Phone books had all the answers

Burt's Eye View

I miss telephone books.

They could level a chair with a short leg, help little kids sit tall enough to join the big people’s table at Thanksgiving, and they’d swat flies like nobody’s business.

The coolest thing of all — they were chock-full of phone numbers. Or turn to the Yellow Pages and let your fingers do the walking to whatever business you needed.

We never had to plug the phone book into a charger overnight. We flipped it open any time of day or night and all the numbers were displayed instantly. We didn’t even have to wait for them to load.

Phone book delivery day always was exciting when I was a kid. Not as exciting as receiving the Sears Christmas Wish Book, but still, we boys fought over who got to bring the phone book inside and rifle the pages until we found our family’s name. We existed because we were in the book.

Back in those rough and austere days, telephones didn’t store numbers. We either had to look them up or memorize them.

I think cellphones are the major reason that my memory has fizzled. It’s lack of practice. I don’t have to remember anything anymore. Numbers, dates, the capital of Wisconsin — it’s all stored in my cellphone.

I store two phone books on my desk at work. One is dated 2004 and the other 2005. They’re stacked beneath my computer monitor to jack the screen up to eye level. I haven’t opened either book for 13 years.

I began reminiscing about phone books the other day after yet another number I didn’t recognize flashed across my cellphone display screen. I ignored the call because I didn’t know who was ringing my device.

The names and phone numbers of most everyone I know already is stored in my cellphone. Their names flash across the screen when they call.

If the name isn’t stored, well, people I know tend to leave messages. Once the caller is identified, I enter that person’s name in my digital directory and tap the redial button.

(By the way, kids, it’s called “redial” because back in the days of phone books, telephones had actual dials and no screens. You used your finger to turn the dial, once for every digit in the phone number. Making calls took a lot of work.)

This caller didn’t leave a message. I clacked the unknown number into a search engine on my computer. The reply was, “We’ve found whose bugging you. For $9.95, we’ll give you the name, address and criminal history of your caller.”

I miss old-fashioned, ink-and-paper phone books. Phone books never charged us $9.95. Names and address were right there, in black and white, all the time.

Then again, we also didn’t have caller ID or answering machines. If we wanted to know who was calling, we had to — gasp — answer the phone.

But only at home. Phones sat on tables or were affixed to walls and only could travel as far as the cord reached, which might be into the next room, but not usually. If you picked up the receiver, you were stuck.

So while the caller yammered on, you read the phone book. Maybe memorized a page or two of numbers. Drew mustaches on all the faces in the Yellow Pages ads. Swatted a fly buzzing overhead.

Phone books were amazingly useful. How sad that they’ve been disconnected.

— Leave Cole a message at burtseyeview@tribtoday.com, on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook or @BurtonWCole on Twitter.

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