Monday, January 5, 2015

The Time of My Childhood

I have a friend who is particularly fond of my writing, and she has been vocal in her appreciation of my previous blog entries, among other works to be found here and there. It is this same friend that I found myself exchanging texts with mere minutes into the New Year of 2015, enough that it became obvious the conversation needed to transition into a phone call. When I dialed her digits however, the call stubbornly refused to go through. Angrily, my phone disconnected instantly from each attempt to call, yet would allow texts to come through and be sent. This felt just shy of being passive-aggressive, and for a moment I despaired at the thought of beginning the year needing to replace my stupid smart phone.

I thought about calling someone else to see if this was limited to only the one number, but this proved a challenge: who else wouldn’t mind the call at that hour? Yes, lots of friends were likely still up for New Year’s, but we’re all at an age where more and more of us are going to bed at earlier hours, even on holidays. My own body clock is just horrific when it comes to such things (which I blame on both a genetic predisposition toward staying up late, and many years working late and overnight shifts), but normal human beings tend to go to sleep at normal hours. It wouldn’t have been fair to wake anyone else up just to test my cell phone. And anyone else who was already up was probably partying too hard to answer. I was stuck.

Then it hit me: call the time. 

It had probably been years since I’d last used the number, but I was sure it was still operable. I had dialed it so frequently when I was a child, long before the emergence of cell phones and memory dial buttons, there was no chance it would ever be forgotten. The voice on the other end of the line was like a dispassionate friend, always there, patient, never judgmental, dispensing curt yet useful information each time. And so I poked at the familiar digits for the first time possibly in years, managed to get a ring tone, and then was greeted by an old, familiar voice…

“Good morning. Today is Thursday, January First. The time is one-forty-four ay-emm. Current temperature: 42 degrees.”

…and I was rocketed back to my childhood. It was the exact same voice it has been throughout my entire life, a human voice, with the same inflections and intonations and cadence. Not one element was different. I called the friend again, got disconnected (who knows what was going on with that) and texted her to ask her to call me back, which worked fine. When we spoke, I told her in amazement of the voice which told the time, and how it was such a constant in my life. The more I thought about it over the next day, the more my amazement grew.

How many things stay constant in our lives in this day and age? To put a fine point on the question, how many people stay constant in our lives? People grow and change, and usually they move on, all of which is normal. But having touchstones is important and when you’re a kid, having something you can count on is all-important. Having things you can rely on gives you hope that everything you encounter isn’t ephemeral, that you can leave an impression and that will last.

When I was about five years old, that’s when I discovered Superman, and he was a constant. Superman was always noble and selfless, always caring, always there to save the day. When my home life went all out of whack, I didn’t know when or where to expect to see my mother or sisters again. That was always in flux. But Superman? He was always the same, and I needed that.

That’s also around the same time I discovered Fred Rogers, and he was another constant. Mr. Rogers was always graceful and gentle, always thoughtful, always there to coax me into tomorrow. When trouble came knocking, I didn’t yet have the life-experience to explain to myself what was going on. But Mr. Rogers? He liked me just the way I was, and he told me so, and I needed that.

And as silly as it might sound to some, just being able to dial seven digits (no area codes needed in those days) and get the same reassuring voice on the line any time of day or night, and have that voice give me some miniscule sense of where I was in the universe, that was a sort of magic. I knew it was just a recording. That didn’t matter. What mattered was I wanted to know the time, and that information was provided without fail again and again and again.

Because of it, I can honestly say that there is at least one voice that has always provided me with exactly what I needed to know throughout my entire life, has never been wrong, and has always been available. A literal human voice, right here on planet Earth with me every single day. And when I went years and years without bothering to call to see if the voice was still there, it waited patiently for the day I would remember.

It was there when my short, inarticulate adolescent fingers spun the rotary wheel to a full stop, and it’s still here when I tap fingers now occasionally lanced with arthritis across a touchscreen.

Someone stepped in front of a microphone once years ago and recorded every single minute of the day, and every conceivable temperature. They may not have been able to imagine it possible, but we can still hear that person’s voice today in the year 2015.

You can hear it right now if you want. Go on and dial it. 412-391-9500.

And remember when you do, you’re listening to the past and the present all happening at the same time.

You’re listening to the time of my childhood.

Happy New Year.

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