Just when you think cell phone antics couldn’t get any goofier you see something involving cellphones that’s goofier than the last.
I was walking down a residential Portland street the other day and saw a woman wrestling furiously with several shopping bags and her cellphone. What was so vital that she had to talk while trying not to dump her bags all over the ground? Well, she was explaining to the person on the other end that she was taking her shopping bags out of the car and getting ready to go into her apartment. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this was information that the woman could have kept to herself until later. People used to be able to take shopping bags out of the car and bring them into the house without feeling the need to share the whole experience.
The cellphone incident reminded me of years ago when I experimented with a few communication devices of my own. One afternoon when I was a kid, my friend Neil and I spent several hours making what today might be called “a dual-station, single-purpose communication system.” It was a neat walkie-talkie we saw in Boy’s Life magazine. According to the article and simple diagram, all we needed to make our own device was a long piece of string and two Birds Eye orange juice cans. The article did, indeed, specify “Birds Eye” cans, but then added that the cans of other brands may also be used.
After getting our materials together, we ran the high-tech string between our separate locations in my yard – a little over 100 feet – and used a state-of-the-art six-penny nail to poke a hole in the end of each can. We then threaded the ends of the string through the holes and tied a fat knot in each end of the string to prevent it from slipping out of the hole. Once the string was tightly stretched between our locations and the Birds Eye cans were securely in place, we tried to talk back and forth. We must have been way ahead of our time because, for the rest of the afternoon, we kept yelling into the Birds Eye can, “Can you hear me now?” just like that annoying guy in those old cellphone service commercials.
The next day Neil called me on the phone and said he wanted to call me on the Birds Eye walkie-talkie. He wanted me to go outside in my yard so we could resume our experiments with our Birds Eye cans. It was the only time I ever had a call holding on a juice can.
For the next several weeks Neil and I experimented with our communication system. We made a shorter version and used wire instead of string and that worked pretty well. Eventually we gave up and just called each other on the phone when we wanted to talk. It was a lot easier.
Come to think of it, lots of things were easier back then. I’m old enough to remember when the phone rang and if you were there you answered it. If you weren’t there, it rang until the caller gave up. Simple. Then someone invented the answering machine and before long it seemed like everyone had one and in an attempt to solve one problem – missing phone calls – more problems were hatched – like not missing phone calls. We’ve all heard the messages: “Hello, you’ve reached the home of Bobby and Barbara Schlahbotnik and all the little Schlahbotniks. We can’t come to the phone right now but if you leave a name and number, preferably your telephone number, we’ll get back to you as just soon as possible.”
With an answering machine you would never miss another phone call, not even those annoying calls that you wanted to miss. A whole new set of rules and practices developed around the telephone. If there was someone you had to call but didn’t want to talk to, you could call them when you knew they weren’t there and leave a vague message: “It’s me and I guess you’re not there so I guess I’ll just say I’m sorry I missed you and try to call me when you get back.” Then it was their turn to try and reach you. This childish game of avoidance became known as “phone tag.”
Then came the cell phone. And as we all know, things are worse now than ever and there’s no place to hide. Just once I’d like to have someone say, “John, you have an important call holding on your Birds Eye can.”
John McDonald writes books about Maine, and his latest is “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tales.” Contact him at [email protected] or 899-1868.