From the back catalog
This still seems funny to me. But I amuse myself easily.
Isn't that a good thing?
Looking back now, it is clear where the beginning of the end came for the Public Broadcasting Service.
Seven years ago in the spring of 1989 Bob Villa, the affable host of a mildly popular
show called This Old House, was fired. Mr. Villa was released for making money, for being successful and taking monetary
advantage of it. This action was par for the self-defeating course of public television: As long as no one watches
we must be doing something right.
the powers-that-be. It was a dead horse well beaten. Was management at the quasi-network hellbent on quashing
any glimmer of prosperity? Yes, it was. That is if you could call the motley conglomeration of member stations
and ever-changing government overlords
But the outcry this time seemed to fall on less-than-deaf ears.
The Villa affair served as a catalyst for the sea changes of 1990 when power was centralized and decisions made more orderly.
A PBS official was quoted saying, "I see nothing
wrong with getting ratings." A new era was begun, an era that would be the last for public broadcasting.
Read the rest here.
"A Prairie From the Ashes," originally
published in Farm Journal in 1993. A fun story to write. Likely the largest audience, print or Web either, for anything I've
ever written. At the time, I believe Farm Journal had a circulation over a million.
Charlie's still out in Oregon County as far as I know. I spoke to him from Springfield one
Saturday afternoon while I was working on a Strange Currencies column -- Ledford made me change the name of the business-page
column when the News-Leader was redesigned; "What does it mean?" he insisted -- probably in 2001. The column was
about Mad Cow Disease and how it was hurting the beef business.
I hope it comes across how incredible the burn was. It's among the most impressive things I've ever seen. There was a wall
of flame, 10-feet high and maybe an eighth of a mile long, marching across Charlie's pasture. It was moving at 8 mph, easy.
I was supposed to be outrunning it, to get around and start a backfire on the other side. I ran as fast as I could, carrying
a kerosene drip torch that was leaking flame. Very disconcerting. I guess I got around.
Here's the top:
On a sun-soaked morning late in March a six foot wall
of flame speeds across Charlie Erickson's Flying E Ranch in Missouri's Ozarks foothills, consuming much of the fuel in the
prescribed burn's path and leaving behind a blackened waste.
these ashes new life springs. Like the phoenix, thought dead, here the native prairie -- beaten back, tilled under, crowded
out and generally abused -- is staging, with the guidance of human hands, a comeback.
This is more than an ecological victory. It's good business. The resurgent big bluestem,
little bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass is a low cost, low maintenance addition to Erickson's warm season grazing scheme
that provides cattle pleasing, drought resistant pasture along with improved production.
Click here to read the rest.
Originally published in The Funny Times, circa 1991.
in the Boys Room
The couple approached
the restaurant arm in arm, the gentleman disengaging to hold the door open for his fiancee. The maitre d'hotel met them
immediately, menus in hand. Chez Cuisine was known for its currying service.
"How many in your party this evening, sir?"
"Just the two of us," Kevin said.
"And will that be thinking or non-thinking?"
"Non-thinking," Elaine interjected before
her escort could reply. He shot her a withering gaze, but kept his silence.
Kevin and Elaine followed closely the head waiter's lead to a booth in the front
room. He took their bar orders before leaving: two zombies. After the maitre d' was out of earshot, the
woman again preempted the man.
don't start with me," she said, and waggled her finger in admonition. "If you can't go the length of a meal
without thinking, well, you're pretty bad off."
Click here to read the rest
Previously unpublished. World premiere. Originally written (clearly, by the context)
at the end of 1992.
HEAD FOR THE HILLS
At this remove from
the recent unpleasantness, as Republicans might think of November's elections, the breadth of George Bush's defeat
can nowhere be seen more starkly than in his failure to carry even 40 percent of Howell County, a Republican bastion in southern
Missouri abutting the president-elect's state of Arkansas.
And rare is the place to better illustrate the depth of disaffection felt by those true believers who did cleave to
Bush. Republicans in St. Louis who view the Democratic ascension as reason to head for the hills may find
they should have called ahead for reservations -- there are no vacancies in the Ozarks and the battlements are manned.
