Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When the Phone Rings, Run

I was thinking the other day about telephones, and how much they have changed. When I was a child, there were no cell phones, no push buttons, no Internet phone service and nobody used local codes like 503.

There were operators who were actually live human beings. If they weren't busy, you could call them and chat, even if you were six years old. You could call information, and someone would even look a number up for you. It was called "directory assistance," and it was free.

To call out, you dialed four numbers, not ten. The phones were rotary-dial (does anyone younger than 50 even remember that?). Often neighbors had what were called party lines, which meant you shared a phone line with your neighbors.

There was always a ring code, i.e. if the phone rang once, paused and started ringing again it was for one family, and if it rang twice, paused, and started ringing again, it was for the other family on the line. Which meant if you picked up the phone on the wrong ring tone, you might accidentally overhear some really juicy gossip.

My father was a pediatrician, so the phone rang all the time. I had to learn at a very tender age how to answer phones and deal with crazed mothers (whose children had put a marble up their noses) who wanted to speak to my father whether he was "on duty" or not.

Father and three other doctors formed a little group and would take turns covering emergencies on weekends. I had to know when it was father's weekend off, and to tell crazed mothers to call the "physician's bureau," and give them the number, so they could call the physician on duty.

The Physician's Bureau was actually a lovely lady who had an old-fashioned switchboard in her apartment, and she would take the messages and call the on duty doctor at home. She was also available for children of doctors (like me) who wanted to chat with a kind and caring adult.

Some of my father's patients were too savvy for this arrangement, and would call him directly at home, and to hell with the Physicians Bureau. I was told to be stern and turn them away. It didn't occur to anyone that it might be difficult for a child to disobey one adult (the crazed mother) to appease another adult (my mother, who hated the interruptions on father's free time ... father didn't really care).

One particularly persistent mother called during the cocktail hour on one of father's "off" weekends. She was not going to take "no" for an answer, particularly from a child. She told me her two-year old son had swallowed a safety-pin, and she needed to talk to my father immediately. She would not let me hang up, and I was too polite to just do so.

My father was about 1/4 of a mile away at a cocktail party. This woman convinced me to get on my bike and go talk to him, and she would just "hang on."

Bigod, I got my bicycle, which was one my mother had in 1912 (no, I'm not kidding) and heavier than whatever Atlas had on his shoulders. I struggled up a large hill, and down the other side, ran into the large cocktail party, and found my father.

After I finished panting for air, I told him that Mrs. Pain in the Ass was on the phone, at home, holding, and that she needed to know what to do about sonny-boy, who had swallowed a safety pin.

My father asked,"Was the safety pin opened or closed?" If it's closed, it's no big deal, and will pass through. If it's open, it can be problematic, indeed.

I jumped on my bike and tore back to the house, ran inside, grabbed the phone, and gasped the question. The reply? "I don't know."

Back on the bike, back up the hill, back down the hill, back into the mob to find father. Yes, she was still holding on the phone. "She doesn't know," I told him.

Perhaps it was my crossed eyes, perhaps it was the fact that I was reeling ... I'll never know, but father took mercy on me. He got into the car and drove home to take the damn call. I followed on my bike. Yes, she was still on the line.

I caught hell every which-way that day. For letting a patient bamboozle me into tracking down my father. For disrupting my parents' "social life." For tying up the party line for more than an hour.

I should mention that all the hell-catching I got was from my mother. My father was an old-fashioned doctor who thought a doctor should be available at all times for his patients, and yes, he did house calls. Every night after work. And any time there was an emergency.

Okay, he probably wasn't the most attentive husband and father, because he was never around, but he was one hell of a doctor, and everyone loved him.

But I still don't like telephones.

Click here to see Elleda's photography at the Astoria Photografpix web site

2 comments:

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