I sometimes wonder how many people are left who remember when cell phone service across South Dakota was so spotty that a traveler never knew when or where a connection could be found.
I do, but I’m also old enough to remember when cell service wasn’t even a thing. Bell Telephone once ran everything. We knew where our phones were because they were connected to something — the kitchen wall, the plug behind the nightstand in the bedroom, the magazine stand next to the recliner in the living room or a metal box on a pole along the highway. Easy to find, not so convenient for a society on the move.
I didn’t mind the early days when cell phone service was hit-or-miss. I could travel on assignment and, if asked later why I hadn’t checked in, tell the night editor, “Yeah, sorry about that, I couldn’t get a signal out there.’’ That was often true, too. Vast stretches of the western prairie were without a signal in the first years of cell phones in the Dakotas. I remember times when I really, really needed to make connection with the newsroom and I’d climb a hill or scale a haystack to try to link up. It beat pay phones by the side of the road, but not by much. And I was always partial to actual telephones with cords that connected to something physical.
Back in the newsroom when I started my career in the late 1960s, every desk had its own phone. I remember a certain thrill the first time the phone rang on my desk in the sports department. “Sports, Woster,’’ I barked into the receiver. My running buddy in those days, Bruce Conley, did the same, department and last name. Our boss, who’d been around a long while, who knew everybody worth knowing in the sports world and who was known by all of those people and more, would just pick up his receiver and say, “John Egan.’’
Imagine being able to pick up a phone, speak only your name and have the caller know the proper connection had been made. These days, with everyone carrying their own phone, that isn’t so miraculous. Of course you’re reaching the person you called. You called their phone. That’s certainty. None of this Ernestine stuff. Remember her? The telephone operator played by Lily Tomlin on the old “Laugh In’’ television program? She’d sit there with a headset on, push a phone plug into a socket on the board and ask sweetly, “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?’’
That was a great comedy bit, and I suppose in the “Laugh In’’ days, 50 years ago now, everyone remembered when operators were involved in most telephone conversations. Nancy still remembers a time in Chamberlain when she’d come home from school, pick up the phone and ask the operator, by name, to connect her with her mom down at the dairy. That sort of personalized service is long gone.
When I moved to The Associated Press in Pierre, we had two phones for two reporters. I got in the habit of answering, “AP, Woster.’’ When Nancy and I had our third child, Andrew Paul, the first guy I told looked at me and said, “Really? AP Woster?’’
In those days, the AP and its competitor, United Press International, had small bureaus on the fourth floor of the state Capitol building. Each wire service also had an extension phone in the House and Senate chambers for breaking news. Switches in the bureau killed the press-box phones when we weren’t using them. Sometimes one of us would forget to hit that switch. I remember the boss going over our phone bill and asking me if I’d called someone in Boise.
Here’s where a cell phone and limited service would have been a blessing. I used to call my girlfriend from our phone in the living room. It wasn’t easy to get any privacy, and once in a while I couldn’t work up the nerve to call in front of an audience. It would have been nice to have been able to say, “Yeah, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get a signal.’’