All those telephone poles.
I notice them now as I drive around Denver, pole after pole after pole—soldier straight timbers strung with wires and pigeons, some topped with cell phone towers, and others festooned with garage sale signs and lost pet flyers.
In John Updike’s poem Telephone Poles, he writes:
True, their thin shade is negligible,
But then again there is not that tragic autumnal
Casting-off of leaves to outface annually.
These giants are more constant than evergreens
By being never green.
The first wooden telegraph poles in the U.S. were erected back in 1843, and today 130 million wooden utility poles are in service across North America. Most of the poles are crafted from conifers like southern yellow pine, Douglas fir or western red cedar. An infusion of chemical preservatives extends the life of the wooden poles from 5 years to about 70. The number of man-hours and trees required to build yesteryear’s infrastructure boggles my mind.
Rotary phones and party lines
Perhaps, like me, you’re a member of the sweeping-changes-in-telephone-technology generation. When I was growing up in Boulder, Colorado, most homes had a single rotary dial phone. (If you, too, once owned this piece of primitive technology you might enjoy watching this YouTube video of millennials trying to dial a rotary phone.)
For a time, our family had a party line—a telephone line shared with strangers—to save money. My mom told me not to ever, ever pick up the phone and listen to the other family’s conversations. You can probably imagine how that went. The party phone lady had endless dramas and grievances, but my free entertainment ended one day when she heard my adolescent mouth-breathing and demanded,”Who’s on this line?” Ever so gently, I replaced the phone in the cradle and never eavesdropped again.
Long distance rates were expensive, so if your grandparents called everyone spoke quickly. If you were very lucky, you might have a long cord so you could take the phone into another room for a little privacy; our family did not have this luxury. However, when I worked in sales I splurged on a padded plastic cradle so the phone could rest on my shoulder and my neck wouldn’t get tired.
Telemarketers called back then, too, but if you wanted to reduce your solicitations you could pay the phone company extra for an unlisted phone number and keep your information out of the big, fat paper phone book.
Technology on the Move
In the 90s, telephone answering machines came on the market. A cassette tape in the machine recorded your messages so that you could rewind and replay them. If you were eating dinner when a call came in, the caller’s message would be broadcast for all to hear. This wasn’t always a good thing. “Hey, is your head pounding like mine? And how many Zimas did we drink last night?”
It was considered cool to have an especially creative outgoing message. “This is Dylan. Sorry I can’t come to the phone, but I’m busy trying to keep my Tamagotchi pet alive. Leave a message at the beep and I’ll call you back.”
Battery phones with antennas were the next big thing; Jerry Seinfeld had one that you can see in old reruns. Important people like doctors often carried pagers, early precursors to cell phones. Pagers were small devices that clipped on your belt and buzzed if someone needed you to call them back. People with pagers kept extra dimes in their pockets so they could return calls from the nearest pay phone, another once-common fixture that has since faded away to extinction.
I felt fortunate to have an early Motorola “car phone,” a brick-sized device that plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter. As the technology for cell phones improved, demand increased and phones became smaller. I later had a Nokia flip phone with a single “app,” a rudimentary game called Snake. “19 Cell Phones We All Had in the 2000s” is a fun read if you want to reminisce about your old Motorola Razr.
Letting the Land Line Go
Even though technology advanced, I held on to my land line longer than most people. The sound quality was better for conducting interviews, and I liked how wired phones continued to work during a power outage.
But in recent years, my home telephone had become a source of stress, ringing constantly throughout the day and evening with robocalls, scams and sales pitches. Technology exists to stop the onslaught, according to Consumer Reports, but most telephone companies choose not to block the calls. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that $488 million was lost by consumers last year to phone scams.
So I finally called the phone company, cancelled the land line and upgraded our internet speed. The net effect was a $35 monthly savings, a much quieter house, and no more lags when we watch Netflix.
The funny thing is, I still kind of miss the solid dependability of that old wired telephone.
How About You?
Do you still have a land line, or did you get rid of yours ages ago? Did you ever have a clever answering machine message? Do you ever miss having a home telephone? I’d love to hear your stories and memories about phones in the Comments section of this post.
P.S. If you still receive paper phone books that you no longer want, here’s how to opt out.
Grateful thanks to Dave Worley for use of the telephone poles photo above, to Brooke Lark for use of the vintage phone image, and to Gabriel Benois for the Letting Go image on which I photoshopped a phone.