Among the minority of Howell Countians that cast their ballots for the Bush/Quayle
ticket there is a decided tendency to interpret Bill Clinton's victory apocalyptically, quite literally in at least one
A local grocer reports that days
after the election a woman came into his store and bought two tons of canned goods to see her through the civic upheaval preparatory
to the coming Rapture. She allowed as Clinton is not mentioned by name in The Revelation to John, but that
his election nonetheless portends the beginning of the end times as therein enumerated.
Others of like mind in the county are perhaps not moved to such extreme actions
but share a similar anger and fear beyond anything described by the term sore losers.
On election night, at a casual social gathering to take in the returns, a
group of entrepreneurs and financiers who (in the phraseology of political correctness they so abhor) happen to be Republicans,
voiced the trepidation with which they anticipate a Clinton administration.
A plurality of businessmen present expressed in all seriousness the opinion that prudence would lead them to withdraw
from the bank the next morning cash sufficient to withstand any bank runs and failures they saw as unavoidable, if not in
response to election results, then certainly as a result of Clinton's inauguration come January. Furthermore,
these Republicans thought currency would not be the only thing subject to runs. Weapons, too, were predicted
soon to be in short supply as those prescient enough to do so stocked up on guns a Democratic legislative and executive cabal
would surely criminalize.
All arguments to the contrary were met with patient preachments against the sin of naiveté. But these business Republicans did not limit their concerns
to the worldly. They shared qualms about the Clinton/Gore ticket on a moral par with the woman steeling
against the Second Coming with baked beans. While sipping Wild Turkey and Michelob Light, watching an oversized
Tom Brokaw make projections on a big‑screen TV in a newly minted house three blocks from the West Plains Country Club,
this group of pocketbook voters couldn't avoid mouthing Biblical imprecations. America under the direction
of Clinton, one man prophesied solemnly, is destined to a fate as a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, with Hillary Rodham Clinton
cast as Lot's wife, though a pillar of salt is widely considered too good for her. (The loathing felt
hereabouts for Bill Clinton is exceeded only by that reserved for his spouse.) This was no mere allusion:
Chapter and verse were cited.
weeks following the election Clinton has done nothing to assuage the fears of these religious and economic fundamentalists.
His pronouncements on his intentions regarding homosexuals in the military, abortion counseling, and the naming of
a stereotypical Harvard egghead to oversee transition economic policy have only confirmed the quaking Republicans in their darkest dread. If anything, party
loyalists have turned their stridency up a notch.
numbers do little to reveal the depth and fervor of this response among GOP faithful in the Ozarks. Certainly
Clinton carrying the county was a noteworthy event, but the last time a Democrat won the White House, Howell County voted
for him, too — Jimmy Carter got 52.8 percent of the vote in 1976 — so it's not unheard of. Clinton's
margin over the incumbent Bush was only 132 votes of the 13,537 cast. The county's returns were within
a point or two of mirroring the nation's. Ross Perot got just less than 20 percent of the votes.
Dennis VonAllmen, the Republican County Clerk, says he too has noticed anger
among the electorate, a sentiment he attributes to the twining of religion and politics in rural Missouri.
One's vote is largely nothing more than an extension of one's denominational
beliefs, cast reluctantly lest there be a taint by dirty sectarianism, but nonetheless important in an ongoing battle against
real and imagined forces of evil. With his views contrary to their own on abortion and historical archetypes
of family life, Bill Clinton, to these voters, is very much an agent of darkness. Combine this with a native
isolationism borne of not-so-distant physical remoteness and an environment ripe for reactionary anger is incubated.
And it's likely to get worse. If the locals predicting
the worst are proved wrong they will be forced further into the realm of paranoia. And if Howell County
Republicans are right in their dire prognostications there is small hope of solace in being proved out. Saying I told you so is never very satisfying, as any Democrat can tell them.
