I lived without a telephone for much longer than most people. It’s hard for younger people to grasp the idea there was once a world without any form of instant and personal communication, but I lived in that world, and for the most part I liked it a lot. I’m not sure how the United States Military handles these young people who are emotionally attached to their person devices, but when I was in the Army no one gave a damn if you ever heard from anyone you knew, ever, much less made a phone call. The barracks where I was station at Fort Stewart housed the better part of a two hundred men and there was one pay phone in front, out in the open, and if it was cold, wet, hot, or raining burning toads down out of the sky with hail made from the urine of stoned cats, well, you know what, that is just too damn bad.
Getting mail in the Army was an event, but there weren’t that many people writing to me, and even fewer that I was writing. My paternal grandmother wrote me once a week but the letters were usually the same thing going on each and every week of her life. She talked about how her two dogs were doing, how the flowers were doing, how my father was doing and how things in Blakely Georgia were slow and how she was dying. She had begun dying in 1965 and when I was a kid the idea of her dying really freaked me out very badly, but after a couple of decades or so, it had lost its sense of urgency. “I’m not going to be around next year,” was something I can always remember that woman telling me, and sure enough, one year she was right. But it wasn’t to be that year, and in truth she was ninety years old when she did go, and I was very sad that she was finally right. But she never made the effort to change her life at all, to meet anyone new, or to go forth and do something that identified herself as someone independent of her role as a mother and grandmother. Each and every letter was the same letter, written with a new date at the top, and after a while I started wondered if she had a template she worked from to write them.
I kept all of the letters my grandmother ever sent me, because as similar as they all were, they were still from her, and I stored them at my father’s house. I had them wrapped up in a white plastic bag, and one day he threw the bag away, because that was what he did when he found something that belonged to someone else in his house.
I once sent postcards on a more or less regular basis, and it was odd when a friend of mine showed me the cards I had been sending her over the years. Postcard sending just for the hell of it is a lost art, and I’m wondering now if I shouldn’t start doing it again.
It was letter writing that kicked off writing for me in a way. It was during a localized flood where I watched the men go from being men to being zombies, turned not from some alien virus but exhaustion of the body and spirit and mind. I wrote a letter to a friend of mine, a long rambling letter, longhand and crude looking, but she read it, and she liked it a lot. She asked me if I ever tried writing before and I rejected the idea of writing because of my handwriting, but once I got a computer the idea floated around my head, like a lost cat meowing for its home. But it would be several more years before the internet became famous and it was even after that before I started sending email.
Having a personal communication device for a while was some sort of status symbol and I knew people who paid the price for looking cool with some brick sized cell phone held up to their head. My first landline had a fifty foot cord on in so I could pace while I talked and I still do that to this day. Having a cat in the same house with a fifty foot long play toy attached to a phone made some conversations more interesting than they needed to be, but I also hung up on people and later blamed the cat. Cordless phones were a marvel to me, and I waited until they dropped down in price before jumping on one, and believe it or not, we all once lived in peace and harmony and no one had an answering machine.
The first person I knew with an answering machine left devastatingly funny messages on it. Somehow he recorded the “the number you have just called is no longer in service,” message and that cut down on the amount of people calling him just to be calling. He also recorded the ‘I’ll have what she’s having” scene, from “When Harry met Sally” oh god yes he did, and that was hysterical. Those were the good old days when that sort of thing was innovative and edgy and now it’s just irritating as hell.
I couldn’t turn my cell phone loose. I cannot live without it. In fact, I have two, one from work and one personal. I have no idea how the military handles a herd of recruits who have never been without one on them ever. The incident of thief must be incredible in service. I wonder if the barracks have free internet now, or if the service personal have to pay for it. I wonder if those barracks where I once lived, and stood in the rain to make a call from a pay phone now boast DSL in every room? It’s a brave new world.