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Trying to Explain The Telephones Of Prehistory

"How do you use this?" my 10-year-old daughter asked as we rummaged through the basement. I looked up, expecting to find her pointing to our antique coal tongs or my old photo enlarger. Instead, she held one of our old rotary telephones.

"What do you mean, 'how do you use it?' " I asked in disbelief. "You dial it."

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She inserted her fingers in the numbered holes and pressed. "Nothing's happening."

"Not like that," I laughed, "you turn it. That's what it means to 'dial' a number."

She looked at me askance. "I thought 'dial' meant this," and she jabbed the air with her index finger.

"Maybe today it does," I admitted grudgingly, "but it didn't used to, not when I was growing up." I felt in that moment like my own grandfather, realizing that life conspires to make us quaint. We try to keep up, appropriating the latest gadgets, the newest thinking, but nothing can efface the taint of our past. What we know, what we remember, even more than how we act, dates us.

"How do you do it?" she asked again, studying the dial.

"You put your finger in the holes and dial," I explained.

And then she astonished me by inventing, in her innocence, a whole new way of dialing, inserting her finger in the "O" and dialing to each number rather than from it.

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"It's not working," she complained when an automated operator interrupted, telling her to hang up and try again.

"Put your finger in the first number and turn the dial clockwise until it hits the little metal stop."

"What do you mean, 'clockwise'?" she asked.

"The way the hands of a clock go," I replied, my voice getting shrill. When I looked around for an appropriate example, I found myself faced with only digital time.

"This way," I said, inscribing a clockwise arc in the air.

"But it's so slow," she complained after the third number. When the call didn't go through she wanted to know where the redial button was.

"Sorry," I said, "there is none."

She exhaled in disbelief, winded by this first encounter with the hardships of my childhood.

Warming to this difference not merely of time but worlds, I began invoking a litany of labor-saving devices she took for granted. "We had no microwave ovens back then, either," I began.

"How did you heat up your food?" she asked.

"We didn't heat, we cooked, and we used the stove."

"But what if you just wanted to defrost something?"

"You put it on the counter and waited."

"How long?"

"A few hours."

She looked at me skeptically.

"There were no VCRs either," I said, knowing that would shock her.

"How'd you watch movies?"

"There weren't any, not on tape, only in the theaters."

"No movies?" I could feel her silent thankfulness, not unlike my own childhood gratitude at being born into an age of indoor plumbing.

"But you had TV, didn't you?" she asked, needing to locate some intersection between her childhood and mine.

"Only black and white, and there were no remote controls. You had to get up every time to change channels."

Her eyes narrowed, wrinkling the skin above her nose.

"We didn't have digital watches, either, or cassette players, or compact discs."

"No Walkmen?"

I shook my head. "And no car stereos. There were no car phones, copying machines, or faxes. No pocket calculators or home computers."

The last one caught her up short. All her life she had watched me earn my living on a computer. "How did you write?" she asked.

"With a pen and a typewriter."

"You had a typewriter?" Her voice was full of wonder.

"Have you ever seen one?" I asked, grateful for any locus of communion.

"I've never seen one," she sad, "except on TV, 'Murder She Wrote.' " I was becoming quainter by the minute.

What would she say when I told her there were no Rollerblades way back when, no Nintendo, no cable TV, no Pop-Tarts? There were no blow-dryers, no smoke detectors, no seat belts, no credit cards or money machines. No fast food, no running shoes (who jogged?), no Velcro, no disposable diapers, no soda cans, no Federal Express.

"But bubble gum was a penny," I told her, "candy bars a nickel, stamps 3 cents. The movies cost 50 cents."

My past began to look attractive. "How much were jeans?" she asked, looking at her own hard-won $35 pair.

"Only farmers wore jeans in those days. Girls had to wear dresses, boys itchy flannel, and everyone had a 'good' coat and party shoes."

"Ugh," she said, sporting hiking boots.

This enumeration might have gone on for hours, but then our youngest joined us and, catching a bit of the deprivations I had endured as a child, asked, "When you were a baby, Daddy, were there dinosaurs?"

"You're looking at one," I admitted.

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