Stars, stripes, and telephones
America, as overseas visitors cannot fail to notice, is the land of stars, stripes, and telephones. I've been reminded of that in several ways recently: * In Bryant Pond, Maine, a town of 800 tucked up against the mountainous New Hampshire border, the phone has caused a major flap. The town's claim to fame resides in its having the last crank telephone system in the nation. Modernity, however, is creeping in. The local phone company has been bought by the nearby Oxford County Telephone and Telegraph Company. It has promised to replace the town's 450 crank boxes with a dial system within two years. Some of the city folks who had moved in recently thought that was fine. But the locals are up in arms - not surprisingly in a land where such traditions bring in nostalgic (and well-heeled) tourists. Wearing tee shirts that say ''Don't Yank the Crank,'' they have vowed to fight the Oxford interlopers to the finish.
* Also in Maine, and also in a flap, is Monhegan Island, a community of 100 year-round residents 15 miles off the Atlantic coast. Its telephonic needs have been served for 62 years by an undersea cable, which was first laid by the Coast Guard and later leased to the New England Telephone Company. But a hurricane at the end of the summer finally broke the cable, leaving islanders to communicate by ship-to-shore radio, citizens' band transmitters, or the US mail. They, too, are up in arms: as the Coast Guard and the telephone company both disclaim responsibility for repairing the line, the island remains out of reach.
The fact is, Americans are quintessential telephoners, dependent on the telephone not only for quick communication but for extended discussions, leisurely chats, and all the rambling and unfocused conversation upon which friendship depends.
That's not the case in most other countries, where telephones are still something to share rather than hoard. One expects less of a take-it-for-granted attitude in areas still developing their communications - like Peking, where there are only 200,000 phones for a population of 8.6 million, or the Soviet Union, where 19.6 million phones serve 262 million people.
But even in the industrialized West the attitudes toward the phone have yet to approach the American nonchalance. France, which has recently overcome its notorious two-year waiting period for getting a new phone, still has fewer than one for every three persons. Britain does better, with about one for every two. But even the well-wired English tend to be much more curt and formal on the phone than the Americans, using it to set up appointments or update information already mailed.
America's 176 million phones, lavished upon a population of 230 million, put it at the top of the heap. In the United States there is one phone for every one-and-three-tenths persons. It hasn't always been so, of course. Not long ago the telephone was still, if not a luxury, at least an accessory to be used sparingly. American Telephone and Telegraph (which, unlike British Telecom or France's Postes Telegraphes Telephones, is not a state-run monopoly but a private corporation serving only 80 percent of a market that includes 1,400 independent companies) likes to look back into its earlier statistics:
* In 1950 the average American made about 379 telephone conversations annually - little more than one a day. By 1980 that figure had tripled to 1,128 a year.
* Over the last decade, the average long-distance call grew from a 473-mile, 7.84-minutes affair to a 587-mile, 8.65-minute operation.
* In 1971 the company recorded 103 million ''international messages.'' Last year there were 450 million. The world, to coin a phrase, is getting smaller.
What does that tell us about this peculiar nation we call America?
The Monhegan Islanders help answer that. When the cable went, so did the island's all-important tourist business. Hotel vacancies, unheard of in early September, cropped up: would-be visitors, unable to call and confirm reservations, simply went elsewhere. Grocers could no longer order supplies. High school students, who go ashore for boarding school, were out of touch with their parents. Nobody, in other words, knew quite how to behave. They had been raised to trust the ever present phone - and, like garage mechanics suddenly dumped into a livery stable, they had trouble getting adjusted.
I suspect that the typical European, facing such a situation, would have resorted to pen and paper and a stamp. But the burgeoning telephone system in this country, while it has not exactly wiped out the use of mails, has washed them into a backwater. Americans, it seems, simply don't write many letters to one another. They call up instead.
Is that bad? Writing teachers think so. They brood over the decline in literacy, wondering how much can be laid at the door of a lack of reading (because of television) and how much to a lack of any reason to write (because of the telephone). Others, however, praise instant communications, the give-and-take of conversation rather than the inflexibility of the written word.
Granted. But Americans, hastening on to yank the crank and update everything in sight, may also be in danger of yanking out human contact - substituting the recorded voice for the know-it-all operator, the hit-or-miss language of the phone-call with the demand for thoughtful precision in a letter, even the introduction over the phone for the warmth of personal contact.
What will history say of such developments? Who knows? Even history itself is changing. We are not generating attics-full of old letters, someday to be discovered and published, carrying down to the present the authentic informal voice of our intimate communications in the past. Our conversations vanish into thin air.
Unless, like a former president, you put them all on tape. Maybe all the historians will find are tapes: thin strips of plastic, convincing future historians that our conversations with one another went something like ''The number you have called has been changed. The new number is . . .