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Dialing for dinosaurs

My cell phone was dead — not just dying — but dead. I’m not really very good at operating any electronic device, and I know this contraption has more bells and whistles than I’ll ever know, partly because the owner’s manual was way beyond my skill set. Nevertheless, I’m smart enough to realize when the thing has died. No lights, no beeps, no funny little icons that I don’t recognize ... just darkness on the screen.

OK. Not a big deal. I’ll do just like people have done for years. I’ll find a pay phone, drop in a quarter or two (I think it used to be a dime) and make the call I had to be make. But wait a minute … I soon found out it wasn’t going to be so easy. After several stops and just as many exits and entrances back into my vehicle, I quickly realized I had a major problem ... Where have all the pay phones gone?

Really. Think about it. When’s the last time you actually saw a pay phone? Where did they go? Last thing I knew every gas station, every restaurant, seemingly every little corner of my world had a pay phone, but now without me even realizing it, these convenient machines have slipped into extinction — the dinosaurs of the telecommunications world, so to speak.

I guess it makes sense. After all, who needs a pay phone anymore? As call waiting, caller ID and ring tones made their way into our vocabularies, those silver machines quietly faded away. They didn’t say good-bye. They didn’t tell us they were leaving. They didn’t even wave as they rode off into the sunset to that big warehouse of obsolete items in the sky. Instead, they just left — perhaps even a bit bitter from how we had ignored them, forgotten all about them — their bellies empty of change and their dial tones fading.

I can remember making a few long distance calls on those pay phones. With stacks of nickels, dimes and quarters, you’d dial the number and wait for that nasal-sounding operator to spit out the fee: “Please deposit $1.65 cents for the first three minutes.” Scrambling like small animals must have done with the dinosaurs’ impending feet, you’d scurry to slip in the coins, fearful the operator would disconnect your call if you didn’t hurry. Always with a few dimes and nickels scattered on the floor of the pay phone booth, you’d hear a “Thank you,” and the operator would connect your call.

If you were lucky, you’d hear that familiar voice on the other end of the phone. Unlucky? The person you were calling wouldn’t be home, and all that change (hopefully) would be returned to you in a little silver cup. Worse case scenario? You dialed wrong, a stranger would answer, and the hungry pay phone would swallow up your coins in its metal belly without one bit of remorse.

Yes, the pay phone has become obsolete. With cell phones in our purses, our cars, clipped onto our belts and nestled in our pockets, these tiny gadgets, full of more technology than I’ll ever attempt to understand, have pushed over the big boy pay phone and sent them on down the telephone line.

It was fast; it was quick. Like many of the items we knew so well that intertwined themselves in our existence, the pay phone is gone — leaving only the memories of what was and what will never be again.

And somewhere in the not too distant future, a Grandpa or a Grandma will be having a conversation with their grandchild, telling them of a silver contraptions where you would deposit coins in their bellies and make a telephone call. The children will be wide-eyed ... as they ask their grandparent to wait just a minute — as they answer the phone that is ringing inside their pocket.

Tonica News Editor Terri Simon can be reached at tsimon@tonicanews.com.

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