Making Connections The Hard Way

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ONE half mile didn't seem far to go to phone a friend, unless it was midwinter and the snow was deep and cold. This was a spring evening, however, at the end of a long day of spring cleaning, and the idea of talking with Val appealed to me. The children played outdoors all day as I cleaned. I heated water on the wood-burning cookstove in big pots, preparatory to the dish washing, counter, and window cleaning I wanted to do. I hung the living-room rug on the clothesline in back and beat it vigorously. I swept and mopped the floors, filled the kerosene lamps, and washed the lamp chimneys. Then I began heating water for evening baths.

My husband had been out on the ranch all day irrigating the fields by hand, opening up a ditch here, closing a ditch there, using a shovel as his only tool as he walked about in his high rubber boots.

I went in and out of the house on my cleaning errands under the quiet, expansive sky, with only the sound of the sandhill cranes, the killdeer, and the children's laughing voices to keep me company. I hadn't been lonely, but somehow it seemed good, after dinner and conversation with the family, to stroll down the road in the twilight to phone Val.

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``Our'' telephone was located in a hunting cabin a half mile away on this quiet 1,200-acre ranch. It wasn't our phone, but our employer had given us full use of it. He paid the bill monthly, then mailed a copy to us so we could figure our calls and reimburse him.

The delightful news was that a call to Baker City, 45 miles away, was not long distance, so a call to my friends cost me only the ambition of a half-mile walk down the road and the willingness to sit in the dark if I happened to get there late in the day.

None of the buildings in Whitney, Ore., had electricity. They were all remnants of an old lumber and mining town and were now incorporated into the big ranch we worked on. Sometimes I took a candle to the ``phone house.'' Other times I watched the dusk deepening as I sat talking and listening.

This particular evening I was without a candle and had decided not to encumber myself with a flashlight. I was confident that I was starting early enough for a lovely walk, a pleasant talk with Val, and a stroll back to the house in time for lamp lighting.

All would have gone just as planned except that when I reached the cabin and wound up the phone (a still workable relic from who knows when) there was no response. I tried a few more times, hoping to get an answer from a Portland operator, who no doubt would question me about where Whitney was, ``Is it on the map?'' and marvel over my living conditions. This was a common occurrence when I called, especially with new operators. They mused over our phone number, Whitney III, and wanted to know how I came to be living in such a place.

BUT tonight the phone was definitely dead, and I stepped onto the front porch of the cabin and began to resign myself to my fate of living in an empty northeastern Oregon valley without a way to get in touch, for the moment, except by letters. A letter to my friend would have to be taken to the nearest town, 13 miles away, to mail. Of course one could phone from there, too. But a letter would take a day or two to reach its destination. By then perhaps I'd plan a trip in for groceries, and why write?

Then I remembered that the folks from Los Angeles, who lived up the hill about a mile the other way, had just had a phone put into the log cabin they were building. It was getting dusky-dark by this time, but I knew my way and headed up the hill.

Scott and Geralyn were just pulling out of the drive when I got there. They were on their way to a party in Prairie City, but Scott said to go on in.

I let myself into the house as the last light faded from the sky. Their house was almost as familiar to me as my own, which was fortunate since there was no light left. I shuffled my way across the floor, hoping by this method to avoid any stray trucks or balls the children might have left. I found the phone, but the kerosene lamp which was usually there had been moved. Scott had installed some new-fangled propane lamps, but they were new enough that I didn't know where they were. Besides, how did you l ight them?

I fumbled around in my pockets and found two paper matches. Holding the receiver with one hand, I lit the match and held it with my dialing hand. I could barely see the numbers. I managed to dial three numbers before the match went out. Match number two gave me two numbers and then I was left in the dark again. Wondering to myself why I didn't give up, I walked my finger through each number beginning with one, counting until I reached the last two numbers. The phone rang and I waited hopefully. Val answ ered and sounded as far away as the 19th century.

``Val!'' I shouted. ``Can you hear me?''

``Laura? Is that you? Where are you?''

``Whitney!''

``They have better connections to Europe than this!'' she yelled, beginning to rise to the occasion and obviously enjoying herself. A few more shouted sentences left me leaning against the wall wearily. Was it worth it? I could see the humor in it, and Val was having a great time. I could just imagine her leaning nonchalantly on the counter in her well-lighted kitchen. I pondered the advantages of electricity as her laughter subsided. After making an appointment to meet in the park in town for a picnic with our children, we hung up.

I left the house and groped my way down the hill. The moon wasn't up yet, and off in the distance an owl called and another responded. I listened to them talking in the stillness of the valley.

SIX years have passed and I now live in a house with phones. I no longer have to feel my way through the darkness or crank up the Portland operator for a chat with a friend.

A move to Colorado has put us close to Denver. On a trip to the city for music lessons a few months ago my daughters and I pulled up behind a man in a business suit. He was sitting comfortably talking on a car phone. I marveled that he was able to talk on the phone about who knows how many details, keep an eye on traffic, and be in control all at the same time. It was all I could do to manage the traffic.

But has he ever used a wind-up phone? Who can tell? The light changed and he pulled away. I guess we'll never know.

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