My grandfather graduated from Purdue in 1921 and worked his entire life as an engineer for the Indiana Bell Telephone Company. That’s how we came to have an antique box telephone in our basement.
The telephone was a rectangle of polished oak, about twice the size of a shoebox.Two round bell-eyes stared from the top of the rectangle. The side-mounted crank fired up the electricity that connected this telephone to the network emerging early in the century, and the bell-eyes jingled when you turned the crank. You listened through the tarnished brass earpiece that hung on the side, and you spoke through the tarnished brass mouthpiece on the front. If you were to use the telephone, you would have to speak loudly and say things like “Greenwood 6‐5‐0‐0, please.” You knew your neighbors might be listening in.
As a child, I saw the telephone as a conduit of romance, not mere necessity. My grandmother worked in a small‐town general store miles away from Purdue, where my grandfather was learning the electrical engineering skills that might seem quaint today. I imagined the phone hanging in the back of the store, past the pickle barrels and the shelves of navy beans, talcum powder, and Bull Durham tobacco. During their courtship, my grandfather would call the store just to hear the sound of my grandmother’s voice crackling over the fifty miles separating them. The storekeeper’s wife, compensating for a lack of romance in her own life, would summon my grandmother to the backroom for some task. “Clara!” she would call. “I need you to help me with these flour sacks.” But then when my grandmother arrived, she would smile and hand her the earpiece. She could be counted on to keep her husband busy at the front for a few minutes.
Of course, if my grandfather acquired the telephone when he worked for Indiana Bell, it could not have hung in that backroom while he was in college. But childhood imagination does not always comport with logic.
In the basement of my childhood, the telephone hung just outside our playroom, where my sister and I dressed up in oversized prom dresses from the thrift store. Wearing our mother’s discarded high heels, we’d wobble out to the phone to ring up our mystery dates.
Crank, crank. Jingle, jingle.
Hello? Is that Mike “Rocky” Rockwell? Yes, I WILL be your date on Saturday night. Yes, I certainly WOULD like to go see The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with you at the drive‐in, especially if you will buy me some popcorn. Okay. See you then. Kiss kiss, B’bye.
Unlike his own father, my father did not pursue an engineering career. But he had an engineer’s approach to life. He was forever rigging up a new latch for a broken suitcase or improving the interior of our pop-up camper with built-in walnut cabinets or a custom water system. It wouldn’t be unusual to come home and find a pig roasting in the yard, the rotisserie spit powered by a small engine he had salvaged from some junk pile and refurbished in our garage. He knew how things worked, and he wanted his daughters to know how things worked too.
One day, he brought the telephone up from the basement, placed it on the kitchen table, and unscrewed the side panel to expose its guts. With the tip of a pencil, he pointed out the telephone’s internal mechanisms and explained to my sister and me how it worked—where the electricity came from and went, how the electrical signal became sound, or vice verse. I’m not an engineer myself, and I don’t remember the specifics. But I do remember him fishing out two wires and handing one to me and the other to my sister. He instructed us to hold a wire in one hand and then clasp our empty hands together. We were obedient daughters, so we did. Then he turned the tarnished brass crank.
The bells jingled, and a tingle of electricity shot through my body. My sister and I yelped and dropped hands.
“That’s how a circuit works, girls,” he said, as my sister and I shook out our still tingling hands.
The next week, I found myself being transported to school via car, a rare treat since in those days we still walked to school every day, uphill both ways, rain or shine. The occasion was that my sister and I were taking the telephone for Show and Tell, me for the third grade, Ruth for the fifth.
From my twenty-‐first century vantage point, I assume my parents communicated with our teachers to arrange this special lesson on history and electricity. But who knows. In those days, kids showed up for Show and Tell with Japanese bayonets from World War II and National Geographic Magazines featuring the naked breasts of African women.
During Show and Tell, I explained the workings of the telephone as best I could, then organized all twenty-‐some kids in a circle and told them to hold hands. I handed one wire to the kid on the right of the telephone and one wire to the kid on the left. Then I turned the tarnished brass crank. The bells jingled. Everyone yelped and dropped hands.
“That’s how a circuit works, kids,” I said, as they shook out their still tingling hands.
