Columns, Slightly Off Center

Phony: Remembrances of phone systems past.

By Dennis Hinkamp

Felt deeply sad at the end of the month as I watched the clock grind to midnight. With one eye on the phone and one on the clock I was waiting for the flat line of my land line. After 39.7 years I said goodbye to an old friend. This was my very first and only phone number in Logan, pre-cell coverage.

I kept it well past its useful life as a bridge to the old days. In its last years it became chronically infected with the cancer of spam and robo-calls to the point I hardly recognized my old friend. It was as hard as putting down a beloved dog, but I had to let it go for both our sakes.

In reality what I was really saying goodbye to was a random number assigned to me in 1980. The number was not even a land line for the last 10 years of its life.  I had it transferred to an internet phone service for the few friends and relatives who still did not want to call on that new-fangled technology. The actual wire to a telephone pole has been phasing out everywhere. In fact, I’m not sure you can refer to these wood things as telephone poles anymore because their main purpose is to support electrical wires, cable lines and resting birds.

Blame text and email, but over the last five years we probably averaged less than one legitimate call a week while suffering dozens of spam calls, fund raisers, political robots and extended car warranty sales for cars we no longer own.

Like many lost friends, you need to celebrate the good memories rather than mourn their last gasps. I do have fond memories of my first answering machine with tiny tapes where I concocted a new funny message about once a week. Remember party lines? They had nothing to do with party mirth; they meant that you shared a line with at least one other customer. You would pick up the phone and hear someone else talking. If you were polite you hung up. If you were nosey, you pretended to hang up.

Remember the pretentiousness of call waiting? I think some people still use it, but it was about as contentious as mask wearing in that time period. You would be calling your own mother and she would mute you to see who the incoming call was coming from. Like you were waiting for a better offer? I got pretty good at answering “let me check this, can you wait a minute” with “no.” Anyway I’m glad that call waiting on home phones was mainly a passing fancy.

I’m not old enough to remember switchboards but I am old enough to have used an answering service where a real person took Post-it notes for you before there were Post-it notes and then would read them to you when you called a certain number. My recollection was that mostly real estate agents and drug dealers used them from pay phones.

This reminds me, “pay phones”? Wow, they disappeared fast though I still see lone ostracized ones at remote state campgrounds.

Remember the first brick mobile phones and the first car phones that required you sit near a telephone line? I don’t know if those were the beginning of the end, but in context they sure looked silly like the 10- megabyte hard drive the size of a toaster oven which I also owned.

This is fun nostalgia, but I’ve never been a big phone user at any time in my life. This probably stunted my dating life but saved me cumulative months of time. I was a prolific letter writer before the internet. Now I am terrified to write more than a sentence or two, longhand, because I have become addicted to spell check. Times change in sometimes tragic ways.

My dead phone still glows with the flashing “one” of my last message, which of course was the internet phone service provider pleading me to come back. I ignored it and moved on.

Dennis Hinkamp would like to remind you to not call him.

This article was originally published on August 2, 2020.