"Manda there?"

The other day a teenager asked if he could use my cell phone and when I told him that I didn’t have one, he just stood there with a confused look on his face.  His dumbfounded expression got me to thinking about how different phones are today compared to when I was a kid. Back then, we had to walk two miles barefooted in the snow, uphill both ways, just to make a phone call. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it was definitely different.

When I was growing up, we only had rotary phones. I remember pulling down the rotary and listening to the click, click, click as the dial moved back to its original position. If you were careful not to apply too much pressure, you could let your finger ride back on the dial in between the numbers. It was fun to dial the phone, but I thought we were ‘uptown’ when we finally got a touch-tone phone in the house. My brothers and I took turns listening to the new tones, trying to play music on it. You can see we were easily amused.

We also had to deal with party lines. We shared our line with two other people and one of them happened to be the neighborhood gossip. Between my two older brothers who were girl crazy and the gossip, there was always someone tying up the phone. You would think I would have known to check, but once in a while, I would forget to put the phone up to my ear before I started dialing. The rotary would click around, and then I’d hear an annoyed voice yelling through the receiver, “Someone is using this line!!!”

I’d say sorry, put the phone back down and then keep checking every once in a while until Ms. Gossip finally got off. She wasn’t as courteous to us. She’d slam the receiver down to show know how irritated she was that we were still on the line. If she thought we were on too long, she’d drive to our house and demand that we get off. If there was such a thing as “phone rage”, I think she had it.

My parents finally sprung for a “private line” and we no longer had to deal with Ms. Gossip slamming the phone down on us or listening in on our conversations. There was still opportunity for someone to listen in, though, because for the longest time the cord on the phone was only about two feet long. Private conversations were only as private as how many people were in the room. Imagine a young boy, finally getting the courage to call up a girl and ask her out. He’s about to ask her that big question, when the rest of the family suddenly piles into the room. Sometimes ‘his’ brothers would purposefully call out things like, “I love you” or “Don’t go out with this loser!” (I’d be lying if I said I never did those same things myself.)

It was exciting when we got a phone on the kitchen wall that had a long cord on it. Now we could actually make a sandwich and talk to someone at the same time. It wasn’t unusual to have to step over the cord that was stretched tight across the kitchen. We happened to have a sliding glass door right beside the phone, so if someone wanted to talk in private they could go on the back porch and close the door. The only problem with the long cord was that I had a tendency to get wrapped up in it while I was talking to someone. There was just something fascinating about wrapping that cord around your fingers or hand while talking.

After the long cords, cordless phones hit the scene. We suddenly went from being tied to one or two rooms in the house to going almost anywhere we wanted to talk. The early ones weren’t quite as good as the ones today, so the distance a person could travel away from the base wasn’t that great, but it definitely made life easier.

Now, in the digital age, the house phone is fast becoming an ancient relic. Everyone in the household seems to have their own cell. If a boy wants to call a girl, he simply dials her cell and talks to her. I wish it could have been that easy when I was young. It used to stress me out to call a girl because I always worried that one of her parents would answer the phone. Getting the mom was okay, but there was something scary about the dad answering.

It was a nice change, years later, when I found myself in the position of being the dad. When my daughter Amanda was in her early teens, a boy started calling her at home and if I happened to pick up the phone, the conversation would go something like this:

Me: Hello

Him: ‘Manda there?

And that was it. I got to the point where when my daughter would ask who it was I’d say, “Mandathere.” That boy had absolutely no conversation skills whatsoever when it came to talking to adults. It made me wonder if that was what I sounded like when I called a girl at home. Whatever happened to the Leave it to Beaver phone etiquette of yesteryear? Eddie Haskell would know to say, “Hello, Mrs. Cleaver, how are you this afternoon? I was wondering if I could talk to Wallace or Theodore?”

Eddie might have been a ‘suck up,’ but at least he could talk to an adult on the telephone.  I have absolutely nothing against cell phones. No doubt, they have allowed us to be a more mobile society. The fact that my daughter had a phone on her at all times made my wife and I feel much better about her safety on the road and in college. Yet, despite the benefits, in some ways the cell phone has made our lives much more hectic. I know life can never return to the Leave It To Beaver, days, but sometimes I speculate over which times were actually better.

Last 5 posts by Tom Hames