Originally published in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. Had no4 idea about Missouri's crazy Amendment 1 passed last November.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
it has been said, is the spawn of fear and ignorance in combination.
There are few instances where this is more clearly illustrated than House Resolution 123, The Language of Government
Act. Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Cape Girardeau), the resolution's author, wants to make sure the federal
government does business in English and only English.
Language may be the last acceptable bastion of cultural
xenophobia. It comes naturally to us and is a major feature of the stereotypical Ugly American.
That doesn't mean it makes any sense.
Emerson's legislation has attracted more than a hundred co-sponsors in Congress, including
Republican Mel Hancock and Democrat Ike Skelton from the Missouri delegation. A spokesman for Emerson says
the backing is bipartisan and geographically diverse. The congressman's office expects hearings on
the issue to get underway in early 1992.
by border states toward bilingualism and the secessionist rumblings of the French-speaking Quebec province in Canada sparked
Emerson to action. He says there is a groundswell of support for a common language, evidenced by a September
rally in Washington and survey results that show non-English speakers themselves in favor of the measure.
Emerson "wanted to make sure we don't have another
civil war, this time over language," his spokesman said. The sad irony is that the bill, if it does
anything, could engender just that.
intolerance we go by easy stages to national intolerance pure and simple, where language serves merely as a means of expression,"
wrote Mario Pei in his book "The Story of Language." The process works in the other direction,
Emerson is careful to point out
his support for cultural diversity. But disclaimers do nothing to vitiate the prejudice inherent in his
actions. Throughout history language intolerance has been the province of totalitarians and fearmongers.
From Nazi Germany to latter day Azerbaidzhan language suppression is the hallmark of the tenuous hold of tyrants.
Does the U.S. really want to ally itself with the fascism of Mussolini, who
forced a single dialect upon Italy? Does Emerson seek to emulate Franco, who banned the teaching of Basque
and Catalan in the regions of Spain where those tongues were native?
For the sake of debate, however, let us discount whatever agenda, overt or otherwise, this resolution might have at
its root and instead focus on its usefulness. It is a paradox that on the one hand this legislation, if
passed, would almost certainly fail to have any influence on language in the U.S. while on the other hand, even if it were
effective, would most likely be completely unnecessary.
Wholly removed from the bias of this proposal is its futility. Emerson might just as well legislate
a new law of gravity for all the good it would do. Language is not something controlled by governmental
fiat. Laws do not alter the immutable direction language takes and may, ironically, work at cross purposes
to their stated goals.
is the paramount symbol of nationality it is not surprising that an official prohibition to use a language has often been
the prime cause of its survival," Pei wrote.
Bryson, in his book "The Mother Tongue," notes that at one time the laws of England called for imprisonment of those
who spoke, taught or made signs in Welsh, and yet the language and its speakers persevered. Then, beginning
in the 1960s, the United Kingdom undertook to subsidize Welsh in the form of television broadcasts, educational programs and
an "official" language designation. Nonetheless, Welsh is now in inexorable decline.
A final argument against the Language of Government Act is its sheer superfluity:
We don't need it to achieve the aims it purports to champion. There is nothing to indicate that this
country is at the brink of linguistic calamity. Indeed, all evidence points to the ascendancy of English
as the global tongue of commerce, science and government. (Which isn't to say English is any better
or worse suited for the purpose than other languages -- it is merely the benefactor of the aforesaid unalterable arbitrary
There has been of late an influx
of Spanish and Vietnamese speakers into the United States, but nothing much different from the German and Italian speakers
who came earlier. English in this country withstood those incursions as it undoubtedly will withstand current
and future waves of immigrants. Emerson's own arguments ensure it.
The congressman says his proposal is designed to "open doors for (non-English
speakers) for jobs, better opportunities, better understanding." These very things provide strong
enough motivation to learn English without bureaucratic regulation. Emerson, a Republican, should have
more faith in the carrot of the marketplace instead of the stick of government intervention.
Bryson cites a 1985 Rand Corporation study that shows more than half of second-generation
Mexican immigrants can speak only one language. That language is English. Essentially
all of the rest, including first-generation Mexican-Americans, are bilingual.
