I just threw away six telephones. I cannot believe that I really did that, but yes I really did. So why is this bothering me?
My Granddad lived to almost 101 years old. I enjoyed the occasional conversation I had with him in his final years, and one of my favorite topics was exploring some of his early memories.
He was born in 1894 in a small town in Massachusetts. One thing he remembered as a small child was the first telephone coming to town. It was installed in the town’s general store and he recalls being quite sure that the whole thing was a hoax. There simply had to be someone standing on the other side of the wall talking back at the user. But it was not a hoax, as we are all well aware.
As a kid I can recall my mother being quite proud of the fact that we had a private line. As opposed to a party line, where (this is for the benefit of you young readers) up to four families shared one line so you didn’t always get to use the phone whenever you wanted to. She was also proud that we had an extension – in other words, we had two telephones in the house! Each of which had been hard-wired into the wall by a unionized employee of General Telephone Company.
Every telephone call was kind of a mystery. When it rang, you answered. At least it worked that way in my house. If you were far away from the phone you ran to answer it and hoped you got there before the ringing stopped. Because you had no way to know who was calling. It could be a friend or relative with important news. It could be Dave King on WANE-TV’s Dialing for Dollars. Maybe the reason we never won money from Dave King was because someone didn’t make it to the phone on time.
I recall howling with laughter the first time someone pointed out to me that our telephone book had a listing for General Telephone Company under the letter “F”. For Fone Company, of course. I am not kidding – I wish I had kept one of those books.
When I got to a college dorm one telephone had to serve two rooms – it was mounted in a swiveling cylinder in the wall so each side could access it. We each had to sign up for a personal long distance plan. My roommate once turned ashen when he opened his long distance bill. He had gotten into what he would call “telephone liquor” and had run up a bill of over $100. Which was a *lot* of money in 1978. “They’re going to kill me” was repeated several times. “They” (his parents) did not because they never found out.
When renting my first apartment in college we still had to go to the phone company to get one of their Western Electric telephones (which, fortunately, we could plug into the wall ourselves). They had stopped charging extra for colors.
About three years later we were allowed to buy our own telephones. I recall going to Target and picking one out. It was a cheap basic one and cost me $7.99. I don’t know why I remember this – probably because I was sort of amazed at the time that I was actually allowed to buy my own personal telephone.
Which did not help when you were out somewhere, which is why we were always advised by our elders to keep change in our pockets in case it was necessary to make a call from a pay phone. Something that was found everywhere back then. Until you really needed one, in which case they were all an impossibly long walk away.
I got out of law school and bought a good telephone – a fancy one with several programmable auto-dial buttons. Which was a great feature. Until you bumped the wrong one by mistake, because it led to a really awkward situation. Was it best to confess that you had not meant to call the friend or relative who answered? Or was it better to scramble to come up with a reason to talk to them and thus pretend that you had intended to call them all along? I never did figure that one out.
Long distance remained a big deal. Every month my office would pass the phone bill around and each of us had to identify a case to bill every call to, or to claim it as a personal expense and reimburse the firm.
In the early 1990s I lived next door to a couple in their mid 90’s. One day I was talking to Curley over the fence between our yards, quite some distance back from our houses. During our conversation we heard his wife loudly call “CLARENCE!” He turned around and yelled “WHAT IS IT!” The reply came back “ITS THE TELEPHONE!” I felt like a pretty high priority when he yelled back to the house “TELL ‘EM I’LL CALL ‘EM BACK!” But then came the trump card: “IT’S LONG DISTANCE!” Curley looked at me with a look of resignation as he yelled “I’M COMING!”
It was around that time that I signed up for one of those prestigious gadgets that would allow me to make calls from my car or be able to summon help in case of an emergency. The handheld ones were so much more convenient than those mounted in the car or that you carried around in a bag. See – not being an early adopter has its benefits. But in any case, it was something for only occasional personal use because it was outrageously expensive if you made too many calls. There was, of course, no way these things could ever replace a real telephone.
But I was wrong about that last part, and in the last couple of months I have cut all of our telephone cords and lived the life of a millennial by relying solely on my cell phone. Really, the idea that everyone has a personal telephone that they carry with them all the time still seems as magical to me as the big one in the town store did to my grandfather. Although I know that there isn’t someone standing on the other side of a wall doing the talking.
With no calls coming in, Mrs. JP made the rational suggestion that there was no reason to have telephones sitting around everywhere. And she was right, of course. So I gathered them up and unceremoniously threw them in the trash. Truly, it was as big of a moment in my life as buying that first telephone for $7.99 at Target in 1983. Except that the telephones I threw out cost a heckuvalot more than $7.99.
So here I am, with nary a wired telephone anywhere in my house. But . . . if you promise to not tell Mrs. JP, I will let you in on a little backup plan that I have in the event of an apocalyptic rush back to the old-style Fone Company. Somewhere down in my basement I am certain that my little white $7.99 Target phone is still there, just waiting to be plugged in. Just in case.
Photo Credit – Western Electric Model 500 rotary dial desk phone from the Flickr page of Joe Haupt promoting a vintage telephone to be sold at auction.
Along with vintage advertising from the Bell Telephone System.