In the old days when you dialed the telephone number of a person, company, government office, or just about anybody, you'd expect your call to be answered by a living, breathing human.
With the years, that has changed. It has even infected prayer. The other day my friend Joe sat quietly in his living room and began to pray.
"Heavenly Father..." At which point a taped voice broke in. "We're sorry, but all the lines to God are presently in use. Please leave your name, number and eternal password, plus the topic you'd like to discuss with Him/Her. If speaking with a saint would be helpful, just give us the saint's name and He/She will report to God on your behalf." Am I exaggerating? Sure, but I wanted to grab your attention.
Has anyone ever written a complete history of how people get in touch with one another? I suppose grunts and simple gestures may have led the way. Long-distance contacts required smoke signals from mountain tops. Drum-beating was another tool. One invention followed another.
My introduction to long-distance human contact was the party line. It consisted of one row of telephone poles, with a single line connecting them. Each subscriber was given a unique bell signal, and was asked not to tap into another neighbor's conversation. That requirement was observed by roughly 8% of telephone users, I suppose. You never knew who might be listening in, so you watched your language and the gossip level you chose.
Today, from what I hear, we're at the opposite end of telephonic awareness. From the starting gate, you'd better assume that every word you speak on the phone is being heard and possibly recorded by Big Brother or some commercial enterprise hoping to sell you a wart cure.
A large chunk of today's telephone science is devoted to NOT answering incoming calls. Most phones are equipped with a sign or signal that identifies the unwanted caller. The word SCAM is often used.
Even though email and the computer are major forms of today's communications, life would be much less interesting without telephones.
Hollywood and the stage would have been empty or emptier. How many movies or songs can you name that mention the telephone or its use? Dozens? Hundreds?
I was about 10 years old when I learned these song lyrics: "Hello, Hawaii, how are you? Let me talk to Honolu-lu-lu … and tell her this: Gimme a kiss, gimme a kiss by wireless." Today you can tell the production date of a movie by the use or non-use of cell phones in the story line. And so on.
I tip my hat to anyone who earns his or her living while strapped to a telephone. It must be a form of hell to spend each day listening and speaking to complete strangers. But millions of people do it. The good ones can earn a company thousands of dollars and new customers each month. The untrained ones — without realizing it — serve as the reason for their employers to replace them with a tape recording.
Or an offshore agent in Manila, India, or other foreign land. They cost their U.S. employers less in wages, and are usually well-trained and helpful. Unfortunately, their native accents often get in the way.
Of all the uses of a telephone, fundraising must be the least productive. I get dozens of calls each year from worthy (and some unworthy) causes. Few of the callers inspire confidence. They tend to read from a script, and some are outraged if you ask for more information than what appears on the paper they're holding.
But after all is said and done, I love my telephones. I have three landline sets and one ancient flip-top cellphone. I live alone in icebox New England most of the time, but I'm in touch with my sweetie Carolina Moon in Gulfport via dozens of phone calls a week. We each have a portrait of Alexander Graham Bell in our homes. "Thanks, Mr. B. You done well!"