There is one argument in favor of Emerson's proposal. Anyone who
tried to slog through Missouri's epic Proposition B that nosedived to defeat Nov. 5 would have to agree that the legislators
in Jefferson City need to abandon whatever language it is they're using and go back to English.
A classic rant from the Oct. 8, 2000, Springfield News-Leader, published in the Progess Edition inserted
in that issue.
“Progress was all right,
only it went on too long.”--James Thurber
The peaches held tight. Not yet ripe -- little more than fuzzed green
skin carpeting the pits with precious little flesh, though growing and sweetening each moment -- the peach nodes went down
with their tree, succumbing to the dozer’s blade. The apples, also still green, fell before, an easier pushover. Only
eight years old, the two apple trees did not present resistence as formidable as the peach tree’s 30-year root hold.
Already gone, spared the earth-trembling treads, were
four Concord grape vines, transplanted to safer quarters and thriving with their tap roots thrust into Stone County’s
rocky soil. These 50-year-old plants escaped.
Not so for the sugar
maple, in its infancy. Neither the redbud, nor the dogwood continued to grow, but were plowed under also beneath heavy machinery.
Though the bulldozer exacted its price, the silver
maple still stands. The 100-year-old still tree reaches to the sky, now presiding over and shading a barren lot, in repose.
For a stout lower branch hangs cracked with its compound fracture evident. The bark of its trunk is scraped to a gaping wound
that, if the tree survives this maltreatment, will scar and mark this dastardly day in the way trees heal themselves: slowly,
patiently and oblivious to the danger all about it. A tree cannot flee.
It is these trees, and their demise, that troubles me more than the fact that a 114-year-old home was
flattened here. And not any house built in 1886, but the one I owned. I took it, as might be expected, personally. There is
a bitterness to match that of the apples halted in their ripening to sweetness.
Where once there stood a home, there is now bare earth.
Where once a structure built while Mark Twain was writing,
while Queen Victoria was alive and could lend her name adjectivally to the overwrought American architecture of the day, there
will soon be a parking lot.
Where once I and my
family worked and ate and slept and loved, there is now nothing, with only photographs to vouchsafe its existence. A picture
may be worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t keep you dry from the rain.
This home’s demise was not an act of God, but of people. We,
the people of Greene County, willed it so through the representation of the three-member County Commission who expressed their
interest in purchasing the property – it was always property to them, the historic house was as nothing – to expand
the growing holdings of the county on Boonville Avenue and North Campbell Avenue.
There among the increasingly vast empire is the under-construction
jail facility – among the most useless words in the English language, related appropriately to the word facile, both
deriving from the Latin facilis for easy to do – and its footprint ate up parking spaces, already deemed in short supply.
So the good people of Greene County needed more parking spaces to conduct their business with the fewest number of steps as
possible interceding, and the 114-year-old house impeded that most Springfieldian of desires.
This was part of a plan, albeit an amorphous plan that never contracts
but only expands in its purpose of knocking down houses and laying down asphalt. The commissioners negotiated in good faith,
mindful of their fiduciary duties to the county’s coffers and aware of the reality that I was in possession of property
Of course, the specter
of eminent domain loomed as a scythe above my neck. It didn’t come to that. I was paid handsomely for the house, I got
my 20 pieces of silver and used it to purchase another house, itself old, grand and beautiful in its way, if 36 years younger.
The old home was demolished in July. Unceremoniously.
With it went all the sweat my family put into it, and
of all those families who owned it before.
Gabriel N. Shelton
owned the land first, as soon as it had been surveyed and white-man ownership was thus possible, through a land grant from
President James K. Polk in 1848. The property passed through the hands of John P. Campbell on its way to Joseph Gott, who
subdivided it. The house was built by Alex Clapp, who bought Lot Three of Gott’s Addition and had an $800 mortgage on
it. His wife, P.S. Clapp, signed the warranty deed with her mark, an X. Richard W. Barrett in 1902 bought the house and died
under its roof in April 1912.
