Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Bell – maybe!

The Mr. Bell I speak of is Alexander Graham Bell. Never heard of him? Think ‘Ma Bell. Not heard of her? May I suggest ‘Google’?

OK – good. Now we are on the same page – as far as characters are concerned!

Just what prompted this posting will be revealed further down the page, but first let’s take a trip into time – 'sans Tardis'.

Mr. Bell bears ultimate responsibility for this, and similar devices:

In the USA (short for United States of America) we call it a ‘cell’ (short for ‘cellular’) ‘phone (short for ‘telephone’), whereas in the UK (short for ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) they call it a ‘mobile’ (short for ‘mobile’) phone.  

As you can see, this one of its forebears certainly would not have been able to make any sort of claim to mobility.

As you may have noticed, back in the dinosaur age (a period in which I made my first encounters with Mr. Bell’s creation), the means of entering the desired ‘phone number’ was not by poking a finger or thumb (or both) on to a screen (much less simply speaking to the device and commanding it to connect to the required number), but one had to insert said digit into a hole in a ‘dial’ and rotate that dial to its stopping point, let the dial spring back to its starting point – and then repeat the process for as many times as was required to complete the desired ‘phone number’. That is why the contraption was called a ‘rotary phone’:

Easy-peasy, eh?  Au contraire, Pierre!  Such was the case in the later stages of the dinosaur age. I grew up in at the dawning of that age. No! Not the Age of Aquarius; pay attention here!  I am talking of the age when probably fewer than 1 in 200 people had telephones. I was not one, but my brother was.

In the days when I was conferring with the people in the US (short for USA, short for . . . . ) to discuss their employment offer and immigration arrangements, it became necessary for me to undergo quite an involved process that would blow people’s minds today. First, I had to catch a bus from my house to downtown Swansea then catch another bus to a different part of Swansea (Townhill) where my brother lived. That 40 minute expedition was the rapid part of the process. Next, I had to pick up his phone, insert a finger (it wasn’t important which) into the hole marked ‘0’ and rotate it clockwise. That action brought a lady’s voice from the a series of tiny holes on one end of the handle-shaped device announcing, “This is the operator. May I help you?”  I then had to speak into the ‘spittoon’ on the other end of ‘the handle’ and say, “Yes, I want to place a reverse-charge * call to the United States”.

[* I think the Yanks called it a ‘collect call’]

After providing her with the 10-digit number, along with the number of my brother’s phone, she announced that she would ‘call me back when a line becomes available’. Like ‘the line’ was a plastic tube running from Swansea to the USA and only so much stuff could be put into the funnel at one time and I had to wait until it was empty before MY stuff could be put into the tube! It was usually an hour or so before the tube was unblocked and ready for me! The bell on my brother’s phone would ring, I’d pounce from my slumber to grab the handle and wait for the voice to say, “Go ahead now, sir. Your party in America is on the line.”  I had to repeat that ‘ordeal’ several times before I was to arrive on this side of the pond a few weeks later. 

Remember that second picture above – the one with the wooden box?  That is petty much like the one that sat on the wall in my wife’s home in Ireland. Actually, it had a few more holes and wires alongside it. Her home served as the Post Office – and all phone calls into and out of that tiny village went through that box on the wall in her home. Long before I met her, she was one of those voices in the phone receiving and filling requests for phone calls ‘to America’. [Nobody ever said ‘the US’, ‘the USA’, or ‘the States’ – it was always, ‘America’ – as if everyone understood it to mean ‘that part of North America that is the USA, and not Canada or Mexico, which are also in North America, and certainly not anywhere in Central or South America. Her home village is called ‘Dowra’ – the first town on the River Shannon – and the Post Office (Offig an Phost in Gaelic) had the unique number: ‘DOWRA 1’. Oh what a fun number!

