Views from the Uppermost House: Last possible phone call

By S. Peter Lewis

News Columnist

 

These days the telephone has become as ubiquitous as hair on a cat, covering virtually every square inch of society in a matted tangle of communication lines where one thing is somehow magically connected to everything else.

Thirty years ago, if you told someone that a day would come when in some packed college auditorium or at a plumber’s convention or in the midst of a polo match everyone’s right front pocket could start spontaneously vibrating or shouting in the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’d say you’re nuts. Current stats imply that there are 312 million people in the United States and 47 trillion cell phones — you do the math.

A friend and I were driving through a small village the other week and saw a phone booth at a little neighborhood market, with the cute little bi-fold doors and graffiti and everything. It was so quaint we just stopped and stared at it. Considered snapping a photo with a smartphone.

According to the International Association of Obscure Places Where Phone Calls Have Been Made From (IAOOPWPCHBMF) database, the number of possible locations where one person has rung up another has dwindled to the point where finding a novel place to get a dial tone has become as rare as finding an albino baby hedgehog in your sock drawer. In fact, my son and I made a call from the last place in the known universe back in July. Really.

Over the course of a couple of days, my son, the engineer, using calculus and mechanical advantage and Ziploc bags and big rocks and stuff, managed to temporarily install a homemade phone booth at the bottom of a lake. Filled it with air from his SCUBA tank. Ran a phone cord up to his houseboat and connected it to a laptop computer, which in turn utilized some thingamabob to connect the underwater him to the surface world via satellites and microwaves or some-such wizardry (I’m a little sketchy on all the techno stuff).

So anyway, he drags me out there and we locate said phone booth via GPS and then down we plunge into the inky depths to make a line check, skinned in neoprene and me breathing from his auxiliary regulator and with my mask all a-foggy. Past the thermocline we descend, shivering Cousteau-like, and upon reaching said booth I take a deep breath, ditch my oxygen supply, and contort my way into the jury-rigged air chamber.

And there’s the phone, just hanging there like it was on some suburban kitchen wall. Most natural thing in the world. After pinching my nose and blowing (to equalize the pressure) and shaking my head like a wet golden retriever to dispel the cold lake water, I grabbed the phone, listened for a dial tone, got one (amazing), and dialed my wife, who was at work. She answered on the third ring and the historical conversation went like this.

“Hi! I’m calling you from the bottom of the lake!”

“So.”

“Isn’t this just the coolest thing ever?”

“Look, I’m really busy here, so I gotta go.”

Click.

She later told me that a coworker asked who was on the phone and she said something more or less along the lines of, “Oh, that was my husband. He’s out on the lake with our nut-job son and they called me from underwater.” And then she shook her head, less like a wet and enthusiastic golden retriever and more like someone who just discovered spoiled cabbage in the refrigerator.

History-making events, it seems, often aren’t quite as dramatic as we like to think. On March 10, 1876, Alex Bell made the first possible phone call and all he said was, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” On July 21, 2012, my son and I made the last possible phone call, and Mrs. Lewis (no relation to Mrs. Watson) was too busy renting golf balls to take the moment seriously, and she hung up before I could tell her how much I loved her. I suppose I should have sent her a text message, for history’s sake.

Editor’s note: Peter provided me a link to a YouTube video of the underwater phone call to authenticate his column. Indeed, he did place the call in an underwater phone booth.

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