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The Illinois legislature is trying to help phase out landlines, so this is a good time to talk about the relic whose descendant you may be holding in your hand at this moment: the old-school landline telephone as I knew it.
I was about five years old when my parents had a black wall phone installed over the desk that separated the kitchen from the living room. My mother was proud that I memorized the phone number instantly. The day I forget that 716 number is the day you can write “dementia” in my medical records.
As a rotary phone, even then it was becoming old-fashioned compared to the newfangled tone dialing phone introduced November 18, 1963. I felt like my folks were behind the times, but according to Wikipedia the rotary phone persisted into the 1970s with the majority of telephone subscribers.
We had a private line, but one of my new friends did not—shared “party lines” were cheaper. When I needed my dad to pick me up after a visit, the chances were good that when I picked up the phone I’d be greeted not with a dial tone but with the voice or giggles of one of the neighbors or their teenagers. If they’d heard the click and you didn’t hang up right away, you might get a wonderfully crusty suggestion that you hang up. If it seemed that they hadn’t heard the click, it was tempting to listen in—except there was going to be nothing interesting said. No Sorry, Wrong Number type opportunities on Pleasant Avenue.
When I got to college, I found the dorm house had two phone booths off the television lounge. AT&T offered phones at student rates, so somehow (I’ll never know how) I talked my parents into letting me get one. I must have been more of a talker in those days, or 34 years of business calls have soured me on phone chatting. I chose a pastel blue tone dial desk phone, which thanks to what I think was then recently introduced color-coded modular jack technology I installed myself by matching wires—one of my proudest moments. That phone went with me to my first apartment, although the phone number (which I have forgotten) didn’t.
At some point AT&T (or whichever Bell it was if after the breakup) sent a letter saying I could (or had to?) buy my phone. In the rotary days, you were a subscriber and rented your phone, but the phone company(ies) began to sell phones. I can’t remember what happened—whether I got tired of that phone or if I dropped and broke it (either is likely), and I bought a boring tan Trimline. My heart, if not my budget or my living space, really wanted an old-school cradle phone, perhaps not as fancy as this Design Line Early American model. I was stuck with the Trimline, however, and missed the solid bell ring of my first phone.
My next phone was a beige combination cordless with answering machine, so lacking in distinction that I remember mostly turning the little tape over. When I went shopping for it, I was disappointed to find the phone store was a thing of the past. Not only was the cradle phone no longer an option, but the office supply store phones were ugly and utilitarian, something more suited to a cubicle farm than a cozy home.
By the time I looked for my next and current phone, the office supply store options hadn’t changed much in style, although the color choices were more in the black, gray, and silver line. The answering “machine” is now digital. The phone docks in an upright position, so its footprint is more like that of the old candlestick telephone. It looks out of place on my Arts and Crafts-style desk. It would be more at home on the 1980s version of the USS Enterprise if the USS Enterprise had landline telephones. No one will feel nostalgic for this telephone in 50 years, and unlike cradle phones it won’t be sold on the 21st or 22nd century version of eBay or Craigslist.
At this point I have a landline because I’m too lazy to switch from the DSL Internet access I’ve had for many years. I don’t use that phone often, although I still get doctor’s office reminders on that number, which I carried over from my first (shared) apartment. When I work from home, I realize how many spam/scam calls come in on that line. I can’t hear very well using it at normal volumes, plus it costs an embarrassing amount of money every month. Although the Illinois rush to get rid of landlines is a problem for many, for me maybe it’s time. I’m never going to get that cradle phone after all.
(Also a relic: The sound of the telephone bell clanging loudly and all the household teenage zombies coming to life with a shout of “I’ll get it!” Now weird music emanates from their hand, purse, or pants pocket—that is, if they even get calls instead of texts. Remember the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis in which Warren Sheffield calls Rose long distance from New York City while the Smith family looks on and listens awkwardly? Those days are gone for good. Now it’s people on the bus or at the coffee shop or on the street corner who get to eavesdrop on your teens.)
My family didn’t travel for recreation. When we visited relatives, we stayed with one of my dad’s sisters, Mildred or Thelma. Even when I figured out that other families went on real vacations to Disney (ugh) or other attractions, I never thought about where they hung their hats at night.
Psycho, of all things, exposed me to that all-American icon, the motel or motor inn, with its outside doors and convenient parking. By 1960, though, even the Bates Motel had become a victim of the burgeoning interstate system, accessible only to those few who happened to stray onto the exit, say, during a blinding downpour.
Judging from the mid-century motels that remain open, someone still stays at them. I’ve spotted a few on the north side of Chicago as well as in a number of small midwestern towns. I can tell they’re old school because they tout amenities like air conditioning and color TV. Not just TV, but color TV. If today’s signs weren’t programmable, future generations might wonder at the “free WiFi” advertised at interstate exit hotels.
