(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – June 2021)
I was lucky to grow up in 1960s America during the space age where technology was developing fast and some household gadgets embodied futuristic designs.
Take the humble telephone, for instance. One of my early childhood memories was being in my next door neighbour’s kitchen, where my friend’s mum had a white wall-mounted telephone, with a curly flex. I wasn’t yet tall enough to reach the phone (nor would have been allowed to use it) but I remember clearly thinking that this was the very by-word in modernity. Better still, I had a friend whose older sister had a telephone in her bedroom!
Of course Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise had ‘communicators’ which looked just like modern flip phones. My first mobile phone was a pink Motorola flip phone in the mid 2000s which made me feel uber futuristic. It got nicked at a party and I mourned its loss for weeks.
When I was nine years old in 1969, I heard about a swanky space-age phone that also had a screen where you could actually see the person you were talking to – just like they had in the Jetsons! Dad thought it was merely science fiction but I fantasised about having one so that I could see and talk to my cousin who lived three hundred miles away near Atlanta, GA.
It only took another thirty years before Skype technology was invented. (Dad never got to grips with technology.)
As an aside – I walked into our study one evening back in about 2003, where our son was listening to iTunes (or so I thought.). Harry looked up at me and said,
“Mum, you know my friend can see you in your dressing gown.”
I was horrified and dropped to the floor, thinking he must have a friend secreted under the desk! Harry laughed and said,
“No mum, he’s not in the room – he’s on the Skype camera on the PC!”
I didn’t even know we had a camera on the computer – never mind one which allowed my son’s friends to see me in my own home.
By 1970, my neighbour’s mum had a cream Ericsson Ericofon ‘Cobra’ phone that was ultra cool: it had one plastic handpiece which stood upright with the dial on the bottom. I longed for my parents to get one but they were ‘old school’ and had a standard black shiny phone with a rotary dial.
Other than hand written letters, the phone was central to sharing family information during my childhood. It is where my twelve year old brother sat for two agonising hours in the hallway one Saturday afternoon in 1969, trying to pluck up the courage to ask Loretta Hart on a date. Each time he reached for the phone, he would practice what he would say, then hang up. I got into trouble with Mom for spying on him from behind the bathroom door at the end of the hall and teasing him,
“Ooh Loretta, I love you,” followed by peals of laughter and sniggering.
He finally asked her on a date, where they sat in the living room on the sofa together listening to records and holding hands. Loretta’s kid sister Stella and I hid behind the sofa and kept up a running commentary before being found out.
After we moved to the UK in 1970, my parents had an old Bakelite phone in the narrow hallway of our semi. It sat on a small Half Moon ‘telephone’ table which only had three legs. The telephone book and Yellow Pages were placed reverentially next to it, with well-worn pages and thumb marks on the cover from the countless times my dad had to find the number for an electrician or plumber.
Remember, there was no internet and as far back as 1962 in America you were encouraged to “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking.” These days we still do via swiping and scrolling. Phone books had other useful functions, such as propping up wobbly tables or balancing the ‘rabbit ear’ antennae on top of the TV.
Mom and Dad would only allow us to make phone calls after six o’clock in the evening when the call rate was cheaper. I used to ring the Speaking Clock just for the fun of hearing the person say, “At the first stroke, it will be eleven fifty- four and thirty seconds…” but even more fun was listening-in on the shared party line. I would regularly hear a neighbourhood woman chatting with a friend:
“And I said to ‘im, I said, I won’t ‘ave ‘is mother telling me ‘ow to roast a joint of pork. I’ve been married twenty-six years so I think I know sommat about it. “
“Goo on Bab – what did she say?”
“Well, she said she didn’t mean no offence so I said none taken.”
If I really wanted to have a laugh, I’d interject into their conversation:
“Goo on – clear off!”
One of the happy side effects of the move between Virginia and Birmingham, West Midlands were the often hilarious long distance phone calls we would occasionally receive from my grandfather, Papa. Remember, this was before the digital age, so a long distance call had to be put through an operator. Papa never did get used to the time difference of some five or six hours between Georgia and the UK, so he would phone us at two or three in the morning, which would have been between eight or nine o’clock in the evening for him – probably after he and my grandmother had just finished their dinner.
