It’s Long Distance!


Photo courtesy Wikipedia

One of my favorite movie scenes is from a movie whose name I don’t even remember. It’s one of those ancient black and white movies that show on PBS in the middle of the night. It takes place in the early 1930’s, in a beautiful mansion. The matron of the house, dressed for dinner in a flowing dress, rushes to answer the phone. It’s an ornate Art Deco contraption. She answers with a most welcoming “Hello,” listens briefly, then, putting her hand over the mouthpiece, she turns and calls out to her husband in the next room “Honey, it’s long distance!” in a voice that expresses wonderful amazement at something marvelous and unusual.

When I was growing up telephones were different from today. They were clunky, generally quite ugly, and depended on qualified operators, and in later years, thick books of names and numbers. When we lived at the pink house I would occasionally call my best friend Mark. We didn’t push a few buttons on a tiny box from our pocket, I had to go to the northeast corner of the living room, pick up the handset and listen for the operator to say “Number please.” Mark’s number was 3024.

One more thing about that number, it was for a specific phone nailed to the wall at their house. I wasn’t calling Mark, I was calling his house. When someone from the house answered, they would go find Mark, if he was in the house.

Let’s compare that to today. I call Mark’s personal phone. He answers. Unlike in the past when I would ask for a person, Mark in this case, today only Mark will answer the phone, and I ask him where he is. Back in the day a phone had a specific place in the home, today it’s closely held to his person.

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Get Me Home!

Last week I wrote about working for the dry cleaners in Denver until Mr. Fuller decided my time there was done. The rest of the family was on vacation in North Dakota, so I had to figure out how to get up there to join them.

In 1966 we didn’t have a lot of money, and calling anywhere outside of town was an expensive proposition. As I recall the price was in dollars per minute. Compared to today, that’s at least ten dollars a minute. So before making a phone call, decide what you’re going to say!

Airplane Ticket - Bismarck to Denver - June 1967

Airplane Ticket – Bismarck to Denver – June 1967 – $34

I called and arranged to get back to North Dakota, which wasn’t trivial for a sixteen year old without a car. The agreed upon solution was for me to fly standby on Frontier Airlines from Denver to Bismarck, 100 miles from Jamestown. You may ask why a phone call was expensive, but airline travel was affordable, and I can’t answer you. Standby fares were considerably cheaper, but still probably cost the equivalent of hundreds of dollars today. Plus, the destination airport wasn’t anywhere near my destination.

It was settled, I’d be flying standby the next afternoon. (Standby meant I’d be the last person onto the airplane, if there was an empty seat, significantly discounted from the regular fare.) My mother’s co-worker took me to the airport, to stay with me until the airplane left the gate. That was a good thing, because at the very end a paying passenger took what should have been my seat. I was bumped after being given a seat assignment, and after I called Jamestown to say it was OK to leave the house to pick me up at the Bismarck airport. Continue reading