As technology advances, I have found myself thinking about all the skills that future generations will never know. They won’t get to experience the heart-stopping thrill that came from snooping on your fellow human as they talked to another person ‘privately.’
I am of course, talking about the landline telephone.
Imagine this scenario – you need to make a telephone call while at home after school. Instead of grabbing a smart phone, you have to walk across the house to find a phone. If you’re lucky, someone hung up the cordless receiver once they were done. If you were not lucky, you had to commence an hour-long search of the entire house that would end with you under the couch, wondering how the person before you managed to leave the phone there.
Siblings are the worst. And the best. It’s very confusing.
Once you located the receiver, you would turn it on. It’s at this point you expect to hear an annoying dial tone – but what if that dial tone didn’t come on? Instead, you hear voices. One of those voices belongs to someone in your home, the other could be a stranger to you. You have mere seconds to decide what to do. Either hang up the phone and earn a spot in heaven, or… listen to every single word.
An eternity in hell could turn out to be fun.
I always chose to listen. Blackmailing your siblings for their share of dessert or allowance was a skill that was heralded in my day. (Just writing ‘in my day’ solidifies that I am now solidly mid-life.) However, it wasn’t easy to listen without getting caught. You had to develop very specific skills to avoid being detected.
Breathing. Not too deep or too often. Breathing could very easily be heard on the other receivers. Even covering the mouthpiece wouldn’t help, the other parties would hear the rustle on the plastic and instantly know someone was snooping. You instead had to take short breaths as infrequently as possible.
If you didn’t feel faint, you were breathing too much.
Coughing. Every single time you found yourself listening in on a conversation, you would be immediately overcome with the need to cough. Not just your average short, quiet cough to clear your throat. No! Suddenly you would need to let loose a cough that sounded as if you had been smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 60 years.
Once the lungs were mastered, you moved onto the final skill.
Tuck and hide. This required you to find a small, dark, out-of-the-way location with absolutely no background noise. Even a cricket chirping at an inopportune moment would alert the other parties to a spy in their midst. This would then lead to the Wanderers. Both parties on the line would begin to walk around their homes, looking for the other phone receivers. The Wanderers did this slowly and methodically, carrying on a completely normal conversation so that you did not know you were soon to be caught.
The Wanderers did not stop until all spare phones were located.
Once the Wanderers were on the move, you had only two options left open to you. Option one, come out of hiding and risk returning the receiver to its home, hopefully avoiding the Wanderer at the same time. This method was most effective in large homes with carpeting to soundproof your movements.
Option two was to come out of hiding and hang up the phone line, leaving it near you – but also not near you – while you waited for the Wanderer’s arrival. This method required you to have a cover activity at the ready, like reading a book.
The Wanderer would be instantly suspicious upon finding you in scenario two. The phone was close to you, meaning you could have been listening. However, the phone was also not close to you, meaning you may have been just been reading a book the entire time – as suggested by the pose you were found in. The Wanderer then had to rely on your facial expression to decide the matter.
It is not easy to look completely innocent as your heart beats wildly within your chest, trying to fool someone who lives with you every day and knows all of your tics. You’ve spent the entire phone call scrunched up into a ball, hiding, breathing so infrequently that you cannot even remember your name – let alone how to control your facial muscles.
Those who chose option two were members of an elite group.
Thanks to technology, I will never again get the satisfaction of seeing the play of emotions on a loved one’s face as they realized I may have actually graduated to the ninja level of eavesdropping skills… and there’s nothing they can do to prove it.
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