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Dawns Column - I Remember When
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The other day my coworker made a phone call from work and got a busy signal on the other end of the line. She gave the receiver a strange look and then hung up.

A busy signal. Wow, can you believe that? When’s the last time you heard one of those? Doesn’t everyone have call waiting nowadays?

I, too, have heard this strange sound of a nearly bygone era called the “busy signal.”

My colleague and I started talking about busy signals and I said that one day, not too far from now, there will be people who’ve never heard a busy signal in their life. If they were to hear one, they would think something was wrong.

What is that sound? Argh, my phone is broken.

Is that the emergency broadcast alert thingy?

This is kind of weird for me. Because of phone technology alone I’m starting to pass into that realm of life where I’m beginning to sound like my parents and grandparents. I just know it, I’m going to start saying things like, “I remember when…” or, “When I was your age…”

Well Junior, when I was your age, if you tried to call someone and they were already talking on the phone, you’d get a busy signal.

A busy signal is a funny thing. In one way, I liked it because I knew the person I was trying to reach was there — because I knew they were talking on the phone. And I knew they were talking on the phone because it was giving the busy signal, but it could’ve also meant that their receiver was off the hook. But now, there’s call waiting or the call goes straight to voicemail, and you can’t be really sure if someone’s there or not.

On the other hand, who has time to wait for a busy signal these days? That just means you have to keep calling back until someone answers or you can get their voicemail.

Voicemail. There’s another one. This used to be called an “answering machine.”

Junior, I remember when you had to rewind the tape on the answering machine to listen to your messages.

In fact, when I was a kid, answering machines were new and fickle technology. So, I was my parents’ answering machine. I’ll also have you know, I was trained from a very early age, like maybe seven years old, in proper phone etiquette and I knew how to take a message by getting the person’s name and phone number and writing it down on a notepad kept by the phone. Even then I think it threw off some of the adults who called our house because they heard a little girl’s voice on the line asking to take a message.

Whenever I called my grandparents house — and it was this way at their house until the very end — if the phone just rang and rang and rang, that meant no one was home. If you heard the busy signal, it meant to call back in a few minutes. Simple.

Their telephone on the wall in the kitchen was also a circular dial, and it stayed that way, even after the pushbutton-style phones came out. There are probably a few old timers out there who still have a circular dial phone, but they’ve got to be near extinction — the phones, I mean.

Before we had a pushbutton phone in my house growing up, it took a while to dial up my grandparents. They had a zero in the last four digits of their phone number. Whenever there was a zero in a phone number, it was a long wait for the return on the dial. Any number above five or six took a long time to return.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I describe how to dial a phone, well, I can’t explain it. You just had to be there.

No one had Caller I.D. when I was a kid. It didn’t exist. In fact, I don’t think I got Caller I.D. until I was out of college. College students usually couldn’t afford Caller I.D. because it was new technology.

When I was your age, Junior, when you answered the phone, it was always a crapshoot. You never knew who was calling you, if it was your best friend or a bill collector.

These days, it’s also a rarity to see a payphone somewhere. And you can forget about finding one with a phonebook dangling from a cable underneath. Some places even had rows of payphones. I can even recall phone booths, where you went inside and closed the little glass door before making your call. Some of them even had a light that would go on when you closed the door.

When I was your age, Junior, I had to call my parents from a payphone to ask if I could go somewhere after school. And, if I didn’t have a dime to call, then I had better be on that school bus to get home – or else.

Then I remember when it went up to 20 cents to make a call from a payphone, and then a quarter, and then 35 cents. Remember how indignant some people were about the price hike? I was one of them. What a rip off!

By the time payphone calls were getting up to 25 cents and 35 cents, I had an analog Motorola in a zippered case with a handle that carried the king-size battery inside.

Remember those?

It actually had a spiral cord, just like a landline, that went from the receiver part to the battery pack. I never had a dropped call on that thing, but it also couldn’t fit into my pocket.

Again, for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, that was a cell phone.

I remember when there was no such thing as texting, Junior. Our cell phones were only used for emergencies and calling the office when our pagers went off. But sometimes, we’d just look for a payphone instead and hope we wouldn’t get a busy signal.


Dawn M. Henley is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News, and The Escalon Times. She may be reached at or by calling 847-3021.