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I didn't want a phone in 1989 because I already had a radio, with all its attendant blessings and curses. Voices from the VHF and the CB filled my house, most of them voices I didn't want to hear, many of them the voices of people I didn't know: A skipper on a fishing boat yelling to his skiffman, "Get away from the rocks!" Or a floatplane calling a fishing camp to ask for the best place to land. For five years running our radio picked up a trucker somewhere in the Deep South who was using a booster -- an amplifying unit so powerful that it was illegal. This racket was most obnoxious on net-mending days, when we put the radio on an outside speaker so that we wouldn't miss any calls while we worked on the beach. Then the Mississippi-trucker glossolalia, impenetrable except for the occasional "Ten-four," harassed us with an unsettling clash of cultures. He clearly was talking on the radio just to talk. The content of his utterances was not the point. For us, thousands of miles away, the radio was only for content -- terse bits of information. To be helplessly bathed in this verbal overflow, this abuse of the airwaves on which we were so dependent, irritated us all. When we hit our threshold, the radio went off, and no one in the world could reach us no matter how they tried.
When a call comes for me, I feel a certain drama, and a sense of being part of a community, but when I'm on the radiophone, I'm aware that my voice is breaking someone else's silence -- filling other people's rooms whether they like it or not. Paradoxically, we live in privacy and isolation, go days and weeks without seeing anyone outside our camp, and yet our every conversation through the airwaves is communal. Because of our seclusion I get my news weeks late and I miss every summer Olympics, and yet I know that Jeanne, across the bay, has recommended St. John's wort to Michelle, who lives another bay away.
WHAT bush dwellers ask from the communications revolution is not just working phone lines but also privacy. Radios, of course, are public by nature. Our VHFs have enough crystals in them to receive and broadcast from about a hundred channels -- a grossly excessive number, I thought at first. But I soon saw how small the airwaves could be. One boat captain unofficially claims one channel as his, we claim one as ours, the rest of the bay stands by on channel 69, the Coast Guard has channel 16, and so it goes. Even with nearly a hundred choices it is hard to find a quiet, obscure spot to chat with a friend. And it is nearly impossible to get there unnoticed.
It works like this. You call your friend on the area's main channel: "Bird Rock, this is Harvester Island." Wait for response. Nothing. Try again. "Bird Rock? Harvester. You got it on there, Sandy?"
The radio crackles, and then you hear "Yeah, Harvester Island, this is Bird Rock. How you doing, Leslie?"
"Great. Wanna go to seventy-one?"
Pause. We both turn our dials.
"Yeah, got you solid. How's it going?"
And then we talk. But neither of us is deluded into thinking that we are alone. Anywhere within earshot bored people -- maybe twelve, maybe three, or on a sunny day maybe just one -- heard us give our address and jumped up to switch their radios to the same place. If Sandy is someone I talk with regularly, we will have established our own channel, referred to obliquely as "the other one." Then the conversation goes like this:
"Bird Rock back to the call."
"Yeah, Sandy. This is Harvester Island. Wanna go to the other one?"
But even when we pre-arrange a "secret" channel, we can never get there alone. Every radio comes equipped with a scanner that can halt at and lock onto even the faintest throat clearing. My secret channel is probably scanned like all the rest. Every time I call on the radio or the phone, which can also be picked up by scanners, I know I may be Comedy Central or Days of Our Lives to some rapt, unseen audience. I have been on fishing boats where, untethered from the voices and the melodramas of TV and talk radio, the crew tunes in to local theater instead. Knowing this, I have developed a little test to monitor my conversation's borders. When talking on either apparatus, if I suddenly envision a gaggle of fishermen around a galley table snorting at my revelation or, worse, nodding their heads and saying "That's not surprising -- I could see that about her in a second!" then I know I have said too much. The larger the imagined audience, the greater the perceived bloodspill. My chagrin is only momentary, however. Though I hope for privacy on the phone, I don't really expect privacy on a radio. Nor does anyone else. We all set up boundaries between the personal and the public; we can all speak "radio," using voices distinct in timbre, rhythm, and inflection from our face-to-face voices and even our phone voices. "Radio" levels the peaks and valleys of our true voices, just as it razes the emotional topography of our lives, settling us on a vocal plateau of monotony and, often, predictability. There is a certain comfort in the patter and the pattern, but always the frustration that the boundaries of the superficial must range so far.
Some fishermen I know recently bought radios with an encyclopedic 2,000 channels from which to choose. They are using them illegally, but surely, they hope, confidentiality will be possible now. But they tell me that the same technology has also produced a scanner that can shop all 2,000 channels and stop on a cough. This means that someone smart out in communications-marketing land has listened closely -- and he is right. Out here in the Alaskan bush we want it all: we want choice, we want privacy, and still we want to listen in.
MY neighbor eight miles down the beach now can send and receive faxes. He lives in a cabin that sits on pilings in the middle of an eroding bank that in a decade or two will slide into the Shelikof Strait. It's a desolate place to live and fish, with frequent winds and a hard surf and few if any visitors. Now among those sounds will come the shrill, distinctive ring of a fax transmission.
I am still unreachable by fax, and beyond the omnipresence of e-mail and the Internet -- neither form of communication is possible for me given our phone system. Nor do I have a television. This is one place where the world's lines of communication don't intersect; I'm left loose, like some kind of free radical, pinging around in my own small space. How provincial, how unfashionably territorial, how regressive, I think, smiling.
All this may soon change, but not inevitably. We have managed to derail inevitability of any sort out here, particularly when it comes to technology and received notions of progress. Sometimes I carry my laptop to the outhouse. But we will not nurse our anachronisms forever. Some will. Some literate people out here in the wilderness will continue to choose a life without phones and all that technology brings. I understand this.
For the past several years rumors have abounded about a new satellite system to be installed on strategic mountaintops across the interior of Kodiak Island. We would be able to dial direct to the satellite and link immediately to any place in the world, retaining the capability of expressing spontaneous affection and -- a punch line. But I have heard, too, that such a system would cost a million dollars to install and could never be cost effective. I am relieved, in a way. I'm not sure I want to exorcise the demons that guard my airwaves.
I remember eleven years back to that first month with our new phone. An oily loan officer, dialing random numbers, was trying to sell me a home-improvement package; the blurts and beeps unnerved him so thoroughly that he lapsed into real human speech. Then the anesthetic Muzak spun out like silk from the loan officer's Cincinnati office and emerged in the open air of our cabin in lurches and static so distorted and jarring that I couldn't identify the sounds at first. When I did, I laughed. Clean air, 3,000 miles, an island of mountains, and our own fragile brand of technology had translated the manipulative message with perfect clarity, and it was all right to have a phone.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.