Miles From The Dingy-Ding

THE Minnesota Supreme Court has officially observed that telephone calls "... are uniquely intrusive. The shrill and imperious ring of the telephone demands immediate attention."

As one of the two or three living Americans who have not been conditioned to this intrusion by the blandishments of Mother Bell, I applaud the Minnesota justices for a brave remark. The utter obsequious devotion the public lavishes on the tinkle-tinkle makes a mockery of human reason and a slave of every subscriber. How I do, indeed, stand up and cheer every time I read in my local newspaper, "... but up to press time our call had not been returned."

Let us consider together. After driving all day, Bill and I arrive over a distant wilderness logging road at our vacation abode by our beautiful lake, and we unlock the door to enter and "make" camp. We are alone in the deep woods. Nobody lives close by, and the nearest telephone would be in the boundary town of Ste. Aurelie, Dorchester County, Quebec, in the office of a scaler for the International Paper Company. At least 75 miles away. That telephone, I should explain, speaks French, because it is conn ected to Canada.

So Bill and I arrange our effects and commence the week of meditation and profundity that is our basic reason for being there, and we have neither cark nor care. And, in due time, I will look out the window, and I will see Bill meditating under a spruce tree at the fringe of the limitless forest, and he may be holding out one hand with a biscuit to entice a handsome cock gorbey into philosophical discourse. I will smile in my charming manner and say to myself, "Now!"

So I open the camp door and I shout, "Bill! Telephone!" It happens every time, every year. Bill knows there is no telephone. But in that first instant of conditioned response, he tosses the biscuit at the jay, and the jay catches it on the fly, and Bill unwittingly makes a move to come to the camp and take the call. He doesn't, of course; in the second instant, he "comes to." He is in the woods of Maine, and all civilized obligations have ceased. He gives me a wave that tells me what I can do with teleph ones, turns back to his business, and reaches in his pocket for another biscuit. The gorbey returns.

The first time Bill and I visited this same camp, which was 29 years ago, there was a telephone in it. It came as a surprise. The camp had been kept in good repair to accommodate a dam tender, who at the moment was one Tom Begin. Newcomers to the place, Bill and I were happy to find there were three Tom Begins: Joe, Alcide, and Philemon. They were brothers. To tell them apart they were all called Tom, which I can explain but it would take three-quarters of an hour.

Bill and I were told that we might use the camp, but we'd have to share with one of the Toms until he read the dam on Wednesday. The dam at Cauc Lake is one of many the Great Northern Paper Company maintains to assure a steady flow of water far down the Penobscot River at the paper mill.

There is a board by the dam that shows in feet and inches how the level of the lake stands. In short, the company knows almost to a pailful just how much water it has in storage in the entire West Branch watershed. Tom had a telephone, so once a day he could call in "the board." This he did as his faithful day's work.

Charlie Nelson would crank the magneto away back at Pittston Farm, and the imperious intrusion would come just as Tom returned from looking at the board. Tom would lift the receiver and shout, "Fi', fo'!" It was the only English he (they) knew. Bill and I found the board was always at 5 ft., 4 in.

Except during lightning storms, that telephone never intruded otherwise. If lightning struck the wilderness circuit (one wire from tree to tree plus the ground), every wilderness telephone from Cobbsookabagcook Hill to Wasserunseekeag Pond jingled, but nobody dared touch anything until the storm abated. For those phones, acoustics had not been refined, and a conversation had the quality of marbles swirled in a dishpan.

A couple of times Bill and I played Tom and shouted "Fi,' fo'!" Then a new dam was built that needed no reading; Tom retired; and radio appeared. Bill and I climbed a tree and snitched insulators as souvenirs.

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