Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sue Zahmen:

In the 1940's and '50s, we used to send short messages across country for free. I'm talking about Ma Bell Telephone, not ham radio. When I learned about this communication medium, I was so traumatized that I've remembered it ever since. My aunts, stealing from the telephone company!

My two aunts had just flown across country for a visit. We picked them up at the airport and brought them home. Now, they wanted to advise family back on the west coast that they had arrived safely. Long distance calls cost real money in those days. But here's what they did: they placed a collect call. There was a certain etiquette to collect calls that the phone company required. You told the operator your name, the person you wanted to call, and the number to call. Then, while you remained online listening, the operator placed the call and asked, “Do you wish to accept a collect call from X?”

You were required to keep your mouth shut during this interchange. Shouting “It's Edna, I'm okay!” over the operator's question was right out. But my aunts used a well-worn tactic: They told the operator they wanted to call a fanciful person, a made-up name. That way, the people at the other end knew that everything was okay, and they refused to accept the collect call.

You might think that this made-up name was a signal agreed-upon in advance, but no. During the long flight, my aunts were expected to think up a name that would surprise and delight their relatives back west, while also, in some manner of word play, suggest that they had arrived okay, together. I blush to tell you the awful name they asked for on this occasion.
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