These days, a child demonstrating the wonders of electricity in this way would probably be expelled and the parents who allowed it would be publically shamed. But it was actually a perfectly safe activity. The telephone only cranked out a few volts; not enough to hurt anyone. And although I did not become an engineer, I do remember how a circuit works. Plus, I enjoyed a certain status at school for the next several weeks.
But my father was not just an engineer, and he was not just a teacher. He was also a problem-solver, and he had a deep, depression-era belief in using the materials at hand to make do. So one day, the telephone caught his attention for another purpose.
My mother was a life‐long birder. She saved seeds from the cantaloupe and crumbs from the toaster to scatter in the yard, attracting birds both exotic and mundane, and she maintained a variety of backyard feeders. Some feeders dispensed tiny thistle seeds to finches. Some feeders, stocked with larger sunflower and millet seeds, attracted cardinals and chickadees. Woodpeckers and nuthatches dined on suet enclosed in wire cages. Hummingbirds sipped at scarlet nectar feeders.
The bane of the serious backyard birder is squirrels. Squirrels can scale a greased pole, navigate an inverted cone baffle, and eat their weight in seeds before you can say Peace Love and Rock and Roll. My temperamentally moderate mother was forever grabbing a broom and running out the door, yelling at the squirrels to scram, to go earn an honest living, preferably somewhere else.
I’d been taught to love all God’s creatures equally. I also didn’t understand how the squirrels could know the feeders were intended for the birds, not for them. When my mother put out candy in the candy dish, we were all allowed to eat it, after all. It wouldn’t be fair if I could eat it and my sister could not. How were the
squirrels supposed to know the difference?
My father, ever the engineer, and urged on by my mother, tried a variety of tactics to keep the squirrels off the birdfeeders. Metal contraptions, wire meshes, special swinging mounts. And yet, the squirrels continued to outsmart him. Despite her love of birds, my mother drew the line at using the BB gun in town, with children around.
One Saturday, my father loaded my sister and me into the car and drove to the hardware store, where he purchased a spool of wire of unprecedented size. At home, he cleared room for the antique telephone on the kitchen counter, near the window that looked out on the birdfeeders in the side yard. He went outside, and as we watched, he coiled uninsulated wire around the birdfeeders. We then fed him wire from the spool through a gap in the kitchen window screen. On the kitchen counter, the wire twitched like a snake on fire as he ran it up the side of the house, across the driveway at a height sufficient to clear the cars, and over to a tree near the feeders. He ran the wire down through the tree, then connected it to the wire on the birdfeeders.
In the kitchen, we snipped the wire from the spool, then ran another wire through the screen, and he repeated the process, connecting the end to the other side of the birdfeeder. Then he returned to the kitchen and attached the two wires to the telephone.
My father got us all a Coke from the refrigerator, then pulled the red vinyl kitchen stool up to the counter next to the telephone and sat down.
My sister and I hovered, gripping the sweating Coke bottles in our fists, waiting to see what would happen next. We didn’t wait long. A squirrel skittered across a branch, somersaulted over the metal baffle, and landed on the feeder. It picked up a seed in its tiny furred hands, sat up, and started to eat.
My father turned the crank. The bells jingled. The squirrel launched straight up in the air and disappeared into the tree.
My father turned to us and grinned. “That’ll teach ‘em,” he said. He drained his Coke.
Over the next several days, we were assigned squirrel watch times, when it was our job to sit on the red stool and, when a squirrel appeared, turn the crank to catapult it back into the tree. But the unfairness continued to plague me, and I couldn’t make myself do it. Instead, I turned the crank when the feeder was empty, so the bells would jingle, giving the impression that I was on the job, but not actually harming any squirrels. I couldn’t look my father in the eye all week, and I dreaded the day he discovered my insurrection.
My father was a better engineer than animal psychologist. After a few days, the squirrels had figured out both the squirrel watch schedule and the configuration of wires on the feeders. They continued to grow fat and happy on our sunflower seeds and suet, while my father became more and more frustrated.
The oak telephone retired once again to the basement, where it hung in a corner near the furnace, cobwebs knitting it in place. When my mother sent me to the cold cellar to fetch a jar of beans or a few potatoes, the telephone’s bell‐eyes glinted at me as I scurried past. No longer an instrument of romance, it had become something else entirely.