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Personal File Our First Telephone

Illustrations by John Patrick

"Out here in the Alaskan bush we want it all: we want choice, we want privacy, and still we want to listen in."

by Leslie Leyland Fields

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

WE got our first phone in 1989. It cost $5,000 and took a week to install. We had to do part of the work ourselves -- erect a fifty-foot aluminum pole with four guy wires, each a hundred feet long, tied into pilings that we sank and cemented into holes as deep as we could dig. It was a lot of work for something I didn't want. One of the great boons of living out on an island in the Gulf of Alaska had been having no telephone to answer. My obligations in the town of Kodiak, our winter home, could be shed the minute I climbed into the bush plane to get to that island -- where I go every summer to work in our family-owned commercial fishing operation. My friends all knew that the only way to communicate with me from June to September was by mail -- slow mail. Letters had to endure many layovers in many terminals -- the last one the worst of all, because the post office was thirty minutes away by skiff, and we went only once a week. Thus I was spared having to invent excuses for belated replies. But in 1989, among the buildings that shelter our extended family of fifteen plus seven employees, the cabin where my husband and I live was singled out for the installation of this new (to the island) technology. The decision was logical, I grant. Our cabin sits on the open, south end of the island, with no overhead bluffs, no land masses to interfere with the radio waves, just a straight shot out in all directions. But here was the catch: since all costs and resources are shared among us, communally, this was not to be my private phone. I was to be the message taker and phone slave for twenty-two people, all with relationships, some with creditors, lovesick girlfriends, or worried mothers. I did not want this role.

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WE were considerably behind other fishing camps in the bay in getting a phone. Our neighbors a mile across the water had had one for four years already. In fact, we often motored over in our skiffs to use it, though always sheepishly. When we couldn't face them yet again, we would make a run to Larsen Bay, where a phone was available -- but not easily so -- in the community center. Until 1983, when private phones were installed for the first time, the entire village of 120, like other villages in remote Alaska, had a single phone. It was a satellite phone -- with the characteristic delays and tinny echoes that signaled a call from very far away. In the summer, when the village was full of fishermen and cannery workers, the phone was always attended by a queue at least ten people long, and each person was limited to five minutes. I felt sorriest for the year-round residents, who had to endure the summer takeover and line up with everyone else. We overheard a lot of news as we stood in that line, and some family secrets, and mostly learned to use verbal shorthand when our turn came.

For those early summers that was the communications drill: drive the skiff to Larsen Bay (if not to the neighbors'), weather permitting; walk half a mile to the community center; and stand in line for fifty minutes to get five. We were all grateful for that one phone, though, especially those of us who remembered the pre-satellite days, before 1980, when the only link between the village and the outside world was a single side-band radio.

Illustrations by John PatrickIn the eleven years since its installation, our telephone has fully lived up to my expectations. Although our number is listed in the phone book and has seven digits, just like everyone else's, I describe it as a radio for the sake of the uninitiated, who without this important qualifier would expect conversation as usual. Calling it by its technical name, a half-duplex radiophone, would do little to describe its features and flaws. The body is a small black box the size of a videocassette, with a cord and a mouthpiece like those of a CB or any other hand-held radio. The numbers are not on the body but on the mouthpiece, which also serves as earpiece and receiver. Using it is indeed like radio communication: you "key the mike," pressing a button to speak and then releasing it when finished. Only one person can speak at a time. Both voices, the caller's and the receiver's, are broadcast into the room. And as of eight years ago, when the other cabins finally wanted in on these airwaves, the caller, usually unknowingly, has spoken to three entire households. This is most unfortunate when lovesick crewmen take to the airwaves. So in love are they, however, that even if they know their impassioned messages are bleating into three living rooms, they alter their conversation in neither content nor length.

I received my first "phone call" from the island in 1976. I was in New Hampshire, finishing a summer of waitressing, while Duncan, then my fiancÚ, was at the tail end of the commercial fishing season in Alaska. I was to come for a visit, but some travel arrangements had yet to be made. We had been writing frantically to each other, my letters scribbled on restaurant placemats and napkins, but we hadn't spoken for two months. When my mother told me that Duncan seemed to be on the phone, I ran, breathless, and found a snarl of static in the receiver. From its center came Duncan's voice, pitched to nearly a shout. I felt warm and gushy at first, and I spoke accordingly, but in return I got only businesslike instructions and lots of what I considered CB talk: "Over." "Do you read?" "Negative." "Affirmative." "Roger." Between transmissions came long beeps and blurts that effectively demolished any repartee or spontaneity. I chalked up Duncan's tone and manner, so at odds with the contents of his letters, to the 3,000 miles between us, and copied down his instructions. Just as we were ending this strange conversation, a woman's nasal voice interrupted: "This is the Kodiak marine operator signing off." She had been there all along. "Bye, Duncan!" I fairly yelled. "I love you, and it will be so good to see you!" "I love you too," he answered, with not a hint of emotion, and the line went dead. I learned when I reached the island that he had called the marine operator from a side-band radio, and she had patched the call through the phone lines. I also learned that the entire conversation had been broadcast on every radio in the area. I was miffed -- not that it had been public and no one had clued me in to this but that Duncan, an engaged man who would be permitted certain indulgences, had felt so constrained.

DUNCAN still operates the island phone as though it were a radio. Rather than answer with a cordial "Hello, Fields residence," as he does in town, he answers with a terse "This is Harvester Island." That is not mere eccentricity. Here, where you live is who you are. On the VHF radio we call one another not by name but by distinguishing landmark: Prominent Mound, Little River Rock, Rocky Beach, Chief Cove, Hook Point. Everyone in the bay knows that "Hook Point" is Mark and Jeanne Larsen and their children, and that "Rocky Beach" is the Haugheys. "Rocky Beach is going to host the Fourth of July picnic this year," we might say. But an outsider doesn't expect to be answered by an island. I cannot seem to impress this on Duncan, who persists in answering his way -- in pitching his voice at a penetrating shout, and in saying "Roger" and "Negative" and "Over."

All this may simply be a matter of adjustment, but darker forces are at work as well. The phone lacks any sense of timing and occasionally seems to harbor malicious intent. No matter how accurately I dial, it will occasionally call other numbers at random. When trying to reach my sister in New Hampshire I rang up a pet store in California. When calling a bookstore in Anchorage I got a women's resource center somewhere in Washington. Worse, the phone may simply cease operating, shutting down in mid-syllable, especially when someone is giving precise directions or important deadlines. But no click or any other sound signals the disconnection. The person at the other end merrily chats along until she eventually realizes that there has been no returning beep to signal a successful transmission. Sometimes I can still hear her when she can no longer hear me.

Most hobbling to real communication is the delay in transmission. If you tell something you hope is humorous or dramatic, you tell it all at once. You never separate a joke from its punch line or a story from its denouement. You cast it out whole into the void of space, and then wait the full three seconds for the response. In the best of circumstances, timing is hopelessly out of joint. Only Morse code, not spoken English, is equipped to deal with such pauses and interruptions. Our radiophone, then, like the early telegraph wires, is not for relationships or entertainment but for information only.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Leslie Leyland Fields is an assistant professor of English at Kodiak College.

Illustrations by John Patrick.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Our First Telephone - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 30-35.