Our First Telephone

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

John Patrick

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.

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 fiancé, 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.

Illustrations by John PatrickI 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.

"You there?"

"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.

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

Illustrations by John Patrick.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Our First Telephone - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 30-35.