CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - I Want to Reach Out and Touch A Computer?

By Jack Cawthon 2007

One advantage of growing older, besides a cheaper cup of coffee at Mickey Dee's, are so many past days to remember as the "good old days."

I'm sure that many of those "good old days" have been cleansed of the bad memories, as the mind does have a way of wiping clean the memory bank from time to time to ensure a degree of sanity. After all, it was the first computer model. Life would become more depressing with all of the bad times receiving equal time.

To me, our early telephone system dates back to good old days when you really could reach out live and touch someone else live, at least vocally alive.

Our system on Barbecue Run when I was a kid didn't reach much farther than a few loud yells without wires, and I figure the Indian drums were far more efficient over our "citizens' system" of pole-to-pole-to-tree as we connected not so much with the outside world as to our neighbors across the hill into the next holler.

Those early phones depended on a crank which when turned sent an electromagnetic current (see what I learned in college!) through the wire and caused a ring in another phone, or phones, as everyone hooked to the wire could receive the signal.

And you can bet that everyone who heard the ring, whether their ring or not, would pick up the receiver to listen to the conversation. It never paid to say nasty things about a neighbor.

Our ring was a long and two shorts. Others had combinations of longs and shorts. To reach the operator at Lockney, Hallie was her name, took one long crank, or, in an emergency at night when she was off duty, several long rings. (You didn't want to do this except in a real emergency, as some pranksters found out.) You called her to reach out to the far reaches of civilization, such as Glenville, 12 long miles away by car, but farther by way of wiring through Lockney, Normantown and Letter Gap, but still speedier than by Model A Ford.

Getting to Glenville, or other "long distance," was by way of the "trunk line," which, as a kid, I identified with an old steamer trunk of my Grandma's where she kept her valuables, such as the box of chocolate covered cherries she received once a year from some far off descendant and from which she would reward me from time to time with one luscious lump.

That box would last the whole year, one bite at a time, as I don't think my Grandma ate many but provided only for my benefit. As a result, I have built up a lifelong craving for chocolate covered cherries, and only by self control, which I process in abundance, eat only one piece slowly, making the whole box last nearly as long as the long-ago rationed one.

So, that was my concept of a trunk line, somehow connected to a trunk. But that line connected to outside calls, and when it wasn't busy, my Mom could talk to her sister in Glenville. I don't know how many "trunks" there were, but quite often my Mom would have to try several times to be able to get through.

After storms, the line often went dead, and my Dad would set out looking for downed limbs or whatever obstruction had blocked the signal.

We left the holler when I was nine and moved to the big city of Glenville. Lo, there were modern conveniences not seen in the holler, such as electric, running water and an inside outhouse which was even nicer than the outside one give to us by President Roosevelt.

We even had a telephone with a dial, and no more rousing out Hallie to make long distance calls. For local calls, you simply dialed four numbers and if the line wasn't busy, reached the other party, provided they were at home. Ah, those were the simple days!

When I moved to Charleston, or up a holler near Charleston—even back then I couldn't adjust to living in a heavy population center—we had a telephone with an exchange name. It was the same as dialing seven digits, but I guess WO, as in Woodland, and then the numbers were easier to remember.

You still dialed zero to reach a real, live operator who put through the long distance call. Only women served as operators back then, and some of them had sexier voices than Marilyn Monroe. Others didn't. It was the luck of the draw, or dial.

As it always tends to do, life became more complicated over time. I don't remember when the operator was replaced with the direct dial for long distance. Still, after dialing 1 and the area code, then the number, if there wasn't an answer after several rings you tried again. If there was a busy signal, you knew that someone was at home.

Ah, but somewhere along the line someone invented the answering machine. Now, you are more apt to reach a recording, some cutesy, some ridiculous, and some just straight forward, such as: "You have reached the Flintstones.

We aren't at home, or can't answer the phone right now. If you will leave a message, we will call back." So, I leave a message, and when the call is returned I'm not at home and the machine delivers that fact to caller, and over and over we go playing phone tag.

Now, we move ahead to the other modern "convenience," the cell phone. Just about every person you see has a phone glued to his or her ear, even while driving, riding a bike, or jogging. If you have any concept of evolution, forget that we descended from apes, perhaps you can see a trend developing.

Sometime in the near future generations I foresee people with one large ear where the phone fits against and arm permanently uplifted on the side on which the phone is held.

Speaking of evolution, the phone company already has it. If you want to reach out and touch it, say complain about a bill, good luck! No human there, at least until you have exhausted, and been exhausted, by modern technology. You reach a computer, as with most businesses these days, but the phone company has a computer with emotions. It understands voices, or most voices, as my Gilmer County twang seems to upset it.

Sometimes, after I have repeated commands and become a bit testy at punching the wrong buttons, it will, in what seems almost a sobbing feminine voice, "I do not understand." I have heard this same complaint many times, usually from a feminine voice, and that causes me to yearn to reach out and give it a little hug and pat its coaxial, and reply, "That's all right. Don't cry." However, the phone company would probably levy a toll for this extra service.

Up the road, 40 or 50 years, providing the world isn't crisped by global warming, some old folk, now a kid, will look back and remember those "good old days" when there was computer dial-up service that required 30 seconds or more to make a connection.