise came through the line. Violet came back on the line when the noise subsided and asked in a surprised voice, ‘Rocky, are you still there?” We tried again, but the connection couldn’t be made. I hung up the earpiece and had barely moved away from the telephone when a bolt of lightening came through the earpiece and left a black scorch mark on the wall. Timing was everything!

A year or so later we moved to a new house in Goodman and had a very modern black, rotary telephone that probably weighed in at close to ten pounds. The early years of elementary school brought occasional telephone conversations with friends, but the phone was in the living room and privacy was not an option. It was the only telephone in the household, and everyone recognized the need to limit the length of calls.

We moved to Riverview Court when I was ten. The court got its mail on a Noel, MO, rural route, and telephone service was from the perpetually sleepy village of Lanagan. Lanagan had crank telephones, but I knew how to handle those. Lanagan also had a telephonic concept that was new to me: party lines. A party line meant that several customers shared a telephone line. A half dozen or so households were on our party line, so making a call often meant having to wait until the neighbor was done sharing the gossip. If an emergency came up, the person needing the phone had to interrupt the on-going conversation. And it did need to be an emergency, because the person who was interrupted would invariably get back on the line and listen in. Each person on the party line had a unique ring code to let them know if the incoming call was for them. Ours was two long rings. A neighbor’s ring might have been two shorts and a long, or perhaps three shorts, or some other unique combination of shorts and longs. If you were calling someone else on your party line, you had to carefully crank out their ring code. Our telephone number was 7F2, and to this day I have no idea what that signified.

When I was sixteen we moved to the town of Noel. There we were blessed with rotary telephones again, but they were getting lighter and easier to move around. Our house had a rotary phone in the living room, and a rotary phone mounted on the wall in the utility room. The wall phone was an extension, so we were still limited to one person using the telephone at a time.

Push button phones began to make an appearance in the early 1980’s. The first time that I remember becoming aware of the enormity of that cultural change was around 1990 when I was a junior high school principal. A student came to the office to use the phone to call his mother. I directed him to an old rotary phone that was at an empty desk. He stared at it for awhile, and finally asked in a bewildered voice, “How do you start it up?”

In the mid to late 1990’s I worked in Child Protection for the state of Missouri. That job occasionally led me into remote areas where dangerous situations could arise. My agency began signing out “bag phones” to take along on remote visits. Of course, my county was so rural that most of the places we went were unable to get reception. Fortunately, county deputies often accompanied us with their radio-equipped patrol cars.

I entered the modern era in 2000 when I got my first cell phone. Since that time it has become a fixture in my life, and the necessity of having a land line at home has lessened to the point that I practically never use the one I have. But, in defense of my old fashioned values, my cell phone does not play music or games, compute, transmit television shows and movies, or take pictures. At least I don’t think that it does!

One more significant cultural change that has occurred over the years is the virtual disappearance of telephone booths. My first realization of this trend was in the movie “Superman” where Clark Kent (aka Christopher Reeve) prepared to jump into a phone booth to change into his crime fighting gear, only to realize that pay phones were no longer encased in booths! A few years later I was in London and heard that their famous red phone boxes were slowly being removed due to the public’s growing reliance on cell phones. Dr. Who did all of his time and space traveling in a British red phone box.

What’s to become of us mere mortals if Superman is reduced to changing clothes in an alley and Dr. Who has to take the bus?

Telephones have definitely evolved over the fifty plus years that I have been using them, but I have nagging doubts as to whether all of this evolution represents true progress. Are cell phones, the latest link in the evolutionary chain, great liberators that enable people to communicate anywhere at any time? Or are they virtual leashes that tie us to home, and office, and school, and the never-ending roar of civilization? Some days I yearn for the simpler time of crank phones and solitude – and the lightening be damned!

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