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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 50-C

The Rhythms of Long-Distance

“May I be excused, please,” Dave asked, pushing back from the table.

It may seem strange that a twenty-one-year-old would make such a proper request in a laid-back family like ours. Especially considering we were eating on a vinyl table cloth in the basement of an unfinished house. We were not a formal family, but years before this time, when we were little kids, Dad had taken it upon himself to instill the same table manners he had grown up with. That way, when his mother came to visit us or if we ever had dinner at her house, he would not be embarrassed by our rough edges. Courtesy comes from the heart and manners from the head, but they are not mutually exclusive attributes.

At any rate, very early on, we were taught to say, “Good morning” when we sat down to breakfast; “please and thank you” with every request at the table; and “May I be excused please” if we chose to leave the table before the rest of the family. All these years later, the courtesy was not strictly expected, but considering that meal's touchy conversation and surprise happy ending, Dave said the words without thinking.

“Don’t you want ice cream?” Mom asked.

“Not now. I was going to use the phone in your room to call Robin if that’s okay.”

“Just keep track of your time and give Mom the money for your minutes.” Dad reminded.

“I was thinking about calling Brenda today, too, if that’s okay.”

“Keep track of your minutes,” Dad said again.

“That reminds me, Don.” Mom said, “We have to call Kathy. I told her we would.”

"Yikes! I'm glad you said that," I blurted, "We need to talk to Kathy, too...in private...without you and Dad on the phone. It will only take a minute.?"

"Why don't we call Kathy now so I'm not holding up the show when I make my call," Dave suggested.

""You dial, Bev. I'll scoop. You might as well have some, Dave," Dad smiled and handed him a bowl.

Mom called Kathy with the phone that hung on the kitchen wall, passing it from person to person around the table as if she were there. After a few minutes of small talk and details about their coming home on Saturday, I reminded Mom and Dad that we needed to talk to Kathy alone for just a minute.

Dad and Mom played dumb, but they knew it was about our Christmas gift to them and were not surprised that, without her in the house, this matter had been left until four days before Christmas. Kathy told us our gift was already purchased. Mom had picked out a new light fixture to hang over the dining room table upstairs. Of course, this was the same maple table we had just eaten on, but during those first months in the basement, we were constantly thinking about the unfinished rooms upstairs. This Quoizel fixture would someday grace the dining room. It was upstairs still in it's box, covered by an old sheet and fine saw dust. It required some serious "chipping in" from each of us, but it was the simplest Christmas shopping we'd ever done.

After the table was cleared, Dave slipped back into the corner bedroom to use the other phone on Mom's night stand. About a half hour later, he came out with a smile. Things were all set, and the topic of his trip to Florida would not come up again until the next Sunday when he began packing. What my parents did not know is that the same conversation they had with Dave, was an idea not far from my own wishes for that Christmas, and that is the subject of Chapter 51.

But before proceeding onto Chapter 51, we need to take a moment to talk about “long distance.” In this day of immediate and “free” and constant long-distance communications between friends and loved ones around the world, the thought of “long distance” phone bills may be as difficult to grasp as the fact that gas was 44 cents a gallon in 1975.

In 1970, just five years before this chapter takes place, Bell Telephone went to great lengths to publicize the fact that customers could now dial direct from coast-to-coast for as little as 70 cents a minute. That was meaningless to me at the time because I never had a reason to make a long-distance call. I rarely used the phone except to call home for a ride after church events.

[Side note: The touch-tone phone was introduced around 1965, but it took many years before most people owned one. Our phone number in Roseville was 771-7095. When dialing it on a touch-tone phone, the tones sounded like the first seven notes of “Camptown Races” [i.e. Camptown ladies sing this song...]. After dialing my own number I couldn't help but sing, ‘’Doodah, Doodah.” Anyone standing nearby hadn't heard the seven notes and just looked at me strange. When we moved to the unfinished house, our number was changed to 725-6869, which suggested not tune whatsoever, and my "Doodah-Doodah" habit was soon broken.]

