Am I the Prisoner of a Telephone?


I THOUGHT I was my own man.

I was wrong.

I thought I did things my way.

Still wrong.

I was and still am trapped inside the sound of a dial tone, the hopeless prisoner of the telephone.

When I worked for the newspaper, I existed with one hand resting on the phone.

I interviewed people by phone.

And too often I knew something they did not know when I called.

Someone had been shot.

Someone had drowned.

Someone had been killed in a wreck.

And I was on deadline, and I needed the story.

“Hello,” I would say, “I’d like to speak to Harry.”

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he’s gone?”

“He went down to grocery store to pick up some milk for the baby.”

“Boy or girl?”


“How old?”

“She was born three months ago.”

And that’s how stories came to be written.

The lead in the afternoon paper would say: “Harry Simpson was shot to death in a drive-by shooting early this morning as he walked to a grocery store to pick up milk for his three-month-old daughter.”

I know we weren’t allowed to print anyone’s name before the next-of-kin was notified, but police were on their way to her home and, by the time the newspaper was delivered that afternoon, she would know.

The phone was a valuable tool.

I couldn’t do without it.

When a crime erupted close to our two o’clock deadline, I would gather up all of the facts and quotes I could find, then run down the street, knocking on doors, until I found someone who would let me inside their home to use their telephone.

It wasn’t so difficult in those days.

I wore a suit and tie back then.

Working for Southern Living Magazine, I tracked down travel stories in person, wandering across Civil War battlefields, down the hallways of antebellum homes, and through every museum that had more than one relic or artifact that fascinated me.

I got the facts later by phone: when so you open, when do you close, how much do you charge, and what’s the best way to get there.

Facts were always changing. Phones kept them updated.

While working for a custom publishing company in Dallas, we did a lot of business in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Call in every two hours, my boss said as I walked out the office.


I may need you, he said. Something may be going on. I was in charge of production. Something was always going on.

So I knew every stop on Interstate 35 to Austin and San Antonio and every service station on Interstate 45 to Houston where I could find a good, reliable pay phone.

I never drove away without a pocketful of quarters.

My jobs have always depended on the phone.

My future depended on the phone.

Often I felt like my life depended on the phone.

Then something wonderful happened.

Somebody invented the cell phone.

Mine is always charged.

It’s always with me.

I can’t escape it.

Morning, noon, or night, somebody can reach out and touch me by phone.

Morning, noon, and night, they usually do.

I don’t leave home without it.

I won’t drive around the block without it.

On Thursday, I committed the unpardonable sin.

I was in a rush.

I was leaving for Dallas.

I packed up my clothes, threw my computer in a case, and hit the road driving west.

I was somewhere between Forney and Seagoville when I realized I needed to make a call.

I reached in my pocket.

The cell phone wasn’t there.

I pulled off to the side of the road and frantically looked in and under the seats, front and back.

The cell phone wasn’t there.

I had set it aside on the table beside my desk.

I had left it there.

I suddenly had peace and relief, and nobody was tracking me down on a phone.

The peace didn’t last long.

Relief turned to a bad case of the nerves.

And I kept wondering: Why isn’t anybody calling me?

The silence was deafening.

I stared at the wall, and it stared back.

The silence was driving me crazy.

For the first time in a long time, I was alone.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of The Golgotha Connection.Golgotha-New-2

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  • jack43

    The greatest invention wasn’t the telephone. It was the answering machine. That allowed me to screen my calls. I only called back those who I wanted to speak with. The others were intruders. Yes, I’m one of those people who can allow a phone to ring unanswered. It used to drive guests crazy. They began to fidget and squirm like dope addicts in need of a fix when I ignored my ringing phone and continued to talk with them. I’m the same when I’m visiting someone else and they allow a call to interrupt our conversation. Cell phones? I have one. The only practical use I ever found for it was standing in the middle of an auto dealership showroom complaining loudly into my dead phone about the poor care I was receiving in the service department. Boy did that get the manager’s attention and get me out of there fast…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Only you, Jack, would find such an inventive way to use cell phones. For me, they are both a nuisance and a godsend. I hate cell phone, but they are like American Express. I can’t leave home without one.

  • Wendy

    I commit the unpardonable sin of leaving my phone home most of the time when I am not working. I rely on the phone when I travel to conventions, go out on book signings or am on my way to a speaker gig. It is a wonderful tool that allows me to make a living in an independent manner. Yet, I like to untether myself. The silence I gain is wonderful.

    Great article, Caleb. I enjoyed the look into the past when pay phones were all we had. I was young during those times, but I still remember having to go to a friend’s house as a kid to call home during an emergency. The people today with the mobile stuck on their hip have little idea how it used to be.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I love your idea of leaving your phone home. I can’t do that, however. I keep thinking “what if I have a flat.” I can’t fix flats on these new cars anymore. But Roadside Assistance is only a dial tone away.

      • Wendy

        I guess I live on the wild side. 🙂 There are still call boxes on the freeway and I can always borrow a phone from someone nearby. I’ve done that once or twice and it was no problem.

  • Darlene Jones

    We’re prisoners of technology — from phones to televisions to computers. And most of the time we’re grateful to have them, but there are moments …

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You’re right, Darlene. I would be lost without technology. I think it has made us all hyperactive. I used to patiently wait three days for a letter. Now if I don’t get a reply on my email in three minutes, I start getting anxious and eventually mad.

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