Want to have some fun? Try handing a youngster a dial telephone, and then asking him to show you how it works. What happens next will be a study in consternation, and the rough equivalent of a scholar struggling to decipher ancient writings on the Rosetta Stone.
This farcical image came to mind, recently, as I watched a news story detailing the removal of the last pay phones still in service in New York City. Alas, I thought, individuals without a cell phone (if there are still such luddites out there) will no longer be able to enjoy the experience of lugging a pocketful of quarters, dimes and nickels to a telephone booth, or checking random pay phone coin return slots for forgotten change.
Though now obsolete, pay telephones along the highway offered motorists a sense of security in the event of a breakdown. But those of a certain age will recall a time when it was necessary to insert a coin in the appropriate slot before one could even reach an operator or get a dial tone. In other words, if you found yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere and you needed to call someone for assistance, you had better have some coins close at hand or you were out of luck.
Those familiar with the mountains and forests of upstate New York know that, while beautiful, parts of that region can be incredibly remote and inhospitable. As a State Trooper patrolling in some of those desolate areas before cell phones or even portable radios (circa 1970), I always kept two dimes taped to the inside of my Stetson. The purpose of those coins was simple: if my vehicle ever became disabled in an area where I could not make radio contact with my station, I could trudge to a pay telephone. Fortunately, I never had to take such an extraordinary measure.
Thinking about even more-ancient forms of telephone communication, I am reminded of the day my boss told me I had to call home … emphasizing that it was an emergency. Unfortunately, my boss’ order was complicated in several ways … it was 1964 … I was in the military … stationed at a facility in the mountains of Taiwan … and there were no such things as cell phones or even phone lines back to the States. To call my family I had to, first, arrange for a Transpacific line which could not be set up until the following day. Then, after taking a bus to Taipei, I sat in an assigned booth at a commercial telephone facility until the line was connected. Fortunately, I learned that everything was fine at home … the emergency call had been intended for a different fellow with the same last name.
In contrast to my archaic experience calling home in the 60’s, a recent event illustrates how far we have come in communicating with one another. In this case, my cell phone rang during Thanksgiving dinner and, upon answering, I was thrilled to be talking with (and seeing) my grandson … who is in the United States Army … stationed in South Korea. Unlike the byzantine system I had to navigate to call home in 1964, he was simply dialing us up on his personal cell phone to wish us a Happy Holiday.
I am willing to bet that many who read the title of this piece recognized, immediately, the signature line of Ernestine the telephone operator (played by Lily Tomlin) on Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” some fifty years ago. For those who did not get the reference, I will be happy to explain.