Of time, telephones, eternity, and Mrs. Appleton



Nearly everybody I see driving a car nowadays is talking on a cell phone.

This certainly isn’t news to you.  And don’t go thinking this is going to be another diatribe about the inherent danger of  driving and using the phone at the same time. I’ll leave that battle to someone who can come up with a better argument than the one that should be pretty obvious.

It’s just that I see the cell phone epidemic running rampant everywhere.  In restaurants where whole families talk to their phones rather than to each other.  In movie theaters.  Even on the way into church, with folks getting a last little communication fix that will have to last a whole hour.

I sometimes wonder what those cell phone chatterers would do if technology was magically transported back in time about a half century.

Up in Oakwood, the little piney woods town where I grew up, every house had one telephone when I was a kid.  At least every house that I went into. And I wandered pretty freely.

That one phone per household was a bulky thing as ugly as a mud clod and as heavy as a boat anchor.  And, for some unfathomable reason, it was always located in the most inconvenient part of the house.  Ours sat in a curved wall niche in a narrow hallway directly under a big attic fan that rattled like a freight train when it was on. And it was on all spring and summer.  There was no room in there for a chair, so we had to stand up to yell into that phone.

It was as if some strong puritanical code forbade placing a telephone in some comfortable place, like beside an armchair or, God forbid, by a bed.

Our phone had no dial, just a glossy smooth front, and you had to crank a little handle on its side to engage it.  Then you lifted the heavy handset and told Mrs. Appleton, the operator, who you wanted to talk to.  Say, I’d ask to speak to my friend Chris Stevens and Mrs. Appleton would connect us or she’d tell me that the Stevens had driven over to Palestine for the afternoon.

Everybody kept Mrs. Appleton updated as to their whereabouts.  She called everyone “honey”, and she was a great font of information.

Sometimes too much.

One time my mother, who had come to our little town from a much larger one that had dial telephones, had asked to be connected to some lady who lived out near the Nineveh community because she’d heard that she had a sewing machine for sale.

The Nineveh woman’s husband was a butter and egg man, the rural equivalent of a milkman, and Mrs. Appleton told my mother “you don’t buy your butter and eggs from them, honey.”  Then she’d reminded my mother who she did use.

It made my mother so angry that she didn’t call anybody for the better part of a week.  After all, she told us at the supper table, Mrs. Appleton didn’t have absolute power, and certainly not when it came to where we got our eggs.

I liked Mrs. Appleton, and so did everyone else in town.  Even my mother, except for that one week.

Anyway, I have to wonder what this current cell phone society would make of one phone in the middle of the house, with a human being on the other end of the line who had to direct the call.

I even dreamed about it once.  I was at the Pearly Gates and, instead of Saint Peter, there was just that old black telephone on top of a short marble column.  When I picked up the handset, a familiar voice asked me where I wanted to go.

And I had to smile, in that dream, since it turned out that Mrs. Appleton ended up having considerably more clout than my mother ever suspected.


[This first ran as a Sunday morning newspaper column and then in a collection published by TCU Press in 2009 titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle, an unfortunate title which probably led some readers to believe it was a devotional guide]




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