Number, please

How did anyone ever survive without telephones? Think about it. How did all the many peoples, civilizations, and empires in human history function or flourish without them? I feel partially undressed if I forget my cell phone!

When I was a young adult, someone brought to my attention how many cultural and technological changes my parents witnessed in their lifetime. They were born in 1907 and 1908, about 20 years after the invention of the telephone, but not all that long in terms of technical advances. Telephone history However backward their lifestyles seemed, horse and buggy, outhouse, etc. the Smart household in Michigan had a telephone. I’ll bet that phone had a cloth wrapped cord, may have been mounted on the wall, the kind with the separate ear piece, and I bet it had a crank to ring up the switchboard instead of direct dial. Like one of these ? Yes, “direct dial” used to be a real phrase. I have a candlestick replica. Still as clunky to use as ever but it looks great.

As with all technological advancements, they come one at a time starting with those who can afford the higher introductory prices. Remember when mobile phones required a special antenna and weighed at least pound? Not too long ago, was it? A statement was made when the Edina hockey team lost a game that the parents put their car phone antennas at half mast.

Smaller communities waited in line for the used equipment after the bigger and wealthier upgraded. That happened in Litchfield. My sister in Illinois had caller ID a good 10 years before we had it. In the 60’s, Cameron’s phone systems were embraced by Galesburg and were eligible for fancy dancy stuff. (Maybe a Cameronite reader has some corrective input if I am a little off the details mark).

Along with the new invention that became forever embedded in world society came a new set of rules. Phone etiquette began and grew with time. With each new advancement, the rules were adjusted.

Once upon a time they just rang. Period. Same ring. All phones. When we got our first phone, I was about 14. Fourteen!!?? Good grief! Before we got a phone, I remember my sister’s boyfriend calling her to tell her he was coming from Great Lakes Naval Station to visit. Someone had to come to our house and take her across town so she could talk to him. So, yeah. They were married in ’66. Even though it was 1964 and phones had advanced in the 30’s or 40’s to multiple styles and colors, Cameron still had the central switchboard. The phone was black, no dial, rented from AT&T, and oops, I can’t remember how we “rang up” Blanch Utzinger at the board, which was in her house. I do remember our phone number was 5,3 on 5. Huh? The first 5 represented a long ring, the 3 was 3 short rings, that’s how we knew it was for our house, and “on 5” meant we were part of party line #5. When one household was rung up with their coded set of rings, all phones on the party line rang too. That made it easy for you to get news firsthand if you were quiet enough to pick up and listen.

Now we have to teach our family the proper procedures of phone etiquette. 1. If you wish to use the phone, and it had better not be long distance, gently pick it up to see if someone else on the party line is using it. 2. If so, gently put it down without comment, do not stand there and listen. 3. If no one is there, contact Mrs. Utzinger…nicely…and tell her who you want to call–having the number handy is a plus.

Anyone outside Cameron was long distance, and not cheap. While we were still on that system, a new resident to Cameron, a high school age guy by the name of Harry S. Truman, wanted to make a long distance call to an old friend. (Didn’t his mom have a sense of humor when the nurses wanted her to fill out the birth certificate? An argument for no drugs during childbirth.) He called the switchboard and gave Mrs. Utzinger the information. She thought he was playing a prank, and after much excited verbal exchange, she pulled the plug on him. The only way out of this was to find his birth certificate, cross the street and introduce himself.

By the time I was a sophomore or junior, we had a yellow dial phone and both Monmouth and Galesburg were toll free. So Shirley and I could talk every night and I could get yelled at every night that I was on the phone too long. Progress. BTW, the cords were still permanently installed by a company phone guy. No do it yourself cords and jacks yet.

One of the first decisions polite society had to make in the early days was how to greet the caller. Believe it or not, there was a controversy. The natural “hello” prevailed. Individuals are free to use their own options but please do remain polite. “What!” is unacceptable. The phone rings, you answer it. Yes, you can let it ring, but few could stand the curiosity and of course it could be an emergency so dash for it. Mom loved her phone connection to her friends. She eventually ordered one or two extensions and when AT&T’s monopoly was broken up, and phones could be purchased, Dad put one in the bathroom. (This is fine. Just don’t flush while on the line, please.) Up to that point, if she were stuck there and the phone rang, she would call back everyone she knew and ask if they called. This was before answering machines, before voice mail, before caller ID. These advancements tell us if the caller is not known, allow us to be contacted in an urgent situation while we are indisposed or if we’re not home, and, without argument, these features are progress.

Now we screen. This is convenient in case a telemarketer or collector or a prankster calls. Just turn the volume down and check the messages later for quality content. “Quality” meaning someone I want to talk to. I consider everyone I know by name “quality”. Family is highest priority. Also included in the quality category are dental and doctor office personnel that need a response. Responding in a timely manner gives legitimacy to the caller’s existence.

Our primary phone in Litchfield was on the corner of the dining room wall. As soon as I could I had a 20′ cord installed so I could reach all corners of most of the upstairs while talking. Predictably, one day I was chatting away and noticed there was no flexibility in the cord, turned around and saw the cord wrapped around my toddler son’s neck and his face was really really red. Praise God for cordless phones.

Stan’s mother was local and she would call almost every day. Sometimes twice a day. We were mere blocks apart but phoning was part of the relationship. If there wasn’t much for us to say, she would talk to the kids sooner than later. But every conversation started with her saying “Checking in!” My mom and I would talk at least once a week. While talking about budgets, I would remind Stan that the long distance bill just is, that’s all. I will be talking to Mom. If I didn’t call her by 10 days, she would call me with a momly comment about having a broken arm, or holding out or give me some little tweak that we would giggle over. Yeah, yeah, Ma, you know how it is. I really don’t sit in front of the TV all day. Long distance was priced according to the time of day too. There were few peak hour calls before 6:00 or 7:00 pm, whatever the first discount time was, but occasionally I would need a recipe during “business hours” and talk fast and write fast.

Voice mail and answering machines have eliminated the dash factor, and the frustration of not knowing who wants you. They have allowed us to return calls immediately if need be, know when a call doesn’t need a response–just information, and the convenience of finishing what we’re doing first. Callers need to know to leave brief messages, their number, their name if by some chance the callee doesn’t recognize the voice. New phone etiquette.

How times do change within even one person’s life span.

Lee sent me a letter, not typed either, but actually handwritten. I need to answer, but mine will be typed to retain legibility. Maybe I’ll call her too. It will be later today or tomorrow, but soon. We’re busier than the proverbial bee today cleaning for company, mowing, cooking. (We invite people over just to give ourselves an urgent reason to clean.) Lee’s on my quality list. We don’t talk every week, maybe we should talk once a month. Where is my day planner, anyway?

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