Incident at Hyannis

Russell Baker

October 01, 1992|By Russell Baker

A MAN races to a pay telephone. Something of great importance has occurred or is about to occur. Perhaps something truly dreadful will happen unless timely telephonic communication averts it.

Watching him, I remember Gen. Jack D. Ripper yearning for doomsday in "Dr. Strangelove." Can some 1992 Ripper, maddened perhaps by the vanishing of Soviet communism, have set doomsday engines into action?

Yes, as the man reaches the pay phone I can well imagine an up-to-date General Ripper mentally unhinged by the realization that Soviet communism's disappearance has destroyed everything he believed in. This Ripper has said to himself, "Better dead than Redless," and let slip the dogs of doomsday.

What the doomsday device might be is unclear. I have read of computer viruses so deadly that they can shut down every television set in the world. Imagine not knowing what happened on the climactic Friday episode of "All My Children"!

But there is still hope. Humanity has telephone power. I watch the man at the pay phone produce an address book and -- aha! -- find the essential telephone number. It is the number of the only person in the world who can avert catastrophe.

Obviously this person does not live in Hyannis, Mass., where this melodrama is happening. Not even Kennedys, Hyannis' most powerful residents, have catastrophe-averting power, as the career of Sen. Edward Kennedy constantly demonstrates.

Therefore, the man at the telephone must call long distance. Fortunately for the planet, he has long-distance credit-calling capability. I can tell by counting clicks as he punches numbers.

The clicks are audible, but though I am too distant to see the precise numbers, I can see that the first he hits is at the bottom of the machine, therefore a zero. It is a giveaway clue: he is operating on credit. I count clicks up from zero.

Zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. There is a pause. He punches more numbers, I count more clicks: 11 through 24.

Amazing. Since he did not look at a credit card, it is obvious he carries all these numbers in his head. What a piece of work is a telephoning man: a living, breathing compound of flesh, blood and numbers.

I thank the miracle of creation for the number-retention ability of men like this telephoner, for without them the world's Rippers would never be stopped in the nick of time, thanks to that other miracle, the telephone.

As this thought brightens the day, something untoward occurs to the telephoner. I know at once, again from experience, what is happening. A stern, distinctly unpleasant, inhuman voice is giving him the bad news.

It is saying, in effect, "Thanks to the miracle of deregulation, fella, this telephone is forbidden to accept credit-card calls charged to the crummy company that issued your particular card."

Don't bother saying, "But this is a crisis of great urgency to humanity, you electronic halfwit." Humanity is of no concern to the electronic halfwit, which fully expects to be around telling other electronic halfwits their credit cards are no good long after Ripper has finished off humanity.

But stay! If the caller can remember 30 digits in correct sequence, as directed by his card company for just such emergencies, humanity may yet survive. This caller, alas, cannot remember the sequence. I can tell from the irregularity of his button punching as I count the clicks.

He is guessing wildly, hopelessly, like a loser trying to win a 30-digit lottery. On his first try he hits only 27 buttons; on the second, 29; then 26. Each time he errs, the electronic halfwit orders him to hang up and go soak his head. Weeping with rage, he runs from the telephone looking for someone human to assault.

As I run for cover, I know at last what Ripper's doomsday device is.

Russell Baker writes a column for the New York Times.

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