Thursday, May 7, 2009

Number, please

Times change.
We all know that. And, certainly, some of the biggest changes are in the area of communications, both personal and in a business sense. Email, text messaging, webcams and social/business networking websites are all facts of life that many (especially our kids) absolutely take for granted. And while these advanced methods of communication are amazing, indeed, to a relatively old duffer like me, the biggest change I’ve experienced firsthand might be to something I’ve known all my life:
The telephone.
It used to be the phone was a sort of a centerpiece in a household. It was rarely used by children, operated carefully and with prudence by all, and generally occupied a single, prominent position in the home. Most families only had one, and it almost never rang past a reasonable hour in the evening except to announce an event involving either tragedy or joy.
Growing up, our phone sat on a little table in our front room. It was a squat, black affair that was made of a material that left it both sturdy and quite heavy for its size. The receiver was more like a blunt object than something to talk to grandma with. (In fact, I used to think it would have made a good weapon in a Clue game: “I think it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the telephone.”)
Making a phone call in Galva back in the ’50’s was a simple, quite personal process. You lifted the receiver and, after a short pause, a gentle voice would say, “Number please.” You’d give them the number, or even the name and location of the person you wanted to speak to and, voila, the connection was made. The numbers were simpler, too. Our home phone number was 526, while the designator for my father’s pharmacy was an even-easier-to-remember 69. In a small town like Galva, the process was even more personal. I remember trying to reach my dad at the drugstore one day. The phone company office was just across the street from the building that housed the store, and I guess the volume of calls was light enough to allow the operators, who were housed on the second floor, to gaze out upon the downtown streets. The operator/kid connection went something like this:
She: “Number, please.”
Me: “Uh, 6-9.”
She: “Oh Johnny, are you trying to call your dad? I just saw him go into the post office. Why don’t you try back in a few minutes?”
Eventually, we got dial tone service and switched to seven digit numbers. The advent of area codes upped the total to 10 numbers, which, while providing an efficient way to single-handedly contact virtually anyone I know, taxes my memory at times.
And then there were party lines. By the time I became a regular telephone user, party lines existed pretty much in rural areas only. A party line was basically a single line shared by multiple users, like a big, multi-family extension phone system. While the ringing technology used to notify a specific household that a call was coming in advanced over the years, party lines continued to have an unfortunate, sometimes embarrasing feature: Anybody on your party line could listen to your conversations.
I once had a high school girlfriend who lived in the country, and believe me, the party line her family was connected with had a real dampening effect on our late-night conversations. Heck, when she eventually broke up with me, I didn’t even have to tell people about it. Half of the town knew it was coming before I did.
One of the biggest changes in telephone communications has been the cell phone. More and more, people (like my kids, for instance) have no regular hard-wired phone at all, but just rely on personal cell phones. The biggest problem with this is that there’s no effective way to look up a number, with no system of phone books or directory assistance for cell customers. But, apparently, the convenience and portability of the technology outweighs that problem in a lot of peoples' minds, though I still like having an actual land line in my home.
But even that’s changed. Now, the company that provides your home phone service can also be the guys who bring cable TV or the internet into your house, with both phone and cable companies offering bundled packages that include phone service, multi-channel TV and high-speed internet. The companies that provide our phone service have changed, too. Galva’s phone company used to be a locally owned business run by a family friend who brought my parents a new phone as a housewarming gift when they moved next door to him.
Not any more.
The phone business is big business, with service providers involved in an ongoing process of buyouts and mergers that make them some of the biggest, most active companies in the world.
Big or not, though, I was truly pleased when one provider, Verizon, actually sent an area manager to my place for a face-to-face resolution of an issue I had with some damage done when an unknown vehicle hit a phone line running to my home.
And, I suppose, it’s a good thing to be connected by the big guys, since that means we have access to the latest advances in technology, even the dreaded “call waiting” feature that gives us the opportunity to tell someone, “Excuse me, I have another call coming in that might be more interesting than the one I’m having with you.”
O.K., so I’m not so crazy about that little piece of telephone magic.
The fact is, though, times really do change. And for the most part, that’s probably all right. But, I’ve got to admit, I kinda miss those nice ladies upstairs at the Galva Phone Company.
The ones who always knew where my dad was.

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