When duty calls, it can leave a name, number at the beep

SATURDAY'S HERO

August 06, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I won't say life has been dull lately, I'll just say that I have been amusing myself by calling our new telephone answering device. While most of the rest of the civilized world has owned telephone answering machines for years, our household has owned one only for a few weeks.

For the longest time I resisted buying a telephone answering device because I felt the family already had telephone answerers, our two kids. Since roughly 90 percent of the household's incoming telephone calls concerned the kids' social lives, I figured the kids should be the ones who answer the phone. The remaining 10 percent of phone calls seem to come from people who either want to sign my wife and me up for a new credit card or put a charge on our existing cards.

But, like many parental edicts, the one ordering kids to answer the telephone was rarely obeyed.

Moreover, on those occasional Saturdays when I was alone in the house, just about ready to attempt to fix something, the phone would ring.

More than once I have been up on a ladder replacing a light bulb, or crammed under some cantankerous piece of plumbing when the phone would sound its alarm. More than once I have tried to avoid answering it, figuring that the caller would surmise that no one was available to answer the phone.

But both kids and the credit card crowd were persistent.

Eventually I would pull myself down from the ladder or out from under the sink, and just say "No." No, the kids were not home. Or no, I did not want a new credit card, new siding, or to make a contribution to friends of the firemen.

Another factor in the decision to get a telephone answering device was my experience as a coach. Telephone answering devices are a coach's best friend.

When you coach a team of kids, you make a lot of telephone calls. While your message is not complicated -- usually you are calling to say a game has been canceled, rescheduled, or is being held hostage by the chicken pox -- getting the message delivered is important. When you spend your lunch hour calling your team and you get a telephone answering device on the other end, you feel you have done your job.

But if you get a household that doesn't have either a human or a machine answering its phone, then you worry. You feel as though there is a runner on third base who doesn't know that the batter is bunting. Repeatedly you try to get the kid the message before the game begins, and before your boss wonders why you are spending so much time on the office phone.

So this summer when we got an answering device, I knew some coach somewhere down the road would thank us.

Once the device was hooked up, I was ready to move to the next level, operating it by remote control. This required reading the instruction manual and playing tag with its buttons. Like many guys I believe you shouldn't have to read a manual to work a machine. Instead you should be able to eyeball the device -- anything from a can opener to a front-end loader -- and simply "sense" how it works.

This reluctance to read an instruction manual has its drawbacks, among them the inability to stop a digital watch from beeping. So, in some circumstances -- and this was one -- you make an exception and read the manual.

First the machine wanted a secret code. You worked up your own secret code by getting the machine in the proper mood, then punching its buttons in a special order. The machine had assigned numbers to its buttons. It treated the "stop" button, for example, as the number eight. So if you wanted your secret code to be 888, you got the machine in its secret-code mood, then hit the stop button three times. Later, when you were calling the machine from Timbuktu, you would hit the "8" button on your phone three times. The machine would hear its secret code and cough up your messages.

It sounded complicated. It got easier for me when I remembered the game of tag my cousins and I used to play on our front porches. In that game you could "free" a kid being held captive on the front porch if you first touched the front porch pillar, then the front porch swing, then the kid. If you did not have the sequence of touches in the correct order -- pillar, swing, kid -- you were out of luck.

So now when I call for messages, I don't think of what I am doing as "playing messages by remote control." Instead I think of it as new form of "telephone tag."

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