Down the years, the
property’s abstract continues to tell the highly abridged story of its owners, on through the mildly scandalous and
hugely hilarious photo negatives of our immediate predecessors discovered during our own renovation efforts. These stories
remain, of course, even if the craftsmanship and materials and beauty of the structure’s architecture do no longer.
Jesus advised his disciples to give up their worldly
possessions and follow him. It is a preachment few of us Christians follow very assiduously. And the Apostle Paul wrote to
the Corinthians that “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” if members of their church
would but know Christ. I share an affinity with these sentiments, with the idea that our attachment to things material hinder
us as we seek to understand our lives.
And yet these things,
these buildings, these homes are a connection between who we were and who we might become. It is at our own peril that we
knock them down. It is at our own doom that we forget them.
The house at 944 N. Campbell Ave. is gone. That doesn’t mean it must be forgotten.
It is this reticence to hang onto inanimate things
that allows me to stomach the sale of my home, the demolition of my home. But trees are animate, if not human.
A pang in my heart for the home now gone diminishes
each day. But those trees still bring my blood to a boil. Perhaps it is transference to something more palatable, more explicable.
Whatever, as long as the silver maple that used to
grace our view west lives (and it may not be long, given its scarring, given the vast macadam soon to encircle it), I will
each autumn think its loosed leaves are shed as tears to the folly of ahistorical humans and I will each spring consider its
budding greenness is sprouted as hope to the chance we’ll one day learn.
YOU KNOW MY NAME (LOOK UP MY NUMBER)
Originally published in The
Tampa Review, 1992
You can't, it turns out, phone home again, either.
I'm losing the phone number of my childhood.
Part of my soul is going with it. In these days of geographic mobility I am an anomaly.
When I was thirteen months old my parents moved from New Orleans to Springfield, Missouri, uprooting my older siblings
from established lives but setting in concrete mine. Never again would my parents move house.
That assemblage of brick and wood and metal and fabric at 2652 Edgewater served for me as something few people have
in more than an abstraction: home. Until now.
My mother has
moved out of the old place. Of course I have a sentimental attachment to the house; I lived there for seventeen
years, after all, and it is the receptacle of many memories. But it's not as if the house has burnt
down or been spirited away in some other disaster. The house remains where it always has. Neighbors
are the same, available for visits at any time. Many of the house's furnishings will in fact become
even more accessible to me ‑‑ I'm taking them to my own home. So the house lives on as
a tangible entity, a physical referent.The same cannot be said of my phone number.My phone number
has been disconnected, snatched away never to be mine again. It doesn't matter that I haven't lived
at home in more than nine years, that's my phone number. Those seven numbers, either spoken, written
or converted into electronic pulses, are something of me more than representative. They are a part of me
as much as my hair or personality or name even. A telephone number is an identity.We have
built up a distrust of identifying numbers. Images of Big Brotherism and concentration camp tattoos and
impersonal bureaucracies crop into our collective mind, and my passion for a childhood telephone number would seem in precise
contradiction to this American mind‑set.But a telephone number is different, distinct from all those others
that make people shout out, "I'm more than a number!" It's the difference between an
active sentence and a passive one. Some numbers act upon you, they're demanding and possessive.
A phone number is one that you control, an extension of you rather than a replacement for you.Our relationships
with telephone numbers as opposed to Social Security numbers or credit card numbers or account numbers or driver's license
numbers is revealed in our language and actions.
When a caller inquires,
"Is this 632‑0937?" we have no qualms about anthropomorphizing into a numeric identity."Yes,
this is," we answer. Or, "No, you've got the wrong person.""Here's
my number, get in touch with me soon."In touch.A phone number is something we guard, but give
out to people we trust, like and love. A credit card number is something we guard and give out to people
we conduct business with.A phone number identifies us to friends wanting to tell us about what happened at the
office today. A Social Security number identifies us to bureaucrats wanting to tell us we're scheduled
for a tax audit.When strangers use our telephone numbers to intrude into our privacy and sell us something, we
are indignant. When strangers use our house numbers to invade our homes and sell us something, we unflinchingly
dispose of the intrusion without a whimper.Giving or getting a phone number marks a barrier crossed into a more
intimate relationship. "Did she give you her phone number?" we ask to gauge the success of a
given encounter. Some people, to be done with an unpleasant person, will give a false phone number.
