Dad hears call of wireless while teaching old phone new tricks

Saturday's Hero

November 25, 1995|By ROB KASPER

THE OTHER DAY, while the rest of the world was busy telecommunicating, I was in the basement fixing an old telephone.

How old? It had no dial. It was a stand-up phone, a candlestick model, a relic from the days when you picked up a phone with two hands and spoke to an operator, who "connected you to your party." It was the kind of phone a reporter would grab back in the 1920s and say, "Hello, Sweetheart, get me Rewrite."

The new, with-it telephones are the portable, wireless numbers. I think they call them "handsets." You pick them up with one hand. These are what Vice President Al Gore and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke used recently during a wireless news event held simultaneously in Baltimore and Washington.

I read several accounts of what Al and Kurt, whom I consider to be guys a lot like me except they dress better, had to say about "personal communications services." But I ended up with the same feeling of incomprehension that I get when a bunch of guys start talking about "surfing the Net."

When the discussion turns to cyberspace, I start staring off into space.

Apparently, we who dwell in the Baltimore-Washington area are blessed, because we now have three, not just two, cellular telephone networks to choose from. This, it seems, widens our opportunities to page, fax and personally communicate with each other, sometimes from our cars.

This is not my world. I spend a fair amount of time trying to avoid, rather than encourage, talking on the telephone. When I am hunkered down at home, I want less contact with the outside world, not more.

I keep telling myself that someday I'm going to have to hop on the wagon rolling to cyberspace or I will be left behind. But then a wagon rolls by offering fold-up telephones, or a chance to hook up with some far-flung network of fast typers, and I don't hop.

I thought about this as I fixed the old phone. The problem was that a wire had come loose in the mouthpiece. This antique phone belonged to a friend who had bought it for $1 years ago, then had the wiring updated. He could talk on this phone, even though he had to use another phone in his home to dial a number. He had diagnosed the problem in his old phone, but did not have the proper tools to fix the loose wire.

I had a soldering iron and a free afternoon, and was willing to give telephone repair a try. I used a razor blade to gingerly remove the rubber coating at the end of the loose wire. Then I held a piece of solder near the heated tip of the gun. I held the piece of solder with a pair of pliers, not my fingers. This was little awkward, but it meant that the only thing that melted was the solder, not my poor fingers.

My plan was to connect the bare tip of the loose wire to the contact point on the metal mouthpiece with a drop of melted solder. The wire danced around, and the spots of the solder drops kept missing their mark.

Eventually I held the wire in place with a strip of plastic tape and soldered over the taped connection. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.

(I later learned that somebody who knew what he was doing would have first put a drop of solder on the tip of the wire, then put a drop on the mouthpiece, then soldered the two together.)

While soldering the old phone, I imagined what it would be like to live a wireless lifestyle. It looked dim. I figured, for instance, that if I got one of those portable phones, I would get regular phone calls instructing me to stop at the store to buy more milk and bread. As a well-trained dad, I now do that automatically. Why pay for a fancy phone to do what your conscience already does -- nag you?

It also struck me that if I began toting one of those wireless phones, I would be opening myself up to more domestic duties. Say, for example, I was at the hardware talking plumbing with the guys. This satisfying Saturday ritual, which normally gives me an hour or two of family-free time, is suddenly interrupted by a call on my new cellular phone.

The call requests that while I am out, I also stop at the dry cleaners, swing by the post office and then pick up a kid who has spent the night at a friend's house somewhere close to the Pennsylvania border.

My Saturday would be shot, all because of that phone. Give me liberty. Keep me incommunicado.

I am not sure how long I am going to be able to resist the new phones. But as a father, I am tempted by the notion of tracking my teen-aged son's movements by constantly ringing him on a portable phone that I have strapped to his body.

Moreover, before I know it, this teen-ager will be driving. The possibility of being able to call the kid at random and order him to "Slow down!" has a certain attraction for me.

But for the time being, we are still an old-phone family, getting older. After helping me fix the old stand-up phone, my younger son, 10, wanted to know if he could get a phone like it.

I made the mistake of telling the kid we had an old phone in storage. It was a wall phone, housed in a big wooden case. It had once hung on the kitchen wall of my wife's family home in a small western Kansas town. Back then, you picked up the receiver and, while talking into the mouthpiece, told Gertrude, the town operator, whom you wanted to talk to.

When we brought the old phone back East, we had a dial put inside the wooden case. We used it for a while, but the phone weighs a ton and is difficult to operate. Nevertheless, the 10-year-old wants me to pull the old phone out of storage and hook it up in his room.

A few years from now, he may use it to dial up the computer equivalent of Gertrude and say something like, "Hello, Sweetheart, get me cyberspace."

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