Telephoning from the big booth in the sky

They've taken away the old-fashioned phone booth from street corners here on earth. But, bless them, they've given it wings and a wide body and a jet engine, and created a big pay phone in the sky.

With something like the awe that greeted the first rocket to the moon, American, United, Delta, and all the rest have announced that, while cruising at 30,000 feet, you can reach out and touch your Aunt Millie, or anybody else in the United States - at the truly caring rate of $7.50 for the first three minutes.

The invention of the Great Flying Phone Booth has brought things to a climax for people who already spend a good many of their waking hours thinking about their telephone - like you and me.

Once upon a time, as you may or may not remember, we didn't give a thought to our phones except when we used them.

The telephone was a black, squat instrument with an elementary dial. The only choice you faced was whether to get fancy and enshrine your little black box on the odd piece of furniture known as a telephone stand - or just leave it there on the floor, the way everybody else did.

Then the telephone began to get sophisticated - and life began to get complicated. First came the color phone, to be color-coordinated with your refrigerator or bathtub, as the case might be. Soon you had to decide whether to hang your avocado special on the wall or not. The next big dilemma: Should you buy extension cords or new-fangled phone jacks?

Before you knew it, the optional sound of the push button filled the land. Beep. BEEP. BEEP. Beep....

Decisions! Decisions! Your mind buzzed like a party line on Saturday night. Things couldn't get worse.

But they did, didn't they? Suddenly we were torn from the arms of Ma Bell and sent into the streets to attach ourselves to foster mothers with cold-sounding names, like MCI and Sprint.

Taking responsibility for your telephone has become practically a full-time career. The mailbox overflows with ''special deals.'' You can't turn on the TV without Cliff Robertson or Burt Lancaster or Joan Rivers touting this system or that. In the end, you find yourself spending so much time and energy weighing the options that you have no time or energy left to call your Aunt Millie, or anybody else. And what would you talk to them about, anyway - besides, of course , the topic of the telephone?

Why, it's enough to make you hook up an answering machine - and never play the messages back. As usual, the result of being granted too many choices is not power but helplessness. No wonder the high flyers grab for the pay phone in the sky to restore some sense of domination over this pesky technological slave that so often seems to enslave us.

Maybe the last phone-user who really felt in charge was that fellow who shouted into the very first mouthpiece, ''Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.''

As for the rest of us, our best chance at telephone-power is to take the thing off the hook. If Alexander Graham What's-his-name wants us, he'll just have to put it in writing.

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