By misrepresenting ourselves with wrong phone numbers, assuming another identity, we show how important and closely
held the real things are.In the same way huge, impersonal corporations use phone numbers to personalize themselves,
to give them a human face. "To order, dial 1‑800‑4WARMTH" or "Call us now at
And, for me anyway, a telephone number is a touchstone
(a touchtone?) with reality. If I'm watching a movie or television show there is nothing more jarring
than the ubiquitous 555‑construction telephone number. It would be just as well to put a thirty‑second
slide on the screen proclaiming, "What you are watching is not true. If this performance happened
to succeed in transporting you into a state where you could suspend your disbelief, we wish now to break the spell."
No one has a 555 phone number and that fact glares at me every time I hear it. This is not a person,
I automatically think, it's an insubstantial, two‑dimensional image of light and shadow.I've often
wondered about the genesis of these dramatic phone numbers. Somewhere, sometime, a studio lawyer decided
it was a liability risk to use a real phone number in a movie. I suspect, moreover, that the practice is
a result of lemming‑thought. Few people want to challenge conventional wisdom, alter the status quo
or break formulae proven successful.This theory I base on the fact that there are rare instances (though never
on television, bolstering my argument) when real telephone numbers are used in movies. It must be possible,
legal, to do it. Whenever a director or screenwriter uses real phone numbers it raises immeasurably my
estimation of the film, no matter its other merits or faults.So telephone numbers are important, have weight,
culturally. We think of them as something more than numbers; in some way they are a part of us, in some
way they ARE us. But what prompts me to ponder all this is not societal. It's personal.
Neither is it related to some numerological mysticism. I don't think my childhood phone
number has shaped me into the adult I am today and that I would be so much better off had that three been a seven.
There are pleasant characteristics to my phone number, which I will address shortly, but I assign them only aesthetic,
and not mystic, significance. I'm not obsessed with numbers. Sometimes, though I
use it often, I have to pull out my Social Security card to make certain of my number. My sister can recite
her locker combination from seventh grade and a friend in California knows his sixteen‑digit MasterCard account number
by heart. I cannot even approach this devotion to things numerical.A further explanation of
my feelings is related to the changes in our relationships with phones. There is an associative link between
my old phone number and a time of greater innocence not only in my life, but the nation's. Back when
I was learning my phone number Ma Bell was still intact. It was the Phone Company. Bell
owned the telephone that sat in your house (rare was the multiple‑extension home) attached permanently by an umbilical
cord to the wall.The simplicity of design in these phones is strangely appealing, and not only for their retro
nostalgia. Old phones are squat, yet somehow elegant; intuitive with their dials and surrounding numbers
but still a bit odd, whimsical even, with the assignment of letters to numbers ‑‑ numerals one and zero get no
letters, Q is inexplicably omitted and Z just doesn't make it on the end.There was no voice mail in the days
of rotary phones, nor 900 numbers to call in and vote for your favorite stars, nor 9600‑baud modems to transmit data
ever faster over fiber optic lines. To think we once used telephones to talk to each other.
