Remember When?

Remember when we used to talk to people on telephones?


The other day I sent a text to my sister to see if she was available to talk.  Once she texted back “yes”, I gave her a call.  Granted, there is a huge convenience in knowing that she was available and we could have a few minutes (okay, an hour) to talk.  But remember when it wasn’t like that?


It used to be that we just dialed a number and waited for somebody to answer.  If it rang fifteen or twenty times, that meant they probably weren’t home.  Because even if they had been in the bathroom, they would have made a mad scramble to reach the phone.  After all, it could be important.  But as the one doing the calling, we’re imagining them picking up the receiver just as we hang up—so we let it ring another three times, just in case. 


And in the days before Caller ID, no one knew who was on the other end calling. (And we didn’t seem to worry about telemarketers, politicians, or scam artists.)  We just knew answering a ringing phone was the “right thing” to do.  But there were limits.


Growing up, my home phone number was the same as my father’s veterinary business.  Whether intended for work or pleasure, it was the same number.  Children were NOT to spend more than a couple minutes talking to friends.  We were NOT supposed to answer the phone after 5pm and if we answered during working hours we had better get the details correct!  In fact, most nights even my parents wouldn’t answer the phone after 8pm.  If they did, it usually meant my dad was going to have to go out on a late-night call.  (Sorry if this comes as a shock to any former clients, but it is what it is.)  Close family and friends understood there was a particular signal that could get the phone answered—let it ring only once, hang up, and then try again.


I remember one time my grandmother was trying to reach us in the middle of the night but forgot the “signal”.  She tried for over an hour but no one would answer the phone.  In hind sight, no one slept that night because the phone kept ringing so my parents probably should have answered it and dealt with the situation if it had been a client.  (As I recall, my grandfather had gone hunting, had some type of car issue, and had not come home.  It all turned out okay.)


As my siblings and I matured and moved away from home for college or marriage, the “signal” still had a use.  Long distance calls were considered expensive and to be restricted to perhaps a couple times per month on the weekend.  So after a visit to our parents, when we reached our own home, we were to call our parents’ house and let the phone ring once before hanging up.  Being the youngest, I had several years of observing my mother on Sunday evenings when an older sibling had been home for a visit.  When their vehicle had reached the highway and she had given her final wave she would walk back into the house and check the clock on the fireplace mantel, do a mental calculation of travel time, and then hang around the house at the correct elapsed amount of time.  Often we would be watching evening TV, the phone would ring once, and she would declare “[Child’s name] is home” and a little bit of stress would ease from her mind.


Changes in technology offered some solutions to my parents’ household after I went away to college.  With some of the first money I earned working an internship I bought two products of technological advances for my parents—a microwave oven and an answering machine.  Neither were well received at the time.  The microwave was likely to cause some type of brain cancer and had a long road to acceptance for anything other than boiling a cup of water.  The answering machine was a “no go” from the start and took on the qualities of a knick-knack/dust collector for its lifetime in their house—to allow someone to leave a message inferred an obligation to call them back and that just wouldn’t do.  Too much liability they surmised.


However, one new advancement that my brother gave my parents was fully embraced and changed their lives forever—Caller ID.

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