Phil Gulley Ponders Life Before Cell Phones

I remember the rotary age, but that time is quickly moving out of range.

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1014-GulleyEver since I got my first cell phone 11 years ago, I’ve been wondering if I could live without it. It was a simple device—the thing made and received calls. I couldn’t text or play games or surf the Internet on it. If I grew bored, I couldn’t check my Facebook page, because Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t yet invented it. Actually, I think he was still in nursery school then.

When cell phones first came out, there were rumors floating around that using one would cause tumors to grow on the side of your head, so I didn’t use mine very often. Nevertheless, 10 years later, the doctor removed a cancerous spot on my right ear, which he claimed was caused by sun damage. I can’t help wondering if he was mistaken, and the whole right half of my head is one big cell phone–induced tumorous blob.

“You watch,” I told my wife back then. “The day will come when we’ll curse the person who invented cell phones.”

That day is here.

Each month, I pay $240 for a service AT&T faithfully provided for $19 in 1980, when I moved from home and had the company install a phone in my apartment, on the kitchen wall next to the refrigerator. AT&T was Ma Bell then, and I paid her a dollar a month extra to rent a phone. It was big, black, and heavy and still worked even when I dropped it on the floor and used it to drive nails. I didn’t have an answering machine. If someone called and I wasn’t home, the phone just rang in the house, empty and alone.

I can’t remember the last time I phoned someone and couldn’t leave a message. Ever since voicemail was invented (thank you very much, Scott Jones), I don’t have any excuse for not returning calls. If someone says, “I tried calling you, but you didn’t pick up, so I left a message,” I can’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t get your message.” They know darn well I got their voicemail and just didn’t want to call them back. I hate technology that won’t let me lie when I need to.

There is an urgency to phone calls now, much more so than when I was young. We don’t go anywhere without our phones, taking them places we never did back when they were attached to our kitchen walls. Sometimes when I’m on the phone, I hear certain noises that lead me to think the person I’m talking with is using the bathroom. I’ll hear a toilet flush, for instance, or water splashing in a sink. That just seems wrong to me.

I know a man who got rid of his cell phone and voicemail recently. He told his friends and family members that if they wanted to speak to him, they could call him at home. If he didn’t answer, they could call him back later when he returned, like they did in the old days. Within a week everyone hated his guts for not being available when they wanted to talk with him, as if he owed the world 24-hour accessibility.

Hey, AT&T, how come the jungles of El Salvador have better cell-phone coverage than Orange County, Indiana?

When I was a teenager, I would occasionally take a young lady on a ride in the country. I wasn’t a very good driver and would invariably get stranded in a cornfield. With no phone to call for help, we pretty much had to sit there until someone came along. While we were waiting, being resourceful, we found ways to entertain ourselves. Cell phones are to romance what water is to fire.

Pretty much everyone has a cell phone now. Before the device was invented, children could spend many joyful hours away from home without their parents phoning to ask where they were and what they were doing. Today, there’s a 7-year-old boy in our neighborhood who has his own phone. It has a GPS feature so his parents can track him down wherever he goes. He might as well be a felon with an ankle bracelet. A kid doesn’t stand a chance these days. One of the finest pleasures of childhood is sneaking off somewhere with no one else in the world knowing where you are. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn never could have run away to an island in the age of cell phones. Tom couldn’t go on a picnic with Becky Thatcher and get lost in McDougal’s Cave. Cell phones will be the death of literature, you watch and see.

When our sons entered high school, they asked for their own phones, and we signed up for a family plan so we could talk with one another. That was seven years ago, and they haven’t spoken to us since. They’re too busy looking at their phones to talk. We text one another at the dinner table. Within a few generations, if evolution holds, we’ll be born without vocal cords.

When we renovated our farmhouse, we decided to dispense with the landline. We get a cell-phone signal, but it’s weak—only one bar. We miss a lot of calls, which is why we like spending time at the farmhouse. But get this: A friend of mine just returned from El Salvador, where he stayed in the mountains, out in the jungle, hours from the nearest city. It was so far from civilization that the natives ate one another. But all of them had cell phones, with great reception (four bars), for like 10 cents a month. Hey, AT&T, how come the jungles of El Salvador have better cell-phone coverage than Orange County, Indiana?

Not long ago, my wife and I were driving through Georgia. We were an hour away from Atlanta but couldn’t get even one bar, so we reverted to the old days, when people talked with one another in person. It was awkward at first, but eventually we got the hang of it and began discussing whether we should get rid of our cell phones. I thought it was a reasonable idea, but she said it wasn’t possible to live in America and not have a cell phone, unless you were in the hospital in a coma. Even then, people would still text you. R u ok? Heard u were in coma. Can I have ur car since u don’t need it, lol? Besides, she said, we signed a contract with AT&T and would owe them a zillion dollars if we canceled it. Plus, they would seize our house, have us arrested, pull out our fingernails, and crush my testicles in a vise. Still, it would probably be worth it.

I’m holding my fingers a half-inch apart, which is how close I am to turning in my cell phone and going back to a big, black, heavy phone on the kitchen wall. It suited me fine the first 42 years of my life. If people want to talk with me, they can call me at home, and I can pretend to be gone and not answer it.

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