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January 18th, 2017

From S.O.S. to L.O.L.

By G. E. Shuman

Many, MANY spring days ago, my grandfather Shuman and I were traveling along a long stretch of road somewhere in the Maine countryside. I was probably about 10 years old, and remember few specifics of the trip now. I do recall we were on our way to, or on our way home from, one of the great gatherings our family used to have on the coast of that state. I also remember that we were in Gramp’s Rambler American, and that he loved that car. (‘American’… not a bad name for a car.) I’m surprised that such trips with my grandfather are remembered at all, only because they were so few. He was a retired man by the time I was around, and wasn’t the type to play with the grandkids, if you know what I mean. In any case, there we were, on that road, on a bright spring day, and Gramp’s car suddenly had a flat tire. I had no idea what he would do, but knew he would likely do something unusual to remedy our situation. That’s the way Gramp was. He did not disappoint me. Gramp sat there a moment, then calmly got out of the car and went around to the trunk, but not to get the jack and spare. He had worked for the telephone company for most of his life, and still carried some of his equipment with him, just in case. I looked back to see Gramp strapping his climbing spikes onto his legs. He soon proceeded to climb a nearby utility pole with those spikes and his test phone. He then simply ‘borrowed’ someone’s phone line for a moment and called a garage for help. I have that wonderful old test set in my top dresser drawer, and remember my Gramp, and that day, every time I see it there.

Memories of another man of long ago come to mind each time I see the telegraph receiver displayed in our ‘antique’ room. This piece of equipment was used by my wife’s grandfather, who, at 14 years of age, began taking telegraphed train orders in an office of the Maine Central Railroad. This, even earlier device than Gramp’s old phone, used Morse code to communicate across the miles, and get the message through.

Fast-forward now to a much more recent time, in fact, to just a few weeks ago. I was standing in line at a local convenience store, and witnessed another, but less memorable communication ‘moment’. A man in line in front of me had a slight problem. He held four two-liter bottles of soda in his arms, along with at least one other item, and his cell phone began to ring. I offered to help. He said no. There was no room on the small checkout counter for his purchases, so, somehow, he simply held them, and answered the phone. Well, he didn’t exactly answer it… he opened it and read a text message. Next, this stranger, who, by then, I imagined must certainly be a circus juggler or magician, somehow held those bottles and the other item, and texted the person back. He then turned to me and said: “I hate this (expletive) thing! Now she can always find me!” How times have changed.

I have given up marveling at and/or screaming at the electronic devices all around me. When I get some new thing, like a music player, or computer, or phone or camera, (Observe that there is very little difference between those inventions now.) I just hand it over to my teenage daughter to ‘set up’ for me. That way I end up liking the device, not hating it.

My true bewilderment now is this recent, great, worldwide attraction to such texting. It is something that I do, but do not truly enjoy. My further opinion of texting is that it may become the ruination of the English language, even though people in England, with some justification, feel that we in America accomplished that years ago. One student in my seventh grade English class, recently bragged to the class that she could receive a text during dinner, and answer it without looking, with her phone out of sight underneath the dining room table. The problem is that such great adeptness in keypad use spills over into the compositions she and others do for me in class. The word ‘you’ often becomes the letter ‘u’, and abbreviations abound, LOL. (I actually recently read a book report from one of those kids, that actually contained that LOL acronym.) ‘Like wow.’ Besides, why not shut the stupid phone off for just a few moments and be more than only physically present with your family at dinner time? (If I sound like the parent of teenagers, guess why.)

I also find little convenience in the convenient act of texting, especially if you are the man in line at that convenience store. To my mind, this seemingly-modern communication method is not far removed from the dots and dashes sent over those telegraph lines nearly a century ago by my wife’s granddad. Our daughter recently mentioned that she couldn’t tell her friends’ moods from their texted messages. No kidding. Smiley faces can only infer so much. :) My wife’s grandfather probably could not tell the mood of the person tapping out letters on his distant and distantly related device all those years ago, either.

Hey kids. Guess what? A man named Alexander Graham Bell made an invention that he hooked up to those old telegraph lines, much as my grandfather hooked up his test set on that telephone pole. Because of this, whether you’re in line at a store with your arms full, or just getting a message from a friend, you can now simply pick up the phone and say: “Hello?” Gee… What will they think of next?

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