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Illustration by John Stricker
Thirty years ago who would’ve thought that one day, if we wanted to watch our favorite TV show, we’d just look at our phone.
The PHONE, for crying out loud. Nowadays, I can watch videos, listen to music, read a magazine, play games, surf the Web, and that’s just while using the bathroom. From touch-tones to touch-screens, it’s come a long way.
Growing up, my family had one telephone and it was bolted to the kitchen wall. How cool and modern we were, when one day, during the Carter administration, my dad caved and replaced our rotary dial with a touchtone. I was fascinated and thought it was awesome when I learned that if you hit 3-5-7-5-3-3-3 in a staccato order, you could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Unfortunately, “357” was an actual pre-fix in my town and whoever lived at 357-5333 grew to hate me very quickly.
Forget a second phone though, that was too outlandish for my dad. Only rich people had multiple. His idea of an extension was buying a longer cord. When he finally did, I was in junior high. At last I could pick up in the kitchen and escape ALL the way to the family room, where I’d slouch into my beanbag chair and use my fancy patter with the latest object of my desire:
Me: (mouth-breathing silence)
Her: “...is anyone there?”
Her: “Who is this..?”
Me: (more mouth-breathing silence)
I was in college when Dad finally got a second phone, but it posed a challenge: Whenever I would call, Mom and Dad would inevitably pick up at the same time. She’d be in the kitchen, he in his office, and before long they would both be completely befuddled.
Mom and Dad at the same time: “Hello?”
Mom: “Who’s this?”
Dad: “I think it’s Dan.” (Dan is my big brother)
Mom: (beginning to sound confused) “What?”
Me: “No, it’s ME, Mom!”
Mom: “Pa, are you on the line?”
Dad: “Momma, hang up!”
Mom: “Who’s calling?”
Dad: “I think it’s Dan!”
Me: “Wait, it‘s ME, Tom.”
Dad: (slightly disappointed) “This isn’t Danny?”
Mom: “Oh, hi Dan!”
Me: “It’s TOM!”
Mom: (to herself) “Tom?? I thought you said this was Dan. This *%*# phone...HELLO?”
Me: (mouth-breathing silence)
By the way, this Abbott and Costello routine was something they never figured out. It went on for two decades. So, it’s no surprise that the mobile phone revolution never impressed them. I remember once in the late 80s my dad dismissed some slick yuppie talking on a “car phone” as a “show-off.” My dad didn’t like show-offs.
But in a way, cell phones didn’t pass them by, and not just because they eventually got an emergency one with big Playskool buttons that they kept in the glove box of their Mercury Sable. You see, as Mom and Dad got older and could no longer travel, cell phones became a way to sort of take them along with us somewhere. Maybe it’s a little corny, but some of my favorite memories of them later in life came when I called them from someplace like Times Square, or the lip of the Grand Canyon, or the summit of Mt. Shasta. My dad especially loved to travel, and in his last few years whenever I would call from someplace other than home, his voice would perk up and you could hear in his heart that he was right there with us.
Even if half the time he thought he was talking to my brother.
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