My need for "long-distance" communication dramatically increased once I was in college. When I was away at school, my need to "Reach out and touch someone" applied to my parents back home, but when I was home it applied to that special someone I was dating at school.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, Bell Telephone actually launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history with the words "Reach out and touch someone." The ad campaign was not only promoting long-distance but also trying to soften AT&T’s image since the so-called monopoly was in a long anti-trust suit through much of the Seventies. The commercials were every bit as effective as the tear-jerker Hallmark commercials that came in the decades after them. Here are some links to the actual commercials:

The first "Reach out and touch someone" TV ad. "The day the bouquet ran away." The grandson telling Grandpa "I hit a real homerun." The grandpa reading a bedtime story over the phone. And the sad one about the son who called out of the blue. But the one that may have the most in common with the next chapter can be viewed on the screen below.

To fully understand the power of those old commercials and the vital role "long distance" played in our lives back then, young readers must imagine a world where there were no cell phones, no emails, no Skyping, no Facebook, no ichat, and no text messaging. If a guy wanted to communicate with his girl from miles away, he had two choices: he could write a letter or make a long-distance call.

Each long-distance call was itemized on the monthly bill, and in our house Dad put our initials beside our calls and we paid for them ourselves. A thirty-minute call during a weekday would cost over $20, but on the weekend it would only cost around $6. That’s why there was a pattern of calls on weekends. (In fact, I used to watch the second hand of my watch to know when a call started so I’d know when to hang up and not get charged for the extra minute. This had a way of preventing too much “gushy talk” at the end of my calls.) Because of these economic realities, getting a “surprise call” on a weeknight from someone you cared who “just wanted to hear your voice” was a pretty good sign that your girl was not sitting under the apple tree with anyone else but you.

Add to the "long-distance" mix the thrill of getting a letter in the mail from the person you couldn't afford to call as often as you wanted. The letter told you that they were spending their days in much the same way and that they took the time to write a five or six page letter complete with a dab of Heaven Scent or some other perfume that made the reading experience even more irresistible. Letters could be held; the choice of stationary said something; the penmanship said something; the doodles in the margins said something. Letters could be read again and again. And then to hear the voice on the weekend, the voice behind those handwritten words…. Well, I tell you, it is a dimension of the courtship process that cannot and should not be replaced by technology.

Communicating via endless “free minutes” and constant contact via the cell-phone in your pocket or the Mac on your lap may be efficient but it is also ephemeral. Oh, please, young readers who may be trudging through these chapters, be among those of your generation to revive the lost art of letter writing. Be a man or woman who knows the value and power of hand-written thoughts to someone far away (or otherwise not present as you write them). And may your letters help your children understand what it means to cherish someone and long to be with them in the purest sense of the word.

As I said, this was the beginning of a time in my life when letters and long-distance calls were a part of the rhythm of my remaining years at home.
More about that in Chapter 51.


Blogger the walking man said...

OKIE DOKIE all caught up now.

I had to back check you on the 66 cents a gallon thing though. The cost per bbl of oil doubled between '72/'73 during the Arab oil embargo caused of Nixon's unfettered support for Israel. Seems to me though I may be wrong that we were approaching more like 60 or 70 cents that year. I was driving a cab for a part of '75 and fuel was a major cost.

I will say though that this chapter spells out very clearly why your mom and dad really complemented each other. Total opposites in outlook but totally alike in world view with different results to their conclusions.

I like the opposite s that know how to accommodate each other.

27/1/10 8:44 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks for getting caught up and for the fact checking. The link in that paragraph is where I got the price. Seems hard to believe either way. I do know that it was still well under a dollar a gallon in 1979.

I wrote a lot in "draft" over the weekend and have been spending my evenings trying to wrap this up because any day now, I'm expecting to become a grandpa and my thoughts will be elsewhere.

You are right about my parents accomodating each other. My closing thoughts in an epilogue go into that fact. Most people think the perfect couple is never at odds, and maybe such couples exist but they tend to "fly the coop" when suddenly things aren't perfect. So I'd put my money on imperfect people who share a worldview and commitment "for better and worse" any time. Thanks for mentioning that and for stopping by. The next chapter is really long! =)

27/1/10 4:11 PM  

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