As seen in The Best of Your Times special issue
By LELAND ZAITZ
For the Keizertimes
It’s a hard fact of life that you can’t stop progress. Each generation in its turn watches with chagrin as the world changes in ways big and small. But it seems that our generation has seen the world change so quickly that there’s hardly even time for nostalgia anymore. What were ordinary facts of life for us must seem inconceivably primitive to the younger generation. For example:
Yes, that’s what it was called before it was called the “cell phone.”
You had a black plastic device sitting in its regular place in your house, and it had a dial on it. Which explains why even today we talk of “dialing” a phone number. When the phone rang, you wondered who was calling, because there was no caller ID. You were familiar with sounds such as a dial tone and a busy signal. You had all of your friends and family’s numbers memorized!
If you called a friend and got a recorded message, you might respond with “Are you there? Pick up!” You might lay on the bed for half an hour talking on the phone because that’s as far as the phone cord would reach. And if you weren’t home and needed to make a call, you’d look for a pay phone. Which sometimes came in its own little booth! You might even be treated to the happy surprise of finding a quarter in the coin return. And perhaps best of all, if you were unhappy with your phone call you could slam the handset down on the receiver with a satisfying crash, a pleasure our kids will never know.
It’s called “snail mail” today, and that’s because it sometimes takes two or three days to get a letter. But before there was e-mail, you wrote letters, often by hand. You might even have had your own stationary. And you had to lick the stamp.
On vacation, you might search for just the right postcard to send back home to let your friends know how much fun you were having. And the picture on the postcard never, ever featured an image of you. Because you never, ever took a photograph of yourself.
As nutty as it sounds, there was a time when you took a photograph and then had to wait days to see it. You’d buy a roll of film, 24 exposures unless you were feeling expansive, in which case you’d spring for 36. And you might have to decide whether you wanted slides or prints. Try explaining that to your grandchildren. You chose your subjects carefully, knowing you had a limited number of exposures before you ran out of film. Remember wanting to take one more photo and discovering that you had reached the end of the roll? And remember sitting through a slideshow of your friends’ vacation? Maybe some changes are for the better.
Was there actually a time when you had to get up and cross the room in order to change the channel? Luckily, there were only nine or 10 channels to choose from. And you always wondered what the “UHV” channel was all about.
The only way you’d know what was on was by consulting a little magazine called the TV Guide. You’d arrange your schedule to be home on the night of your favorite TV show — and if you missed an episode, you’d have to wait until summer reruns to catch it.
Eventually, you got a video cassette recorder (VCR) and you could actually record your favorite shows—if you could figure out the recorder. Most of us had a VCR with a perpetually blinking “12:00” display. And you probably accidentally recorded over something you were saving to watch later. You saw a lot of commercials back then, because there was no way to skip through them. And half the TV shows seemed to be westerns. Gunsmoke. Rawhide. Maverick. Bonanza.
Where did all the westerns go?
Remember waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio? You might only get to hear it once a day. You might even call up the radio station and request it. And then, if you were lucky enough to have a stereo system, you might race to record the song off the radio.You made mix tapes for someone you cared about.You used a pencil to tighten the tape in the cassette, and you carefully wrote out a label before sticking it on the front of your tape. Mix tapes—putting together a collection of songs for a friend or sweetheart to send a message. Writing the label and sticking it onto the cassette. Your grandchildren will never visit a record store, or tear the plastic off a new album and hungrily digest every word and image on the LP cover as they listened to the album for the first time. There might be a song you don’t particularly like, at first, but you’d get used to it, since you had to listen to it every time you played the album. That’s how you discovered “deep tracks” that never got played on the radio.
Here are some additional things your grandchildren will never experience:
• Becoming friends with your bank teller.
• Cursive writing.
• Passing notes in class.
• Getting actual plastic toys in a Cracker Jack box instead of a sticker.
• Saturday morning cartoons.
• The milkman.
• Drive-in movies.
• Liquid paper, carbon paper, fax machines and typewriter ribbons.
• Smoking or non smoking?
• Card catalogs at the library. The library, for that matter.
• Rolling down a car window.
• Folding a map.
• And finally, the future: That wonderful tomorrow we were promised, in which we all had jet packs, flying cars, moving sidewalks, meals in the form of a pill and vacations on the moon or in undersea colonies. As someone once said, the future ain’t what it used to be.
(Leland Zaitz is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.)