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Gimme a Smile: Call me if you can

Posted: March 2, 2014 - 12:00am

I left the house without my phone yesterday. It made me nervous. I was walking down an icy street — what if I fell and couldn’t get up? How could I call for help without my phone? Or what if one of my kids was trying to call me? They’d get an automated phone message, just like I do when I call them. What kind of an irresponsible parent was I? Could I make it through the next 20 minutes without my phone? I had to stop and get a grip. I had no idea I’d become so dependent on the concept of constantly being in touch. It wasn’t always this way...

Back when I was a kid, (don’t you just hate it when some old geezer drags out that tired old line? Hate to break it to you, but you’ll utter those words yourself someday. You’ll be like, “Back when I was a kid, dude, we called them smartphones but we didn’t know how super dumb they really were.” But that’s your story — mine is way more interesting.)

Back when I was a kid, we didn’t carry phones around in our pockets. Phones were attached to the wall with long, curly cords that were good for jump roping or twisting around yourself to try to get out of doing the dishes. “I can’t dry the dishes, Mom, I’m tied up in the phone cord right now.” Yeah, it never worked for me either.

Instead of a phone in our pockets, we kids carried the “emergency dime” so we could call home on a pay phone if we got in trouble. Back in those days, telephone booths stood on street corners and in building lobbies, waiting for a prospective caller to deposit a dime for a call, or don a superhero’s costume. You’ve got to wonder what Clark Kent would use to transform into Superman these days. A port-o-john? Doesn’t quite have the allure of a phone booth.

In those days, school classrooms didn’t come with their own class phone, and teachers wouldn’t dream of interrupting class for a phone call. Lucky teachers: they didn’t have to worry about students texting in the middle of class. Our version of texting was to type 1134 on our calculators, turn them upside down, and giggle like hell. Simple pleasures.

My college dorm room didn’t even have its own phone. There was one phone in the hall for a dozen or so women, and whenever it rang we would all erupt from our individual rooms and race down the hall to see who could get there first to answer it. 20 minutes of socializing later, we would wander back to our lonely studying, hoping for the next stimulating interruption. In those days, a phone call, even if it was for someone else, was an opportunity for camaraderie instead of isolation.

Life without a cellphone is hard to imagine nowadays, but somehow we muddled through. I even managed to travel internationally without benefit of cellphone. Shortly after graduating from college, I arranged to meet my friend in Bombay (oops, it’s Mumbai now — my, how time flies!) She was coming from a stint in the Peace Corps in Liberia, and I was flying from New York City. Our brilliant plan, arranged by letter, no less, (remember, e-mail was also not in the picture yet) was that I would arrive first and simply wait for her to walk off her flight, and that was how we would meet up for our travels in India. It was a fine plan, really, except for the fact that I almost missed my connecting flight in New York City. In those days, airport security wasn’t so scary, and I was able to shove my way to the front of the line and dash onto the plane, successfully arriving in Bombay first. When you can’t call to say you’ll be a little late, I guess you try harder to be on time.

I spent weeks in India and Nepal, trekking in the mountains, attempting to ford raging rivers, drinking dodgy water and eating sketchy food. My parents received a few letters and postcards, but nary a phone call, and no one thought anything of it. Could I make it for 20 minutes without my cellphone? My, how times have changed!

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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