When I pulled my iPhone out of my purse, the other day, I saw that I had missed a call, a few minutes earlier, from my friend, Tina. Better call her back, to see if it was something important. Two finger taps later, I was ringing Tina's number, which was stored in my Contacts list. While I was talking with her, I heard a “ting-ting,” which alerted me to the fact that someone (Tim, as it turned out) had texted me. And all of this happened while I was out shopping.
I know cell phone technology has been around awhile, and that my kids hardly remember a time when it wasn’t, but to me it is still amazing.
When I was a child in Portland, we had the standard black rotary phone. It was on a party line, so we had to listen to the pattern of the ring to know if it was a call for us or not. It was, of course, considered rude to listen in on another party's conversation. If we accidentally picked up the phone and heard talking, we were supposed to hang up promptly, to give the other party privacy. Of course, whether you were granted the same consideration all depended on who you shared that line with.
From Oregon, we moved to Alaska, and took a step backward in telephone technology. It was 1957, and Juneau didn’t yet have rotary dials. In place of a dial, a solid black disk was attached to the front of the phone. To call someone we had to lift the receiver, wait for the operator to answer, and then give her (it was always a “her”) the telephone number, which was a color+3-digit-number, such as “Blue 357.” The operator would ring the other party and make the connection once they answered. It wasn’t too long after our arrival that Juneau made the big move to dial phones, and caught up to the technology we had known back in Portland.
"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?" (Lily Tomlin, Laugh-In)
Long distance calls were expensive and rare, usually made only in times of emergency, such as dire illness or death; or in times of celebration, such as the arrival of a new baby. Even though we now had dials on our phones, long distance calls still required the assistance of an operator. Often the trunk lines were busy, so the operator would take our information and call us back when a trunk line became available. On holidays, the wait could be quite long.
To illustrate the rarity of long distance calls, here is a copy of a newspaper article, that ran in my Texas pen pal's hometown newspaper, telling about the phone call she (Ruby Nell) and I planned, executed and paid for ourselves. You'll need to click on it to enlarge and read it. Quite newsworthy, don’t you think?
But what happened if we received a call, back then, and we weren’t home? The answer, of course, is “nothing.” Nothing, at all, happened. The caller hung up and tried again later. There was no way to leave a message, no way to text, and no way to talk with me while I was shopping. (Shopping in Juneau in 1957 just might deserve its own blog.)
As a Juneau school kid – third grade through twelfth – I survived without being constantly tethered, by phone, to my mom and dad. If I got sick or hurt at school, I went to the nurse’s office, and she called my mom. If I forgot my homework or my lunch, too bad! That wasn’t considered an emergency, so I couldn’t use the office phone; we learned quickly NOT to forget our homework or lunch. If my plans changed, and I wanted to go to a friend’s house after school, I waited until school was out and used a pay phone, down the street at Juneau Dairy (where I also bought a Fudgesickle, if I had enough change after placing the phone call) to call Mom and ask permission. Knowing nothing else, we didn't consider this an inconvenience.
So, returning to the 21st century . . . I love my iPhone. I keep my calendar current on it, I have friends’ contact information with me at all times, I can access the internet, I can play games, I can take pictures and even videos, I can store and show-off photos, I can send and receive email or text messages, I can read books and listen to music! It’s almost magical to me, to be honest - very "Star Trek-y." But there was something sweet and simple about the days before rotary dials, answering machines, and cell phones, and I’m glad I have those memories.
Excuse me. Someone's calling.
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