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Woster: 'Operator? I’d like to make a call ...'

If you grew up in a time when cell phones were everywhere, you probably would be unable to function with a telephone booth and a pay phone. My mind wandered off to the days of collect calls and reversed charges this past weekend because I spent s...

Terry Woster

If you grew up in a time when cell phones were everywhere, you probably would be unable to function with a telephone booth and a pay phone.

My mind wandered off to the days of collect calls and reversed charges this past weekend because I spent some time down in the Soldier Creek area. That’s along U.S. Highway 18 a ways west of the Rosebud corner. If you continue west on 18, you pass through Martin and on to Pine Ridge.
Thinking of those communities out west led me to reminisce about a time when telephones were either permanently attached to the wall of your kitchen or living room, or else were in a glass-enclosed booth with a closable, folding door and a thick phone directory hanging in tatters below the black rectangle that used to be what a telephone looked like.
Those were the days when folks on the move went without an immediate connection to the rest of the world, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. Yeah, I know. It seems inconceivable these days.
I suppose it seems inconceivable that there was a time when a person would go to a pay telephone, drop a dime (whoa, Stone Ages) in the slot, punch zero and get an operator. A person would tell the operator he’d like to make a collect call, give her the number (in my case, usually the number for my mom and dad back home) and wait while the operator connected the call, told the answering party there was a collect call from Terry and asked if they’d accept the charges. Usually, the answering party did accept.
If my mom answered, she always accepted the charges, and she seemed pleased to do so. The operator would say, “Go ahead, sir,’’ and we’d talk for about 2 minutes before we ran out of stuff to say over a telephone. Mission accomplished, made a contact with the folks back home, and when the receiver went back on the hook, the dime dropped down into the slot and could be pocketed for a future call. And to think, somebody thought we could improve on that.
When the family went on its annual summer vacation -- sometimes as long as two weeks if Dad decided he wanted to see the Pacific Ocean by way of Winnipeg, Glacier and Salt Lake City -- I don’t believe anyone knew where we were from one day to the next.
Dad would pick a motel in whatever city we passed through at sundown. The motel didn’t have a room phone. If it had a phone, we wouldn’t have called anyone. We’d leave the farm, drive for a couple of weeks and return on or around the day we were supposed to get home. That was not a bad get-away-from-it-all system. And to think, somebody thought we could improve on that.
I have my very own cell phone these days, obviously, just like the cool people. It’s a smart phone, but not the most current model. Still, outdated as it is, it makes and receives calls, lets me send a few texts and handles some basic Web browsing. There was a time when I’d have thought I’d died and gone to Heaven to possess such a marvelous piece of technology.
That time was an eon ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I roamed South Dakota seeking stories and pay phones. In my wildest imagination, I could not have dreamed up cellular telephones, not even the kind that just allowed the user to, you know, make a telephone call.
(Dick Tracy had a wrist-radio back then, sure, but he wore a snap-brim hat and high-collared detective’s overcoat, too. Neither the wrist-radio nor the detective’s garb were particularly believable.)
These days, the clever people whip out a telephone to do their banking, check the local weather, order tickets to the Dark Star Orchestra, watch the evening newscasts and post, for their friends’ enjoyment, a picture of their chicken dinner. It doesn’t occur to them to wonder where the telephone operator is located who makes all of those transactions possible. They take it on faith, I guess.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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