Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Can you hear me now?

When the Farmer and I got married in 1991, we had one landline phone in our house. We didn’t call it a landline phone, just a phone-phone, because there weren't any other phone options. It sat on a little stand in the kitchen. The receiver was attached to the base (for you youngsters, phones had two parts back then—the handset and the base) by an umbilical cord that, if untangled, probably would have reached out to the barn.

As it was, it reached about 12 inches because the rest of it was a snarly mess that looked like it had been mauled by a rabid badger. I routinely forgot this and would go walking around the kitchen with the receiver, mid-call, only to drag the base off the little stand and have it crash onto the floor. That was the original “dropped call.” 


But it was a slimline, push-button phone which was a 110 percent improvement over the rotary dial phone anchored to the wall in the house where I grew up. Those of you who remember rotary dial phones will remember the very real possibility you could forget where you were in the string of digits you were dialing by the time the dial completed its spin and was ready for the next digit. Forget winning any radio call-in contests if you had a rotary phone. Girls’ teen magazines of the era recommended using a pencil so you didn’t chip your nail polish while dialing.


 n those early years, Jeff spent a lot of time coming into the house to make calls as needed during the course of the farming day. If I was home, I spent a lot of time carrying the phone out to him on the back porch so he didn’t have to take his boots off to come inside. If you raise cattle, you understand this.


If someone called for Jeff and he wasn’t in the house (which was 98% of the time), I had to take a message. Depending on the urgency of the call, I had the option of waiting until he came in for a meal or jumping in a pickup and going out on a recon mission to find him. If he deemed the message important, he would come home to return the call. How did we ever get anything done back then?


After the derecho in 1998 flattened a machine shed on the home place (that was back before derechos were a Thing like they are now—we just called them straight line winds and everyone went on about their business), we built a new machine shed and had a phone line trenched in to the office there. Talk about the height of luxury! No more “Honey, can you bring me the phone?”


I don’t remember what year we got our first cordless phone but boy wasn’t that exciting! Now we (and by we, I mean ME) didn’t have to get up and run to the kitchen to answer the phone when it rang in the middle of “Friends.” Kids today will never understand the concept of having to go to another room to answer the phone.


Now we could be interrupted 18 times a night by telemarketers without ever having to get up out of our La-Z-Boys. This new technology also created the risk of losing the phone when it got buried under last week’s newspapers on the end table or in a blanket, something that never happened when it was firmly attached to the base by 27 feet of badger-mauled cord.


 At some point, we got a phone with multiple handsets. One could stay on the base in the kitchen, while a second handset could sit on a charger right next to a recliner in the living room. 


Soon after that, I bought an answering machine and became a professional call screener (also known as hiding from people who can’t see you in the first place). Wowza—were we on the cutting edge of space age technology or what?


The answering machine was a tremendous time-saver as we no longer had to find the TV remote, turn the volume down on the TV, answer the phone and listen to the spiel for some oddball product or service we didn’t want. Nope. Now we turned the volume down on the TV and sat holding our breath in silence, waiting to hear if it was some loony sales pitch or a real, live person we wanted to talk to. If it was the latter, we had to wait until they committed to leaving a message, then there was a mad scramble to pick up the handset and punch the “talk” button while yelling “Hey, I’m here, don’t hang up!”


Somewhere in all of this, we had a bag phone in one of the farm pickups. This was all fine and good but if whoever was in the pickup was calling whoever was in the house, and that person wasn’t in the house, we were right back where we started. Carrier pigeons might have been easier.


I got my first cell (an LG flip phone) in the early 2000’s and Jeff got one not too long after that. We kept the house landline because the home computer we had at the time required it. I can still hear the electronic beeps and buzzes of that 56K modem connecting. By the time we’d traded our flip phones for the early series iPhones, we’d found an internet provider who could bounce a signal from a tower to somewhere in the general vicinity of our house and on a good day, we could catch hold of it and connect. We finally ditched the landline phone because the only people who called us on it were telemarketers.


 Now we have satellite internet out here in our cornfield in the back of beyond. Jeff and I each have a cell phone and a laptop. I can sit outdoors on the patio on fine evenings and order things from Amazon and Chewy to my heart’s content because the Wifi signal reaches that far. My cell has replaced our landline, answering machine, telephone book, hand-held calculator, and to some degree, the TV. 


And I remember the days we were excited to have a phone in the machine shed.

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