THE recent launchings of communication satellites by the French-sponsored Ariane rocket and French plans to produce a space shuttle called Hermes have reminded me of another communication ``first'' involving France. It was 50 years ago when the transatlantic radio telephone between New York and Paris had its inauguration. I played a small part in it. Small, verging on minuscule, but traumatic.
I was an undergraduate in college and had a summer job with the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in New York. My job, in the Long Lines Department, was tedious. I had to sort through paper slips showing long-distance calls made the previous day to the heavy-load cities of Allentown, Atlantic City, and Monticello.
I made a peg count of calls and their times-of-day so that I could schedule the proper number of operators to man (woman?) the switchboards, staggering lunch hours and 15-minute breaks. (Direct dialing was a science-fiction dream.) This tiresome chore took me all day. I am sure that the whole process, if it still exists, is now whisked out in .0003 seconds by a computer that is user-friendly.
One sultry, drizzling day in midsummer, they came for me. The telephone company officials had cast about and discovered that they had on the premises that rara avis of the then business world: a college girl. Being a college girl in those days carried a cachet. It denoted intelligence, a studious background, graceful manners, perhaps even poise and the ability to speak good English. So I was summoned from my peg count and led through carpeted corridors where the executives had their leather-bound offices, where the sun was kept at bay by drawn shades and the sticky heat stirred around with electric fans, swiveling from side to side.
I ended up in a windowless room full of big, black machines and things that went click-clack. Several gray-flannel executives were standing around. I was told that this was the historic moment of the first transatlantic radio phone call. In those pre-moonwalk days, this was exciting beyond belief. I was numb with awe.
With no briefing, I was plunked down in front of a console that had blinking lights, buzzing noises, and turning discs. They gave me an earpiece that went over my head. And a telephone speaker that reared in front of me like a hooded cobra.
``Say, `Hello,' '' someone told me. ``Say, `Hello, Paris.' ''
I said, ``Hello, Paris,'' quavering with stage fright. From the earpiece came a faint, faraway voice that said, ``All^o, New York.'' It had a French accent.
``Say something,'' I was told by one of the executives. The black cobra-head glared at me. I thought it hissed, ready to strike. ``Say something.''
Only they didn't mean, ``Say something.'' They meant ``Say something memorable.'' Something to ring down the ages. Something like Marconi's marveling, ``What hath God wrought!'' as he sent the first wireless telegraph message out into the ether. Something like Alexander Graham Bell's anguished cry, ``Come here, Mr. Watson, I need you,'' as the sulfuric acid he had spilled in his lap was eating through his trousers. Something the media would use. Except that they didn't have media in those days, just newspaper reporters and Movietone News.
``Say something,'' they told me urgently.
So I said something.
I said, ``It's raining here. Is it raining where you are?''
I never knew what Paris weather report came back over the first transatlantic radio telephone. I was hoisted from the console and hustled back to the peg count of calls to and from Allentown, Atlantic City, and Monticello. It was ignominious. I kept trying to think what I should have said. ``Vive la France,'' perhaps. Or ``We live in an age of wonders.'' I had touched a Moment of Glory and I had muffed it.
Like any failure, it haunts me.
And yet . . . and yet . . . as today the space scientists try to reach out to possible intelligent life in other parts of the universe, they too have the problem of what to say. Pioneer 10, which will go swooping out of the solar system in 1987, carries a message plaque etched with some attempts at communication.
There is a drawing of the spacecraft itself and, in front of it and in scale with it, the figures of a man and woman.
The man figure has his arm lifted in a friendly greeting -- ``How!'' -- thus showing off his opposable thumb. He has short hair. The woman figure just stands there, not knowing what to do with her hands. She has shoulder-length hair. They both look white, Anglo-Saxon and, possibly, Protestant. They also look silly.
Then there is a diagram of the solar system, with a little squiggle indicating that Pioneer 10 comes from the third planet from the sun. And radiating lines representing the position of 14 pulsars (if the little green creatures on a planet of 61 Cygni don't know what a pulsar is, they must stay after school and look it up) with teeny symbols that represent the frequencies of the pulsars at the time of the launch, relative to the hydrogen atom. The hydrogen atom itself looks like a dumbbell, two circles with a connecting bar, hovering over the hapless man and woman.
If Pioneer 10 does reach alien intelligence in another solar system, the little green creatures will indeed have to be way ahead of us in mental development to figure out what that message plaque is supposed to convey. A cry for help? A declaration of war? An invitation to play a board game? Yet this message was the best the Great Minds could come up with. No wonder I had bungled my chance at transatlantic immortality.
And yet . . . I may be vindicated. If it be true that life as we know it can exist on another planet only if there is moisture and water vapor, might it not be a good thing to say, ``It's raining here. Is it raining where you are?'' With vertical lines representing the rain coming down and the woman figure holding an umbrella.