Granddaddy called it in ’55: ‘Mark my word!’

Tom KingFeature

The kid was 9, maybe 10, the day a man from what was then known as Southern Bell rang the doorbell at the big white house at 1021 Daisy Park. The kid ran to answer the front door. The man’s words changed lives: “I’m here to install your new phone.”

“We’re getting a phone?” the kid yelled as he ran to find someone in charge among the eight who shared the home.

This was Granddaddy and Granny’s home, so he called the shots, so to speak. He ordered the phone. Rotary dial phones, you must know, were introduced to American consumers in 1919. That’s from Sheldon Hochheiser, the corporate historian at AT&T. “But they did not become widely used in homes until the mid-1950s,” he said.

The phone became part of this kid’s world in 1955 when Mr. Southern Bell lifted a brand-new, never-used shiny-black phone from a box. By then Grandaddy Mack Chiles and the kid’s mom and dad had arrived.

“Right here, put it right here on this shelf,” Granddaddy said.

First off, the phone man said he needed to install this little box on the wall below the shelf and run a wire from the box to our new phone. And then he’d have to go under the house to run the line to somewhere outside on a telephone pole. He even had his own complicated-looking phone to talk with someone about getting our phone to work and getting the new phone number.

The kid was an expert on everything under the house. It was his world, only-child playground since around the age of 4, so he volunteered to take the man under the house. Under the house they went. The man was working and talking to somebody at the same time and told the kid to “pipe down” so he could hear. “Yes sir!” Out from under the house the phone line was connected with another wire from the tall pole outside next to the street.

He and the kid crawled back under the house again so he could check things out and make a call to his operator and flip a switch and we’d see if the phone worked.

“Can you help me out,” he asked the boy. For sure. “Go into the house for me and when the phone rings answer it so I can make sure everything is working and the number is good.”

Up the eight front steps the kid went and down the hall where he waited a minute or two. Then the new black phone rang … and it was loud. Phones back then had only one sound level – loud! Forever etched into this kid’s memory bank is that he answered the first-ever call to the number 246-4668 and that his family was the first on the block to have a phone.

A year or two slid by and the phone was beginning to annoy Granddaddy. He’d yell “unplug that damned thing” and “turn the ringer off” and “why did I ever order this thing.” He was in the minority in this regard. More and more of the family’s friends got their phones and the rings increased. A lot.

This kid, now 77, is enjoying a few relaxing days at the beach and noticing how 99.999999% of the people here are incapable of not looking at or talking on their phones. Eight college coeds were on their beach towels, soaking in the rays, and all eight were staring at their phones. College students walk by and you know they’re coming – they’re talking on their phones. Joggers and beach walkers multi-task, running and talking. Cell phones ring at restaurants. While people are waiting outside of restaurants for their tables. And in shops at the outlets, or so I hear.

What comes to mind is when my Granddaddy was 77, and not long before he collapsed on the back porch and died of a heart attack, I mostly listened to a dinner conversation one night with all eight of us around the big oak table. And wouldn’t you know it – the phone rang two or three times during dinner. He dared anyone to answer it.

Then he launched into an idea he said he’d been thinking about. No one believed a word of it. “That damned phone is going to take over our lives. Mark my word – one day some smart guy will figure how to make a phone that we carry around and answer,” this big railroad conductor of 49 years bellowed, fork in hand with his fat index finger pointed at us. “I hope I’m not around to see it.”

He wasn’t. A few months later came the heart attack. But his prediction is alive and well. Granddaddy’s words make me wonder what comes after the cell phone. “Augmented Reality” may be at your front door soon!

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. You can email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562.

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