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It was my 16th birthday about a kazillion years ago. The one gift I had wanted for a very long time is the single gift I received: a 13-inch cord on the one telephone in my childhood home. This magical addition to my life would allow me to take the family phone from its appointed spot in the specific built-in shelf in our hallway into my room – and shut the door.

This ability would allow me heretofore-unparalleled privacy. I’d be able to talk with whomever I wished about whatever I wished without other ears listening in. However, it would not allow me to talk whenever I wished. Way back then, there were plenty of rules about the conduct of someone in our home when it came to using the telephone.

Those guidelines were strictly enforced and included the specificity of when calls could be made and received. No phone calls, either incoming or outgoing, were allowed before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Family meals were always at the big oval table in the dining area and it was always set for all four members; it was a strictly-enforced “no phone calls taken” zone. The phone would be answered in a specific way. My father’s entire career was as a life insurance salesman, so the telephone was a valuable tool in his marketing. My sister and I were taught to always answer clearly, in a specific manner (“Hi, this is the Allmon Residence”). We were taught how to take coherent messages that included who had called, confirming how their names were spelled and ensuring how they could be reached – and we knew to make sure those messages got seen by the appropriate person.

Due to my father’s reliance on phone contact for his job, my phone calls were limited to three minutes apiece. You read that correctly: Three Minutes. To ensure we all kept to the time frame, there was a sand-filled egg timer next to the phone that we’d automatically flip when we started a conversation. With my grandparents all in Arkansas, that timer got flipped several times during rare occasions when they were called; parents got special dispensation. Way back in the dark ages, long-distance telephone calls were rare and expensive.

With drastically reestablished and instant telephone usage these days, I find myself being tested in ways that differ so differently from my upbringing. For example, I’m now trained to automatically answer the phone anytime it rings – regardless of the time of day and whether or not I recognize the incoming number. This Pavlovian dog-response has taken me some time to learn to resist -- If it’s a legitimate phone call, they’ll leave a message; if not, they won’t. Needless to say, there are lots of messages not left.

Remembering that I get to make the rules, I’ve listed my number with the Federal Trade Commission no-call list, but that has done absolutely nothing with some so-called businesses. Just last week, when I politely informed the caller that I was on the National Do Not Call list, he laughed at me and kept repeating, “No!” And so, I simply hung up.

I am, after all, still in charge.

Bonnie Allmon Coffey remembers well the heavy, solid black standard telephone that was stationary in the hall until the arrival of the 13-foot-cord birthday gift. Her current phone weighs far less and fits in her palm. Bonnie continues to get unsolicited sales calls, which she continues to report.

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L Magazine editor

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