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Our number is up

One of the joys of teaching — or being “in the academy,” as we haughtily are urged to say — is the opportunity it provides to regale college students from time to time with fanciful facts from the Jurassic era, when their professor was growing up.

Back in a time when Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine was going full-tilt, folks hereabouts — especially those who worked in downtown businesses — had phone numbers that consisted of just two or three digits.

As a child, whenever I was emboldened enough — or frustrated enough by the death of a pet toad — to attempt to make a phone call, I’d pick up the phone, hear a pleasant voice on the other end say, “Number, please,” and reply with either 23 or 62 to reach my parents at the newspaper office or 176 to reach my grandparents at the funeral home.

Or I could just say, perhaps tearfully, “I wanna talk to my daddy,” and a dutiful telephone operator knew exactly what to do. From her perch atop the second floor of what most recently was the McGregor’s building at 3rd and Main Sts., she could see both my dad’s office and the pharmacy below her office where he often went for caffeine and gossip. If she had seen him venturing across the street to his favorite watering hole, she would simply adjust my call automatically.

With the demise of rural phone systems, Bell was, as its slogan declared, the only phone company in town, and it tried very hard not to act like it.

All that began coming to an end shortly after my eighth birthday, on the memorable night of Sept. 30, 1961. As a rare treat, I was allowed to stay up until midnight so I could pick up the phone at 11:59 p.m., say goodbye to the operator, wait for the courthouse clock to strike and, with its last toll, hear her reassuring voice be replaced with a dull buzz that sounded what you heard on game shows when someone supplied a wrong answer.

Marion had switched to dial. Special classes had even been offered to explain to the populace exactly how to insert a finger into a 10-hole wheel and dial whatever digits you wanted.

For the next dozen or so years, we could dial only local numbers. To call someone out of town, we had to dial 0 and ask for an operator, who by then had been instructed to stop with all the “Number, please,” niceties and instead merely announce her — or, by that time, his — job title, flatly saying, “Operator,” and challenging you to know what to do with that information.

The good news was, you didn’t need to know a lot of numbers to call locally. You had to dial only five, and the first was always a 2. So, instead of remembering 23 or 62, all I had to learn was 2166 — a number that later changed to 2165 when a third phone line was needed but the numbers had to be adjacent, and the next number up was in use by the schools.

Marion considered itself lucky. Although we knew our numbers actually had seven digits, the first two were always expressed as letters, starting to spell a word. Marion got “EVergreen” — EV standing for 38. It always seemed more pleasant than Hillboro’s “WHitney.” Who wanted to dial a dead cotton gin inventor, anyway?

There were hidden secrets about the phone system, known only to young pranksters — like how you could dial 41043, hang up, and the phone system would call you back. Or there was the scheme, practiced by more than a few grade schoolers, of getting eight people to dial the same busy number at the same time, tying up all the mechanical line-finders in town and letting everyone doing the dialing speak to each other over a shared “buzz-buzz-buzz” busy signal.

Eventually, the secrets went away, letters became only numbers, and when equipment was modernized to allow for push-button phones, more and more numbers started being required. We also got an area code — 316 — though initially it was just for those calling from afar. Within 316, before it changed to 620, you needed dial only seven numbers — plus a 1 if the call was long distance, thereby racking up charges faster than a taxicab in New York City.

Come this fall, we’ll be sinking deeper in the cesspool of numbers and will have to include the area code with every number we dial, even locally. No more “number, please.” No more 23. No more 2165. No more “evergreen.” Now we’ll be at (620) 382-2165 even when calling from one of the other lines in the same office.

Nowadays, nobody worries about whether calls are long distance. We no longer have to live with just one phone company in town — though all tend to act as if they were. And we soon will have to dial — albeit without an actual dial — at least 10 full digits for every call.

The only saving grace is, we can pray to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Bixby, or whatever other automated god we speak to and ask simply, “Call mom,” and the call probably will go through.

If we could just get those automatons to perk up with a polite, “Number, please,” instead of a beep, we might actually consider it progress.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 1, 2021

 

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