Starlight October 20

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 20:00

“Residents line up to buy new 4S iPhone.“ That headline, or something to that effect, appeared recently above a story telling about folks getting up very early to be among the first to own the latest electronic marvel. My favorite cable news reporter the same day talked about the phenomenon with the editor of a trade magazine. Why, the interrogator asked the guru guest, should he buy the 4S when he was perfectly satisfied with his 4, knowing all the while that Model 5 would be coming out next month?

It's a situation that leaves this longtime Alaskan shaking his head. After all, the cell phone in his pocket is only turned on when he needs to make a call...and works if he remembered to recharge the battery the night before. What more does he need? If he's driving, he shouldn't use the phone. If he's with someone, he'd just as soon not be interrupted.

Number Two Son not long ago was showing off the new gadget he held in his palm. By touching his fingertip to the little screen and sliding it this way or that, he could switch from one “App“ to another. “It's 80 above and partly cloudy in Maui,“ he announced, although his dad already knew that (It's always 80 above and partly cloudy in Maui, so why go to the trouble of looking it up!).

Our offspring, who are highly competitive, have on-going multi-party Scrabble games on their portable phones. What makes it unbearable for their ancestor is that they also have access to special dictionaries that provide a list of high-value words the old man has never heard of. He, who relies on the old-fashioned board game and the vocabulary stored between his ears, is left in the lurch. No longer does the family patriarch hold the championship.

It's a little easier to understand an old-timer's view of modern marvels when one knows that when he came to Alaska, the telephone system was not so advanced. If he wanted to call his boss at the Anchorage Daily Times, for instance, he picked up the instrument, waited for the operator to say, “Number, please?“ and responded, “Main 40.“ The sweet-voiced lady seated at her switchboard in the basement of City Hall would take the cord that led to his instrument and plug it into hole number 40 on the “Main“ block in front of her. Next to that block were ones marked “Red“ and “Black.“

There weren't that many telephones in the residences that housed the city's 10,000 residents. None of those had dials. Some were boxes on the wall that had a crank on the side. A person responding to a ring plucked the receiver from the hook, leaned forward to speak into the mouthpiece, and said, “Hello.“ Personal security was not a concern, because there was none. Party lines let people in three other houses listen in. Sometimes they even joined in the conversation.

Toll-free calls were unheard of. You couldn't even make a long-distance call from home. To wish Mom a Happy Mother's Day, you went to the ACS office in the Federal Building on Fourth Avenue. There you had the choice of sending her a telegram or waiting in line to use one of the two booths available to the public.

Calls weren't cheap. One homesick lieutenant from Elmendorf Field on Fort Richardson was rather curt with the operator who told him his three minutes were up. Despite several warnings about the time, he at long last completed his call. He was aghast when the counter clerk advised that he owed $75. He didn't have that much cash and had to call someone to come bail him out. ACS didn't take checks and credit cards were still a thing of the distant future.

ACS, by the way, stood for Alaska Communication System, a branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The name was co-opted in more recent years by a civilian company which added an “s“ to each of the last two words. They are one of many enterprises offering modern telephone devices and services not yet dreamed of by those toiling with talking wires in the days of yore.

All of this came to mind the other day after we set out to visit our red-headed grandson who had just moved to a new home. Unsure how to get there, I drug out the Tom-Tom device my bride gave me for Christmas. After a lengthy process of typing in the address, I discovered that I had to tell it where I was starting from. That was somewhat disconcerting because I figured the thing should know where I was without me having to hit all those tiny characters with my fat and shaking fingers. My location entered, the gadget informed me that I needed to re-enter Brett's address. Nothing happened.

Our planned arrival time fast approaching, I used the conventional telephone on my desk to call our son who provided the needed directions.

Halfway there, the Tom-Tom suddenly started telling me where to go. I didn't turn where it said I should, relying on the previous human instructions. The lady inside the little box patiently told me to take an immediate right followed by two more right turns to get back to where she wanted me to go. I pushed her “Off“ button and arrived safely at our destination.

In some ways, I am convinced things were better back in the good old days before all these time-saving electronic devices were invented.

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