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Using technology to its fullest.

Byline: Mike Kane

COLUMN: Down at the one

I am far from being a technophobe, but I do often question the need for many things modern.

Case in point, my daughter's recent "need" for a phone app (apparently my use of the word "application" is "so noob") that, to me, defies any usefulness and actually holds with disdain the dedication of technology to improve humanity's plight whatsoever.

I'm talking about a connection to a website that is nothing more than a cartoon block of Jell-O, sitting on a plate, jiggling.

The site has nothing else, unless you count the ability to change the color of the Jell-O and sound effects that I suppose an existentialist could argue a jiggling block of gelatin might make when unobserved.

Whatever its defined use is, among teenage girls, it is "beast," which translates, roughly, into must have. Turn it on and teenage girls can sit around and laugh at it without end. I just don't get it. But, at least it was easy; Touch a screen a few times and there on your phone is adolescent entertainment.

Of course, when I was that age, so-called "upgrading of the phone" was a bit more complicated.

We didn't actually own our telephones. The phone company, genially called "Ma Bell" because I suppose "monopoly" left a bad taste in people's mouths, owned our phones. We rented the equipment, for the privilege of making calls on the company's wires.

Phones came in few colors. The most popular of which, if my friends' homes were being counted, were oxidizing mustard and pea soup green. Some people had red phones, but, like a sports car, it was a "special order" color that cost more on your monthly bill. Handsets were so heavy that they required plungers that resembled and were nearly the size of goalposts to support their weight.

Stores didn't sell parts for telephones. If you had a problem, you called the number at the front of the phone book, and sometime within the next week the Telephone Man arrived.

These were fellows who arrived when they were good and ready and who parked their vehicles wherever they wanted, dangerous curves be damned. Attached to their belts were a variety of tools you'd never see at Sears and Roebuck that served one purpose - to gain them access to the inner workings of Ma Bell's equipment.

The most common issue we had was static on the line. But you shouldn't say "on the line," you would be reminded when you called. It could have been an internal issue.

So, the Telephone Man would come and the first thing he would do is make a call. Satisfied there was static to be heard, he next would remove the ringer box from the wall. No easy feat, considering there were none of the click-into-place pieces today's house phones have. Nope. Phones were sealed better than Skylab to hinder crafty homeowners from installing extra lines.

He would then check the jack with a portable handset that hung from his belt. If the issue wasn't the line, he would disassemble the handset, piece by piece, until the problematic piece was found, or not.

If the problem wasn't internal, things got interesting. Ladders were pulled off the truck, cones were set up and poles were climbed. In the days when some people still had party lines, a predecessor of Google+ Hangouts, except you couldn't control who listened or when, repairs to phone lines like this were fodder for much gossip.

"You don't have to go up the pole?" the Telephone Man would be asked. Shades would be drawn. Children would be ushered into other rooms.

One parent would inevitably draw the short straw that required them to knock on a neighbor's door, ostensibly to ask if they had static on their line. The real purpose for such a visit was to let it be known it was static, and not a crossed line, without having to say you thought people with party lines were one step above living in a commune.

Nope, it was much better to have an internal issue and to suffer weeks of static while a replacement part was ordered than to have to explain why the Telephone Man was climbing a pole outside your home.

In the days before touch tone dialing entered the area, a major technological upgrade was a longer handset cord.

I remember the day well: Getting off the school bus, running the quarter mile home to see if the Telephone Man had made good on our new gadget.

I admit, when finding that his truck was still there, I had an immediate sense of party-line rumor dread. I glanced around. Seeing a car in my neighbor's driveway, I almost walked right by, as if I didn't live in the home. But the anticipation was too great. Instead, I cut through some backyards and used the backdoor.

There it was, a cord that nearly reached to the floor at rest, carrying a promise to reach 25 feet when fully stretched. No more standing for phone calls in this home. No more would my forehead have to sit precariously close to those chrome-covered plungers while trying to have a lively discussion about the latest from "Welcome Back Kotter."

At 25 feet, I could nearly reach every room in the house. I didn't have to manipulate the handset across the top of the ringer box - desperately hoping no small animal crossed beneath should it fall - when I needed something to enhance my dialogue. No longer did I need to press my face against what I hoped was sound-deadening paneling when I needed to say something inappropriate for anyone other than a fellow middle-schooler.

I was a liberated conversationalist.

But the exhilaration was short-lived. Most often, I found myself pacing around the kitchen. I reference the kitchen, of course, because even people who had phones installed in their bathrooms knew it wasn't polite to talk while using the facilities. So, the kitchen it was.

And, when I wasn't knocking stuff off the table with the cord, I often found myself opening the refrigerator, stopping my friend mid-sentence to say something like, "Hey, listen to this. Butter. Parkayyy."

It wasn't mind-stretching banter by any means. But, it served us well in those days when finding someone with whom you had common knowledge could lead to friendship.

I guess wiggling Jell-O cubes serve their own purpose, too.

Michael Kane is the editor of The Banner who is expecting any moment to be corrected by some teenager on his improper use of the word "beast." He can be reached at (508)835-3865, ext. 792 or bannews@yahoo.com.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 7, 2012
Words:1114
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