Soon (and for several years after) we arrived in the US, the ritual of my phone-treks to my brother’s house were relived – in reverse, but with an added twist!  To call ‘home’ (to her parents in Dowra) my wife had to first get an operator in the ‘Ma Bell’ system here in the US of A (not often do we hear that variant, eh?) and request ‘a line to Ireland’. That sometimes was available immediately, but NOT around Christmas time. At that time of year, the trans-Atlantic tube and funnel was full – from stuff going the other way! It often took a couple hours to get unblocked. The bigger problem was trying to convince the ‘Ma Bell’ voice that the entirety of the phone number wee wished to connect to was, in fact, ‘DOWRA 1’ – nothing more, and obviously, nothing less!  “But it can’t be. It HAS to have more numbers than that” the ‘Ma Bell’ know-it-all insisted. [Keep in mind, the entire town only had 6 or 7 telephones; there were only 80 people in the place for God’s sake! But, being Ireland, and by that same divine providence, the town had 8 pubs!]  My wife firmly (and with the grace and patience from a supply that had long been depleted before my turn in line came around) explained, “I lived there for 20+ years during which time I placed and received thousands of calls, to and from the United States, Canada, England, Australia and South Africa – all through that switchboard there. The number is DOWRA 1 (ONE)!”  Mercifully, at same stage – many years later, telephone number there acquired a string of numbers and the need for ‘Ma Bell ladies’ became obsolete. There was, as if by way of an ‘in-your-face’ satisfaction, a period (in the early ‘70s) when I was working in an equally tiny town in Utah; when my wife needed to phone me at the 8-room motel there, she would ask the ‘Ma Bell lady’ “I wish to be connected to Hanksville 12, please” – and I’m sure she grinned broadly at the irony of it. 

Fast forward to the modern era – people use their cell phones, mobiles, iPhones, Androids and ‘whatevers’ as much, if not more, for things other than making phone calls. That is a whole other topic.

In our house, we also have (what some call ‘land-lines’) – a sort of quasi ‘mobile’ phone system: a base station with a message center and 4 ‘satellite’ cradles into which cordless phones can sit to be recharged. Each unit will display an identity (name and number) of any (well, most) incoming caller; ‘caller ID’. That, Mr Bell, is a great means of ‘screening’ calls and selectively ignoring those incoming calls that may be unwanted. However, it used to require leaving whatever task one was engaged in, to look at the on-phone screen to see the ID. Our latest system has an audio announcement – so now we only have to listen to the ID being announced, and do not need to see the small on-phone screen. [I have frequently got one from ‘1-111-111-1111’ – that is hilarious listening to the automated system doing what sounds like a Mel Tillis impersonation!] Better yet, when watching TV, if the latter’s volume ‘drowns’ out the phone’s audio announcement, the ID appears on the TV screen too! Those, Mr. Bell (along with the ‘magic’ of cell-phone capabilities) have me in your gratitude and wishing that you may be enjoying haggis in heaven every day – not just on Hogmanay. 

I KNOW it is not Alexander Graham Bell’s fault, but there is one wee bit of thistle in me trews that I canna abide, mon! That is the robo-callers. Those feckers that have a computer dial my phone, but leave no message when I ignore the call, letting my answering machine announce “Please leave a message”. The bastards repeatedly do it – until their ‘controller-fiend’ concludes there is nobody at that number. NEVER pick up the receiver – most of the time there is nobody there, but that action lets ‘Mr Fiend’ know there IS a live (but stupid) body in that house; he WILL call back, then. I have received one such sequence 4 or 5 times in the past few days from 1-816-482-3222 with the caption (visible and audible) saying ‘IMPORTANT’. Duh!  So damned important they don’t leave a message?  Scam & Spam. It’s enough to make me want to tell them (and, you, Alex G Bell) just what Charles Krauthammer, in pages 61 – 63 of his new best-seller, ‘Things that Matter’ (ISNB 978-0-385-34917-8) so eloquently calls ‘the deuce’!

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