The telephone used to be permanently attached to the wall. There were no jacks, easily disconnected
to take the phone with you. The Phone Company expected you to stay put. If you didn't,
you sure weren't taking the telephone with you. Now, even when we pretend to be settled somewhere permanently,
we have cordless phones. Phones you can carry anywhere, untethered, in perfect freedom ‑‑ or
at least the illusion of it.The time fast approaches when all of us face a sea change in our relations with phones
and phone numbers. Simple population growth in combination with technology‑driven demand for more
and more numbers (facsimile machines and computer modems often need their own lines) is fast depleting the available numbers
in the nation's more populous area codes. The situation is already dire and a Southwestern Bell spokesman
says an end may come as early as 1995, when we will reach a critical state of exhausted numbers.The finite permutations
of numbers available under the North American Numbering Plan necessitates a change in our current system, which instituted
Area Codes in 1947. The last of these area codes was assigned in 1992. One manifestation
of this change in numbering is almost a certainty: In the not‑too‑distant future every phone
call will involve ten digits, even those to the local time & temp or across the street. What we now
know as area codes will no longer be linked to geography, but can shift to population centers instead. For
instance, the unused numbers of the 307 area code assigned to sparsely occupied Wyoming could migrate to areas of greatest
need, say Manhattan or Orange County.
From here it is but a small step
to the next development. Permanently assigned telephone numbers, perhaps even issued at birth, are nothing
more than a set of industry standards away. We have, as the saying goes, the technology today.
When the first three digits are divorced from geography a telephone number becomes portable. You
can take it with you, at least across state borders and what are now area code boundaries.This advancement would
preclude the dilemma I now face ‑‑ numbers would not be canceled ‑‑ but, in the paradox of technology,
it wouldn't much matter. Permanently assigned, individual numbers would certainly blanch all the charm
I now associate with the digits.The Southwestern Bell mouthpiece said we're moving toward "personal
communication devices", telephones the size of credit cards he likened to the communicators on Star Trek, that can be
carried everywhere and used for data as well as voice transmission.Phone numbers will no longer be assigned to
households, but to the disparate individuals comprising them. Your number will survive crosstown moves,
interstate emigration, even divorce. It will become nothing more than any other encoded means of identification,
a serial number for the collection of circuit boards and memory chips that will be our impersonal communication devices in
the future. The pizza place won't even ask your last name: The restaurant's
computer will detect your ten‑digit phone number even before the pimply order taker can answer, whereupon your penchant
for Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza will pop up on the store's database and the high school kid can ask you if you
want to order the usual.
When this happens, seven‑digit phone numbers
themselves will hearken to a bygone time, the same way the physical rotary telephone I associate with my old number does now.
I have an aural attachment to those times, back when phones rang, metal on metal producing the clanging peal of an
actual bell. This is not technological fuddy‑duddyism. I have nothing against
progress and its merits. I write with the aid of a word processor as opposed to quill and parchment.
Rather, my opposition is based on the slipshod use of words. (In this way I rail against legislators
who call tinkering with the tax code "reform" ‑‑ such requires an improvement that is at best prematurely
proclaimed and usually not merited by results.)My beef with new phones is based solely (that is not to say insignificantly)
on semantics. Phones these days do not ring. They chirp, bleat, clitter, and pulsate.
Ring they do not. The electronic emanations of today's phones rattle my nerves, yes, but I am
more troubled by the inaccurate, unsuitable description of what they do. "The phone's going off,"
would be better. I have one phone that produces these ersatz rings, but own my others precisely because
of the metal bells and clacker within them. On the electronic one I merely turn off the "bell"
(we don't even have to take the phone off the hook anymore) and allow the others to toll in majestic cacophony when the
phone rings, as it literally does at my house.Still, real rings do nothing to preserve my life‑long telephone
number. I am powerless to do anything about the passing of my childhood numeric identity. It
cannot be captured.Rules, as with everything else in life, govern the assignment of telephone numbers.
As in life the process includes a combination of luck and formal procedures.
numbers, generally, are assigned by chance within certain parameters. First, an exchange (defined by the
three‑number prefix) is established within an area code and numbers are doled out sequentially when new service is established.
The person starting service before me got 0212, the person hooking up just after me received 0214.That
a phone number serves as an identity is proved by my own case. West Plains, a small rural town in southern
Missouri where I moved four years ago, has only two exchanges. The original exchange served the town from
the inception of single‑party lines until shortly before my arrival on the scene. The exchange I
got on was established only months before I requested a local line, as indicated by my relatively low number.It's
easy enough to be branded an outsider in a small town, having a phone number that proclaims the fact does not help.