Dad would jump out of bed, startled by the “ring, ring” from the hall downstairs. Standing in his BVDs in the cold hallway, I would hear him shouting down the receiver:
“Who? Yes, I am Dewey Scarboro. SCARBORO – B.O.R.O. No – not Scraberry!”
The operator would ask for a Mr D.D. Scraberry, Scarburgh, Scarry-Dewborough – anyone but Scarboro. Once Dad had established who he was and to whom he was speaking, the conversation would commence, complete with time-lag. Both Papa and Dad shouted (well, it was long distance) which made it all the more enthralling as a listener.
“Hey there Dewey!”
“Son. is that you?”
“Yes Dad, it’s me, Dewey.”
“Hey there Son!”
“How are you Dad?”
“Dewey, I want you to know that I love you Son.”
“I love you too Dad; how’s Mother?”
“Your Mother? Hello? Dewey? I’ve lost you Son!”
“Dad? Hello, Dad? I say, how’s Mother?”
At this point, the operator might say:
“You have one minute remaining Mr Scarberry.”
“I know it! Dadgummit! Dad? Give Mother my love!”
“I love you too Son. How’s the family?”
“Dad – you’re breaking up!”
By now Dad had woken the whole house.
“Click, click, click”.
The one occasion when Papa telephoned me was on my eighteenth birthday in 1978.
“Hey there, Honey!”
“You’ll be getting married soon Sugar!”
“No, Papa, I won’t be getting married soon!”
“Sure you will Honey! Why, your grandmother married me when she was just nineteen!”
“Well, I won’t.”
“He he he , sure you will Honey, he he. You precious thing. You know I love you Andrea.”
Time lag pause…
“I love you too Papa.”
“Click, click, click.”
Amongst the plethora of ’60s and ’70s songs which featured telephones – Wilson Pickett’ s “634-5789”, City Boy‘s “5-7-0-5” and E.L.O’s ‘Telephone Line’ to name but three – Meri Wilson‘s 1978 hit ‘Telephone Man’, which reached Number 6 in the UK charts, sent me and my school friends into paroxysms of laughter with its double entendre. Naturally we would burst into the chorus every time we walked past a person in a public phone box:
“Hey baby I’m your telephone man
You just show me where you want it
And I’ll put it where I can…”
It took the dream team of composer Jimmy Webb and singer-guitarist Glen Campbell to produce two of the era’s greatest, most beautifully crafted songs (in my humble opinion) which used phones to convey the drama of their poignant love stories: ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ in 1967 and ‘Wichita Lineman’ in 1968. Webb’s lyrics still make me cry when I think of my grandparents who we left behind in America; I didn’t see them for eight years and when I did – aged eighteen – they didn’t recognise me and walked straight past me at the airport.
“By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call –
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all….
Albuquerque may as well have been Atlanta, GA.
One evening as I was doing my homework, Dad was watching the Western movie ‘Shane’ on TV. ‘Shane’ happened to be Papa’s favourite movie and Dad was reminiscing;
“Boy, I sure wish I could watch ‘Shane’ with Papa, honey. You know it’s his favourite movie.”
Suddenly, the phone rang, but as it was at a normal time during the evening, neither of us suspected that it could be Papa. The operator told me that she had a “person to person long distance call for a Mr. D.D.Scraberry.” Dad was dumbstruck. He and Papa shared tears down the wire.
Dad never forgot that ‘uncanny’ occurrence; or the time when he was listening to Ray Charles’ ‘Georgia On My Mind’ on the radio; one of his favourite songs. Once again, Papa phoned in the middle of the song which sent Dad reaching for the Kleenex. Maybe there was more to it than coincidence?
Today I’m surrounded by technology: smart phones that do everything and AI technology smart assistant in the kitchen which can tell me recipes, weather forecasts, the news, play music and provide me with a shopping list – all the futuristic features I never dreamed I could realise – and yet nothing can replace the anticipation and thrill of that sudden long distance phone call from Papa.
(Copyright: Andrea Burn June 8th 2021)