Or So it Seems … You’ve Got My Number

For years, every garment I owned bore my name and phone number.

My mom ordered a truckload of labels from a mail-order catalog, and she used them with abandon. It seemed natural… until my best friend noticed. He and I were walking home from school when a gust of wind took my baseball cap.

Chris grabbed it.

“What’s this,” he asked, looking at the tag.

“Whadda think?” I snatched the hat. “It’s my phone number.”

“Don’t cha know it yet?” He smirked.

“I knew it before I could spell my name,” I shot back.

“Really?”

He was impressed.

And it was true. I memorized that seven-digit number long before I was expected to know the state capitols, the Gettysburg address, or Ringo’s real name. Mom was convinced that phone numbers had magical, life-saving properties. That’s why she tagged my britches with my name and phone number as soon as I moved out of diapers.

Apparently the first thing a Good Samaritan does is check a lost child’s Fruit-of-the-Looms.

Still, I knew early on that phone numbers were special. They had the magical power to span vast distances and take you to places you couldn’t go or wouldn’t care to visit.

Like Bakersfield.

Our phone number, EXPORT-NINE, THREE-EIGHT-NINE-SEVEN belonged to not just me, but to my entire family. Sure, IN THEORY, we shared lots of stuff—the TV, our dog, and the downstairs bathroom. But the reality was someone always had dibs. Dad picked the evening programs, my sister LIVED in the bathroom, and our little, highly intelligent mutt favored ME. Our phone number was, in an odd way, us.

They also had another, unique property. You owned—or rented—your phone number, but it wasn’t useful unless you gave it away. Mom had us all beat in that area; she was a Den Mother, Guild Club volunteer, Block Parent, on the church’s phone tree, and PTA president. She just about wore out our phone number sharing it with others.

But I was late to the phone party. I could count on my thumbs the number of friends who knew my number. My buddies would just as soon hop on their Sting-Rays and appear at my door, dragging me into their next caper. This almost changed when I hit middle school.

longed to give my number to the girl-on-the-next-street.

Day after day, I’d watch Pam glide past on her way to school. So I leapt into action. I swiped Mom’s fancy stationery, wrote our phone number on it, folded it, and carried it in my pocket.

For two years.

Before I got up the courage to share, she’d moved away.

Finally, though, I did give my number to a girl, and then another.  Pretty soon, it wasn’t all that hard to say “I’m in the book.” That doesn’t mean they called of course, but it’s like buying a lottery ticket. You can’t win if you don’t play. Spreading your number around increases your odds. Then it finally happened.

A girl called.

I say “a girl,” because, to this day, I don’t know who it was. My bratty kid sister answered the phone.

“You want my brother?” she giggled. “Is this Linda?”

I was in the other room and it took me a moment to realize what was happening.

“Or is it Sharon? Or Diana? Or Liz?”

I grabbed the phone.

“Liz? Liz!” my sister shouted. “HE LOVES YOU!”

I put my hand over her mouth.

“Hello, who is this?” I asked.

But the line was dead. My sister would be, too, except Mom intervened.

Of course, that which goes around comes around. When my sister started dating, I felt it my duty to … ah … torture anyone who called.

Time passed. My siblings and I left home and got our own numbers. These changed often. Yet no matter where we went, there was always ONE number that was OUR number. And it was still magic—you dialed it, and you were home again.

Even after Mom lost a long battle with cancer, we could still call and hear her voice on the answering machine.

It was comforting, but part of healing was, finally, moving on and changing the message. We all adjusted to the sound of Papa’s voice greeting us—the new “normal.” But the old number still united us. Until the day I called… and got a “disconnected” notice.

In disbelief, I dialed again.

“The number you have dialed is not working or is no longer in service…”

I was stunned, so I called Papa’s cell phone. He answered and explained that, to cut costs, he’d let the old phone number go.

It made sense, but it makes me sad. After 58 years, someone else now has our number.

Even worse, I can’t recall Papa’s cell. It lives in the contact list of my smart phone. When my Droid took a dip in the creek last year, I had to call my wife to get my family’s phone numbers. I don’t have any of them written down—or I’m sorry to say—memorized.

Mother wouldn’t approve.

If she were here, she’d stitch them into my underwear.

Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.

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Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the "Funny Times". His short stories have won honorable mention in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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6 Responses

  1. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    The first phone I remember was a crank style that hung on the wall . . . then for years we had the old black, bake-lite style, but without a dial. You would pick up the phone and tell Marian (the operator) what number you wanted and she would connect you.

    All those years, until we moved when I was in the 8th grade, our number was 6W1. None of that fancy password at the beginning. No five digit number. Just 6W1. , . , and our p.o. box was 398.

    Yup . . . those hind-sight glasses are clear as crystal!

    • Avatar Robb says:

      My Grandfather owned "Mitchel's Garage," and he had a stack of old calendars for his business that had the much-shorter number you describe. I was amazed to think that it used to be so simple to call someone.

  2. Avatar Mickey says:

    Robb,

    Another great story. I remember the "party" line we had as a kid always had to getting Mrs. Kidd off to use our phone.

    • Avatar Robb says:

      My wife, Karin, grew up on a party line. She has some fun stories. I didn't have time to talk about the times people in our house listened in on the extension. There was a fine art to it. You could unscrew the mouthpiece, remove the microphone, and have zero chance of being heard. 🙂

  3. Avatar Joanne Snyder says:

    Great article. We had a party line until I was in high school. We were allotted 5 minutes a week to talk on the phone, but my sibs and I gave that up when we realized the conversation would be in the presence of the whole family. My first phone conversation went like this…."Hi Carmen….yes…uh..they are. All of them. yes….no….I know….yes…can't say…..bye now."

  4. Avatar Paul Lehman says:

    Robb,

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane. I just rattled off my childhood number of 30 years without any mental effort. Haven't thought of it for years. Tomorrow I just may call it.