Years ago I spotted this old-school sign in Ottawa, Illinois, where “Lincoln’s voice was FIRST heard!” and a number of women worked themselves to death painting radium onto watch dials. Ever since I’ve wanted to stay there so I could take photos of the sign and enjoy some of that good old-fashioned air conditioning and TV (color not mentioned, but assumed). When I looked The Sands up, I found the rate—under $50—also looks like a relic from yesteryear, perhaps the 1980s. (Ice, however, is extra.)
Arriving at The Sands from long drive from Flossmoor, I didn’t think to look at the sign. After hiking at Matthiessen State Park and dining at the Lone Buffalo, I was too tired to look at the sign, although I had passed it at least three times by then. The fact that I didn’t notice the sign should have been a clue that something was up. Yes, imagine my surprise when the next morning I went out to take a photo of the beloved sign and discovered this:
The sign had been replaced! I sent my friend to the motel office to get the story, which varied a bit from this newspaper account. The sign was not the victim of changing fashions or tastes but of its own age and years of exposure to Illinois weather. It had become a hazard, perhaps ready to topple in the wind. If you look beyond the rust, you can see a crack between the bottom and middle pieces. The new less elaborate sign perhaps plays a sly tribute to its predecessor’s fate, depicting a tilted hourglass with the sands of time starting to run out.
What’s that you say? “What’s an hourglass?”
According to the plans for the new presidential library, Perennial Garden in Jackson Park (Hyde Park, Chicago) would be demolished to make way for a reflecting pool. I’m sad about this because Perennial Garden is home to butterflies, hawk moths, and even a hummingbird or two, which is what parks should be. Photos from a quick stop yesterday — click the photo for a few more on Flickr.
I was staying at a brick mansion in the country, where there was a living room with several televisions. When I returned I found some young women disconnecting mine, including the cables. By yelling and flailing, I tried to stop them because I didn’t know how to arrange the setup again.
After they disappeared (rather than leaving), I realized my equipment was in a cellar on the second floor, and water on the floor was seeping toward the television. As I considered my next step, I heard someone mention a thunderstorm—no, hurricane—no, tornado—approaching rapidly. We debated its direction and whether it would veer toward us. Then we lay on our stomachs in the cellar that wasn’t a cellar.
The tornado struck. As I lay there, I thought it sounded and felt like a freight train passing over me. I expected it would last only minutes, but it seemed to go on a long, long time. Suddenly it was calm, as though nothing had happened. Everything around me seemed intact.
I pulled aside a heavy curtain and saw the sun, but random clouds formed a new, vaguely human-shaped tornado, which seemed to be considering the direction it should take. Suddenly it veered toward us. We dove to the floor, and repeated the experience.
Afterward I heard the hostess say that there was structural damage to a supporting wall, but she’d called someone, who was on the way to fix it. I mulled the unlikelihood of so little damage and the availability of someone in the storm area to come out so quickly. I looked out again. The tornado funnel was breaking up into tiny clouds, but reforming into a shape like a human figure from southwestern Native American art. It was going to strike again—intentionally.
I tried to go out, but as I was about to walk down the steps I noticed there weren’t any and would have fallen a couple of stories if I hadn’t stopped myself quickly. The outer wall for a hallway was half gone, but guests were picking up the torn-up timber and trying to build some kind of makeshift steps to the broken wall. No one seemed bothered that so much of the house was exposed to the weather.
Below, snow covered the ground, and above the sky was making the transition from sunny brightness to tornado cloud darkness.
Now that I know what they are, I’m finding sycamore leaves everywhere in parks and forest preserves. These beauties are from Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, Illinois. Although they’re turning brittle, they look like shiny leather.
Autumn color lingers through early November, even at Wolf Lake in northwest Indiana.
A few years ago I did a search on my dad’s name and found this: An old auction for V-Mail (“Greetings from Britain”) from Private Ralph Schirf. I hadn’t known about the auction, long since over, in time to bid. Here are the clues that it’s from my dad:
- Ralph Schirf is a unique name. Schirf is rare, and we’re all related. Ralph Schirf is one of a kind.
- He was from the Altoona, Pennsylvania, area.
- He served as a private in the Army Air Forces during WWII in England (artillery, I believe, although he didn’t talk about it). He was honorably discharged as a corporal.
- That’s his block printing.
- His beloved sister Marjorie married a Way (Ellis G. in the obituary of one of their children).
- He once signed a birthday card to me “Father Ralph.” It’s not a stretch to imagine him signing “Brother Ralph” to his sister.
I would love if the buyer found this post and offered to sell me Dad’s V-Mail, but in lieu of the physical pieces I’ll have to be content with small digital photos.
Here’s more from the Postal Museum about V-Mail.
USPS PDF about the history and process of sending V-Mail.
And his grave in Bellwood, Pennsylvania, outside Altoona:
A Sunday morning promenade around Promontory Point.
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston. New York: Random House. 2007. 320 pages. In The Wild Trees, Richard Preston delves into the lives of giant trees, primarily coast redwoods, and some of the people … Continue reading →