I just saw a photo on Facebook, of some teenagers using a land line phone for the first time. Their eyes are wide with delight at holding the funny receiver to their heads, a curly cord leading to a heavy, avocado green box on the wall, with a round, plastic dial.
They look the same way I did when I first looked into an antique stereoscope from a hundred years ago. This is so quaint! Look how they used to see pictures in 3-D!
The land line, for them, is like a wash board or a Victrola—something you see in a period piece movie, users of which are all dead, now.
Except many of us remember it well and even miss it. I used to have a pen with a rotating ball on one end, specifically for dialing. And remember our delight in dialing someone whose number was filled with ones and twos, meaning it took hardly any time at all? When someone had zeros and nines in their number, it meant waiting forever, as the dial clicked back into place.
I also remember holding that curly cord so the receiver could hang down and unwind, after getting all knotted up. And hearing that warning beep that you didn’t hang up all the way, leaving the line off the hook. These sound like inconveniences, but compared to the zoned-out expressions of the texters, and the constant ringing of cell phones in every public place imaginable today, they seem like pretty small problems.
When the land line phone rang, kids would scramble to get it, almost as if opening a surprise box on your doorstep. Who would be calling? And it was an honor to be the one to snap up the receiver and speak for your whole family. If it was someone calling from far away, you’d cover the receiver and say, “Mom, it’s for you—and it’s long distance!” which meant, “Hurry—this is an expensive call!”
As a little girl I dreamed of the Princess Phone. Not only was it pink, but the dial lit up in the dark!
If you didn’t grow up with a land line, you also missed the era of phone pranks, something we’re probably better off without, but which comprised many a child’s entertainment years ago. We’d get together with our friends and call someone we knew, or someone we didn’t. There was no Caller I.D. at the time, so we were blissfully anonymous in our silliness, asking some of these old standbys:
(To a tobacco shop) Do you have Prince Albert in a can? (Yes, they would say) At which point we would shriek, Then let him out!
Or, Is your refrigerator running? (Yes) Then you’d better go catch it!
Or, Your dog is in my garden! (I don’t have a dog) Then I don’t have a garden!
Another common joke was to call and ask for Mary a few times, then call again and say, This is Mary—do I have any messages?
It’s a tribute to moms and dads of that era, that they tolerated these ridiculous interruptions. But in those days, they knew kids needed something to do, and this seemed harmless, if a bit stupid.
Today we’re more accessible; we carry our phones on our persons, available to the world every minute of the day. We know immediately who’s calling, we can press a button to tell them we’ll call back, and we can even see one another as we speak. I guess it’s progress. But I miss the anticipation, the sharing of phone time, the appreciation of someone calling from far away. It made people, and conversation, seem more rare and valuable. And it only took a tiny sliver of our family time, instead of today’s ratio, which is, sadly, just the opposite.
Heck, put down the phone and read a good book!