I am of the last generation to experience childhood in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era of human existence. 

Let’s think about that. All the what and who and years that came before. Uncountable and unfathomable, really. And the mere few decades, not even a blink of the universe’s eye, that have come since.

No phones in our pockets, smart or otherwise, when I was a child. No leashes of technology to know where we roamed. No dots on digital maps showing our locations. No way to text and find out. No video evidence of what we were doing or viral legacies on social media to live down.

Parents just wanted us out of the house and demanded it. Mine sure did. Who really cared where we were all Saturday? All summer. Just.be.gone. Out of their hair. Out of reach til we decided to come home or, as it’s often told by those of my age, the streetlights came on. 

They seemed to have little or no care about who we were with. What we were doing. That we were breaking things and lighting things on fire. And that we were talking to strangers, tangling with aggressive dogs, trespassing, climbing on buildings or a 160-foot-tall water tower at midnight, swimming in a hole, getting hurt, putting our lives in foolish danger. 

I mean, my parents cared. Relatively. Contrasted against other parents of the time, maybe. I had plenty of strictures placed on me inside the house. But outside? 

I’d like to think that parents, generally, would have cared more about what was going on had they known what we were doing. But they didn’t know and didn’t ask too much to find out. That’s the point. It seems in retrospect that it was a time for not knowing as a parent.

My generations’ parental attention, among other things, as it turns out was nothing compared to what parenting has become.

I am a father to two digitally native sons. When one of my sons doesn’t respond to my text – “Where are you?” – I can use my smartphone to see where they are. There’s an app for that. When my wife and I go out for a walk or to breakfast together, our sons know they have two phone numbers to text, if they need us. 

When my parents went somewhere in the ’80s, all we knew was the intended destination. Maybe. Say, a restaurant. If we needed them, we being my two older brothers and I, we’d use the rotary dial phone on our kitchen wall to call the restaurant’s phone (a landline, of course) and ask to talk with our parents. We’d describe them, if necessary. 

If they weren’t there, that was it. They were off radar. At best, you could ask whoever answered the phone, “Did they say where they were going?” That feels like such a weird ask now. Maybe it was then too, actually. Maybe/not.

If they were there, a waitress would go table to table asking people their names, if she didn’t already know who she was looking for. When she (always a she) found the right table with the right people, she’d let them know they had a phone call – on the restaurant’s only phone(!) – which had been left sitting on the counter, off the hook, unusable for calls coming in or going out all the while she was hunting the right set of parents. 

It was a small rural town. That’s how it was done. No one minded that we were tying up their business phone to do it. I think. Anyway, it’s what we did and no one complained.

For a while, this was pre-answering machine as well, it’s worth noting. So when I was out somewhere and called home to reach my parents, if they didn’t answer, I couldn’t leave a message.

By the way, because the rural town of my youth was so small and the area so relatively unpopulated, we only needed to dial five digits to make phone calls. 

Area code (816)
Exchange, or prefix 385-
Line number 3037

To call my house, someone only had to dial 5-3037. It was easy to remember friends’ family’s phone numbers then. Or the second line (meaning, my friend’s personal bedroom phone number) that the occasional “rich kid” got to have. My youthful memory was a vault for those five-digit numbers. All my friends’, and plenty of others’, digits locked tight in my recall. 

When I’d dial the number, assuming it wasn’t a second line, more often than not a sibling or parent would answer the phone. And do so without knowing who was calling until they said, “Hello?” and I’d speak in return. “Hi. Is Chris there? Can he come to the phone?” … “We’re eating dinner right now, Adam. He’ll have to call you back.” 

These days, I won’t answer the phone unless I know who’s calling. And it’s iffy even then. It’s kind of strange to me now to think that we used to stop whatever we were doing and hurry to a ringing phone before the caller gave up, having no idea who was on the other end, what they wanted or how long we’d be taken away from whatever we had been doing. Randomness derailing our day.

And now, I barely remember my own phone number. Or, with a heartbeat or two for recall, my wife’s. My sons’ 10 digits? Nope. Not because they are the full 10 digits. There are many reasons. We don’t call the number, for example. We text. We don’t speak or write phone numbers often, and theirs not at all. So I’ve never learned them. 

