nostalgia, parenthood

Down the Memory Hole: Snow Days and Landlines

The text message was time stamped 8:21 last night, but I didn’t see it until this morning, because 8:21 is after my phone goes into “Do Not Disturb” mode: two-hour school delay today.

Great news for the kids, not-so-great news for the adults. How times change.

This morning, up before dawn and my family, making coffee in the kitchen, my eyes fell on the radio. I remember this was the channel for such news when I was a kid. Sometimes your parents informed you when you woke up, but the rest of the time, there you were, hunched next to your clock radio like a paratrooper behind enemy lines, trying to dial in a far-off shortwave signal. You quickly learned which stations were most regular and dependable with announcements about closings and delays, forgoing The Morning Zoo for the AM station that promised “news every ten minutes on the fives.” Fun is fun, but sometimes you have to put away childish things.

You watched the weather, you even called the weather. Before Googling to see if that service still exists just now (it doesn’t), I even remembered that the number I used to call, in the DC area, began—after the 202 area code—with a 9 and a 3, because at some point I noticed that those numbers were associated with the first two letters of the word “weather.” (That service is discontinued now, but the nostalgists out there can find sample recordings from that line and from other weather and time phone services from around the country here.)

And by middle school we were calling each other. “What have you heard?” “Should we do our homework?” Serious discussions among seventh graders about the likelihood and mechanics of jinxing yourself in such situations.

The first phone number I ever memorized, other than my own, was my friend Keith’s. We were in line with our second or third grade class, and he pointed out the pattern in it that made it quite easy to remember. Am I showing my age, or was it actually easier for kids to get in touch with each other back then? All you needed was a phone number, and that phone number would reach a family’s phone, in a physical location in a house. Now, many people don’t have that kind of phone anymore, and those that do hardly ever bother to give the number out, because they generally don’t answer them. These days, landline phones are mostly channels for the aural equivalent of the junk mail that is 90 percent of what the USPS delivers. The only reason to keep one is so the kids will always have an easy-to-operate method for calling 911, just in case Amy or I am home alone with them and fall off a ladder, or won’t wake up.

And so when I was a kid I could call another kid and make plans, but now the parents have to be involved. I used to call a friend and then inform my parents where I was headed. Now, when my son wants to go over to a friend’s house, I am in the position of his social secretary, sending and receiving texts, like he is still two and I am arranging a play date, and I suppose this will continue until we give him his own phone, which won’t happen for years and years.

I moved away after middle school, in the mid-1980s, and didn’t see or speak to Keith again until the mid-1990s. I was working as a security guard, temporarily assigned to a shopping center not far from my old neighborhood, and I discovered I still remembered that phone number Keith had taught me in the hallway of our elementary school so many years earlier. Not only that, but—when I called it from a pay phone in between making my rounds—his mother answered, and he was living at home, and the next day we met for coffee and caught up. If it hadn’t been for that phone number, it is entirely possible we would never have had any contact again—until the age of Facebook, and Google.

Over the years, I would occasionally try to find Keith on Facebook, along with other dimly remembered friends last seen on my last day of eighth grade, but for some reason he never turned up, or the results were too ambiguous. But three days ago, I Googled him, and there he was, in his staff photo for the organization where he now works. I thought I could see the kid I once knew in the grownup face looking out at me, but I wasn’t completely certain, so I sent a tentative email.

It was him.

We’ll see where it goes from here. I have a lot of questions about what life was like after I left. I have always wondered what my experience of high school would have been like with all of those kids I grew up with, always sort of mourned the version of myself who never saw how all of those stories turned out.

I also wonder if his mother still answers that old phone number.

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