Before cellphones and ringtones
By Kiesa Kay
I miss my IBM Selectric typewriter and my 33 RPM albums.
I miss having a corner drugstore owned by a real person instead of a
I miss living in a town where instead of a fire truck with hoses and ladders, we
had an orange Volkswagen Beetle with a red light on top - "the Fire Beetle" -
and a bucket brigade of volunteers from the lake to the flames.
Most of all, though, I miss the multi-family party line there, in Gardener, Kan.
When I was a kid, my family was one of three or more to share a single telephone
For awhile, we had a seafoam green telephone on the desk between the bookshelves
and the fireplace. When it rang, my father had the annoying habit of saying, "Dingwah,
Chop Chop." I never did learn what he meant. Nowadays I suppose we'd call it our
personal family ring tone. Sometimes he'd say, "Better get it, might be the
telephone." So we had two personalized ring tone choices.
Back then, when our neighbor's cat knocked her phone of the hook, nobody's calls
could go in or out on the lake road until somebody went down there, knocked on
her door, and asked her to hang the phone back up again.
With a party line, people can pick up and chime in if they have an opinion to
share, or eavesdrop. We respected one another for the most part.
Telephones were for business, for emergencies, and any girl going on a date had
a dime in her pocket to make a call in case the date went downhill fast.
Long-distance calls were costly and rare, and when one came in, everybody had to
be real quiet and respectful. Faraway family members called on holidays and each
person at the family dinner took a turn swapping a "howdy." Each long-distance
call felt like a rare and treasured event for the whole family to share.
I never thought I'd see the day when each child in a family carried a personal
telephone. Now my daughter has talked me into a family plan so she and my son
can talk to their friends whenever they want to "for free."
She got one of these phones with games and songs downloaded from the Internet,
and text messages from her pals, and she can reach anybody any time day or night
by pushing a few little buttons. That cute little metal rectangle does
everything but stand up and dance the mamba. I inherited her old phone, which
was plenty exciting enough for me. It was a time-waster, though; I spent 13
minutes trying to find a song I liked on the ringtone choices, going back down
memory lane with "Barracuda" and "Bad to the Bone." I finally settled for "Moon
Just when I had every person I'd ever called or who'd ever called me stored in
that little piece of metal, it busted due to corrosion. I even lost my "Moon
River" ringtone. You'd think in a world where people can dial Thailand without
an operator or so much as a fare-thee-well, it'd be simple to fix up that phone
- but it wasn't.
After a lot of running around and waiting for help and confusing sales pitches
and haggling, I found a store clerk who charged me more for a new phone than any
human has a right to ask for a metal rectangle - but she looked friendly doing
And I realized then how I missed that party line. It never gave me any false
metallic voices telling me to press a number for this or that, and it didn't
play my favorite classic rock songs in my ear in strange symphonic versions. It
had that human element. I got to talk to the neighbors, and we shared a common
bond of annoyance from time to time when that cat did its cabinet dance and kept
us all out of reach. Come to think of it, being out of reach wasn't so bad. We
had no answering machine, and no electronic tether to anybody who happened to
think of something silly to share.
As people spread farther apart to build their lives, instead of living in one
small town, they stretch their invisible phone waves to one another to keep in
contact. Cellphones have broken some kind of boundary to the brain, creating a
brain-to-brain intimacy with computers that replaces actual human contact.
And that thing rings all the time. Sometimes it seems like the only way to get
any peace and quiet from other people is to break the cellphone.
Hey, I didn't do it on purpose. I swear.