When their friends reach out to them, it’s via text more often than not. They bypass any extras on the scene, like me answering the call, and go directly to the source. Our sons don’t know the angsty feeling of attempting to have a private conversation with a friend while being tethered to the kitchen wall within feet of prying ears. 

They don’t know that the best option often was to walk the phone receiver around the corner and into another room, as far as the coiled phone cord would reach. And to cover one’s mouth and speak into the phone using muffled tones.

When and where I grew up, when the call was over, if you did not hang up the phone correctly, the call would not disconnect. That was especially a risk if you had switched to another phone in the house during the call, necessarily leaving the first phone receiver off the hook. 

An example: One Saturday, when home alone at 12 years of age, my parents had gone across town. They were at the house of family friends. One of my parents had called me at home. Their directive was clear: practice the piano while they were gone. I hated practicing the piano. It was a forced activity. Hated.

I must have changed phones at some point during the call. That meant setting the phone receiver down, but still off the hook, and moving to another location in the house, for whatever reason. In this case, I was probably asked to go look for something. Along the way, I must have picked up a different phone to continue the call. We had three rotary phones in the house. Kitchen. Basement. Parents’ bedroom.

When the conversation was over, I’d left phone receiver No. 1 on the formica peninsula counter that separated our kitchen and family room. And rather than go into the living room, where my mom’s blonde upright piano awaited, I made an executive decision to play Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo.

We had one television in the house, a 19” box that fit down into a pair or aluminum rails on a cart in the family room. I was allowed to play Nintendo for a maximum of one hour per day. When the parents were away, extra video games I did play.  

Because I’d left the receiver off the hook, lying on the counter only a few feet away, two things were happening that I, in my childlike oblivion, were unaware of. That’s until my dad came striding through the front door of our split-level house: 

1) They had heard me playing Super Mario Brothers rather than practicing the piano. They had yelled through the phone receiver to try and get my attention, but I didn’t notice. As a result, I was caught. And …

2) No one at the house where they were could make or receive phone calls. I was tying up their line, because I hadn’t hung up our phone.

My dad had driven across town to hang up the phone that I hadn’t. And, you might say, to let me know I’d been caught. 

It was a simpler time that my sons will never know. There was a slowness and patience required of life in those days. In all the days prior to this advanced and ever-advancing era of technology we now live in. 

We weren’t stoked by urgent expectations that we reach anyone on-demand. Or be reached. We didn’t need to find anyone instantly, in most cases. And when we did need to, somehow it worked well enough. Generally, we knew how to wait.

But I’m torn now. 

I like having the technological link with my sons. FaceTime and texting. Even though they sometimes use four or five texts to send one incomplete sentence. That’s when I get a sentence at all. More often than not, I’m likely to get one- and two-letter responses to my basic queries. Not one word, one letter! … k or ye (yeah/yes). 

I enjoy the simplicity of using emojis with them, too. You know, so I don’t bore them with strings of full words and sentences, complete with punctuation. How dad of me.

I also don’t miss being pulled from a TV show (“Friends”!) that was playing rightnow and only now. There was no pause button, no on-demand streaming. This was the moment. In real time. To answer a phone call meant missing out. Landline life was intrusive.

I do miss some aspects of life in the landline era, though. Like, the freedom of going somewhere and no one being able to reach me, no excuses needed. “I just got home” was enough said.

There’s an irony in having been able to disconnect from the stresses of the world because telephones were physically connected to things outside of our hands and pockets. Like walls. And phone booths. We could leave it all behind and just be with ourselves. And our IRL friends.

And, it turns out, that was a time of more meaningful connection with each other. We weren’t corrupted by apps that sell false connections or the instancy of accessibility that today’s smartphones push upon us. 

As a society, we’ve changed. Inevitably. It’s what happens, of course. We’ve changed our behaviors because the times and technologies have changed us. And we’ve allowed it and played into it. For better and worse, with full consequences as yet unknown.

Ok. Such is the evolution of human experience. I’m not one, in general, to rage against change. I think it can be exciting and fun.

But I will say that back then, in the landline era, we knew how to go without. We knew how to wait. And to be connected in healthy, non-obsessive ways. We had an ease in our veins, I now know, with so many fewer demands on us. We could be untethered. Free. No FOMO anxiety.

My sons probably will never know the sort of peace and untethered freedom that we of the pre-internet and pre-smartphone era had. That is something I’m afraid they missed out on.

The Landline is #Five in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.