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Telephones when we
were young rang true

Picture of Rheta
by Rheta Grimsley Johnson

The man at the stadium-sized office supply store should have pegged me as a difficult customer. I had been pacing the same aisle for 20 minutes.

"I need a plain telephone," I said when he wandered over. "But a good one. I don't need multiple lines, a speaker phone, a caller ID, a call-waiting feature, an automatic redial, an answering machine or a memory. Well, I need a memory, but not on my telephone. I need a receiver with heft and a ring you can hear. A good one."

"These are all good telephones," he said, "but a plain one? Hmmmm."

Some days I wake with a sense of malicious adventure. I spoke before I could stop myself.

"You're about my age," I began. "Remember the phone you had growing up? Your family just had one, right?"

I was on a roll.

"That one telephone lasted your entire childhood, right? No problems, no repairs. Now, answer honestly. How many telephones have you had in the last 10 years?"

He got my point. But he still couldn't find a plain telephone in his vast inventory. I finally settled on his "Memory Speakerphone," which seemed a bit heavier than the others. It cost about $20.

That should tell you something right there. A major appliance like a telephone should cost more than $20.

I have had at least 10 telephones in the last 10 years. They go bad. They have the shelf life of milk. They develop hums, or simply fade to blank. They are cheap.

The telephone I grew up with was on the wall. It looked permanent. It hung next to the counter with the glitter in the Formica where we kids ate every meal. If it rang during mealtime, we had to tell the caller we'd talk later.

That phone had a rotary dial because nobody was in too much of a hurry to wait for the numbers to chum their way back to their proper spot. The receiver weighed at least six pounds. There was a long cord that would reach all the way to the stove so my mother could talk and stir her pots all at the same time.

That phone didn't belong to us. We leased it from the telephone company. Phones back then were, like company cars. You could use them, but you never really owned them.

I did so want a pink Princess telephone for Christmas when they first appeared on the market. I got a wristwatch instead. My best friend, Connie Duncan, had a Princess model. She also had one of those aluminum Christmas trees with the light that rotated. Connie's parents were progressive.

Phones were basically all alike back then. You could ask to use a neighbor's phone and not have to ask for instructions.

Nowadays, no two phones are alike. People wander around outside with their telephones, or talk without holding the receiver to their ears. One man I know has a phone shaped like a duck; it doesn't ring, it quacks. My parents have a telephone (I gave it to them) designed to look like one that might have been in a general store a long time ago. Only it, too, has push-button dialing.

I once had a Mickey Mouse telephone. I figure the telephone is the only instrument of torture that comes shaped like cartoon characters.

So far I am pleased with my new telephone. I don't know what all the buttons do, but I am able to place a call. And it has lasted for almost a week now. I am encouraged.

As I left the office supply store the other day, I looked back over my shoulder. I could see my clerk through the plateglass, pointing in my direction and laughing.

This article, written by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, appeared in section C of the
October 19, 1998 publication of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper in
Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Used by permission.