When I give my phone number to a fellow citizen it is a proclamation equivalent to a Boston accent or wearing a skull
cap: I ain't from around here.When numbers are disconnected they are recycled and reassigned
under, as you might expect, strict guidelines. A residential number must be out of use for three months
before being given to someone else, a business number dormant for six months. These restrictions are minimums,
they try to provide more down time, allow a certain period for a number's identity to decay and wear off and let loose
its attachment to a person.
Specific numbers, if within the exchange and not in
use, can be requested. I have a friend in Kansas City who did this to match a nickname. The
last four digits in his number spell out BARN, thus further extending his phone number as identity.It's only
a matter of time. Someday, not only will that number in Springfield not be mine, it will be someone else's.Of
course other people have already had my number. Theoretically, there are one hundred forty‑three
other 883‑2314s in the country ‑‑ one for each of 144 area codes. But that, to me, is
no different than the undoubtedly numerous other Paul Flemmings running around at large, some who may even share my middle
name. That does not diminish from my own identity.But this telephone number thing is akin
to being assigned another name. Further injury would be that once stripped of my name someone else would
be assigned it for their own use, after a waiting period deigned appropriate for the associations of my name ‑‑
both good and bad ‑‑ to have dispersed.The fallacy is that the action is in only one direction, that
only the telephone numbers are capable of attachment. Do not I have an attachment to the telephone number?Yes,
I have memories ineluctably linked to that number my mother has canceled.
I remember learning to copy it down as one of my first attempts to write and making the connection between the scribblings
in the middle of the phone's dial with symbols that can be reproduced to mean the same thing to someone else.
I recall the way my best friend's mother would recite the number in French, her native tongue, with a beautiful
huit‑huit‑trois that to me was like the melodic chirping of a songbird. I harbor vivid memories
of calling that number collect from a summer camp I most desperately wished to be rescued from, the phone my only link to
home.As I grew I gained further affinities for my home telephone number and the characteristics it possessed
that, to me, made it distinct, memorable and special.The number is 883‑2314. Those last
four digits are a kind of numerical anagram, a jumble of the first four natural numbers. (I have, by blind
luck, retained a bit of this quirkiness in my current phone number which is anagrammatical of the first four non‑negative
integers.)For the simple reason that I've had this phone number so long, I've often engaged in idle thought
about its properties and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes I wonder if there were another number, what the next
one would be. If there is a mathematical progression present in those seven numbers, it's beyond my
mind. Therefore the exercise is intrinsically irrational, beyond logic. It's an
aesthetic question, a flight of fancy, a leap of faith. I've never been able to decide definitively.
The next number is either a four or a seven.If you transliterate (transnumerate?) my childhood telephone
number to musical notes you get C‑C‑E‑D‑E‑C‑F; a pretty little tune. If
you apply the numbers to the alphabet the result is H‑H‑C‑B‑C‑A‑D. The
number is so tattooed on my brain (and I am so aware of patterns, meter, sequence) that I note when this order replicates
itself elsewhere.There are so many reasons I mourn the passing of this telephone number.
After my father died, my mother never bothered to change the name the number was listed under: his. In
the years since his death my father has continued to appear in the phone book. According to Southwestern
Bell you can still call up David L. Flemming. No more. Next year my dad's name will
be stricken from the phone book, kind of the morose antithesis to Steve Martin's Jerk's joyous discovery that he had,
finally, made it into the book.I'm distraught at losing my phone number, my identity, but it could be worse.
I just dialed the number (1+, it's long distance but I live in the same area code) and heard the paradoxically
soothing recorded voice of a computer. Instead of the disquieting notice of "disconnection" I'd
expected, I received word that the number had changed, followed by a recitation of my mother's new number.
This was a relief, if only by a matter of degrees.From time to time I will dial up my old number, just
to check in. Soon, I know, it will "no longer be in service." I've been
thinking about the inevitable time when those rings on my line will be answered by a human voice, someone else will have my
phone number.Maybe I won't hang up.