A Phone Call to the Past

by Calendar Hacksaw

And once again last month, I found myself rolling northbound on the San Joaquin through Wasco, Hanford and a half-dozen or more other railroad sidings twixt Bakersfield and Sacramento, enjoying the early autumn fields and watching a three-legged coyote go about his business in the freshly-mown barley.

Yes, I missed last month's deer opener in Zone D-9 for the first time in a decade, due to the unfortunate passing at age 95 of our family matriarch. But I was asked to serve as a pallbearer for this very special lady, and it was an honor I couldn't refuse. It was also an opportunity to reconnect with many relatives and try to reach back into the past for some rare glimpse of times and people long gone.

As you dedicated readers might know, it had been a few years since I last boarded Amtrak and lived to tell about it. There was something different this time, though, and it didn't take me long to identify the culprit: cell phones.

"Hi, Mandy? Did I wake you up? Sorta? What is it? You don't want me to call you or something?"

Mandy, take my advice: just hang up. There's 25 or 30 of us in this passenger car listening to this lame dude. Like you, Mandy, we know what he looks like, and we think it best that he call you no more. Sorta.

The importance of the telephone may not have dwindled during the past half-century or so, but the relative value placed on each individual call certainly has.

"I don't have to tell myself I'm something special; I know I am. I'll be darker than you the next time you see me."

I remember as a child our family would see fit to call my grandmother, aunt or uncle on some given day, usually at Thanksgiving or Christmas. This was a very, very special occasion, and not to be taken lightly, as it involved the use of long-distance, which was very, very expensive.

"Are you going to hook up with Nicholas Cage's guy in New York? How's little Scooper?"

Placing such a call back then was not as simple as dialing a 5-digit number, which was what we had on our "big city" party lines (ours was 22232). On the contrary, we also needed to know the person's name, the city and state to which we were placing the call, and the entire transaction required the dedicated involvement of at least three professional telephone operators; one each at both ends, and one in the middle.

For instance, when calling Aunt Bertha in Ryan, Oklahoma, hard by the Red River, we would first dial "O" for a Pacific Bell operator in California, state our intentions, and she in turn would summon a long-distance operator from AT&T who would then scout around for an Oklahoma operator. This entire set-up process could consume five or ten minutes, easy.

"My nephew killed my sister, and then the police killed him."

My father allowed me to do all the set-up work with the operators, and I was both fascinated and impressed with their professionalism and technical knowledge of the telephone network. Though they worked for different companies in widely-scattered parts of the country, they all spoke the same language. Even though they'd never met one another or even spoken before, they were comfortable tossing about such terms as "call routing," "terminate' and "rate center." It gave me tremendous confidence in their abilities.

"Well, you know how the Modesto Bee is."

Often times, the circuits would be busy due to the holiday, and we were told that the call would have to be completed in reverse order. The team of operators at the other end would continue searching for an open circuit to our relative, and after getting the party on the line they would place a call back to us and complete the connection. This could take several hours, and guaranteed no one would even step outside to chat with a neighbor, lest we miss the call.

"My ex-wife, she's gone now. The devil stoned her."

Because these calls were so rare and cherished, adult conversation took precedence. If time permitted, we kids might be permitted to say just a few words. Given the pressure, I imagine we did more talking than listening, and the most used word was "fine."

"Hi, Aunt Bertha! This is Louise! I'm eight years old now and my favorite color is blue. I have a cat named Tabby. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Louise; how are you? How's school?"

"School's fine! I like my teacher! My brother had a nosebleed and had to go to the doctor! How are your cows and chickens?"

"There're fine."

And on and on.

Today, we have no cell phone service in Walker Basin and Twin Oaks, but it's only a matter of time before AT&T or Verizon plants a cell site smack dap on a mountaintop somewhere, formally escorting the 21st century into our lives. It brings to mind images of Lawrence Snow standing in front of TOGS placing an urgent call to Tom Robinson inside TOGS about some calf that's outside TOGS and wantin' in. Worse yet if Tom's in the men's room at the time.

From my limited observations aboard the train, I learned that the three most popular topics for cell phone conversations are death, Mandy and cult rituals, not necessarily in that order.

I can only hope that Lawrence and Tom will see fit to set tight parameters on their cell phone topics. Or may the devil stone them.

Calendar Hacksaw answers the phone whenever it rings at calendarhacksaw@highdesert.com, and he thanks Ann Ferrell of Walker Basin for giving all of us a little education about "Casa de los Cerritos." I'll sure check out that light fixture next time I'm down at Ed Oakley Hall, and I imagine that it's properly called a "shah-ndelier."

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