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Low Tech to the Rescue


No piece of existing technology is as out of style as the lowly pay phone. If you can find one, you probably want to blast it with Purell before you put it to your ear. When someone sees you talking on one, they either feel sorry that you can’t afford a cell phone or wonder what sort of illegal conversation you might be having. Still, if you have ever needed one as a last resort, like I have, you know we will miss them when they are finally gone.

I was traveling in England on an extremely low budget some years ago. By “low'” I mean I hitched a ride in the back of a U.S. Air Force Cargo plane and my accommodations were supposed to be on the couch of a childhood friend. After a cross country train ride in the middle of the night with some extreme looking punk rockers glaring at me for hours, I finally arrived. I found the address and knocked on the door. There was no answer, if fact, it appeared that no one lived in the apartment at all. This was a real disaster. It was cold, damp and foggy. I only had enough money for a couple of nights of English food and drink and a train ticket back to Mildenhall Air Force Base, but my free flight did not leave for four days. I sat down on the curb to ponder my fate and far off in the night saw one of those bright red pay phone boxes that you see in every movie made in England. I made a collect call back to Hampton Virginia, found my brother, asked him to call my friend’s sister who still lived there, who would then call her mother to get my friends address. I gave him the number written on the phone, sat down and hoped for the best. Miraculously, two and a half hours freezing hours later, the pay phone rang and it had all worked. He had the information. The address was the same, but he had moved to a different apartment. God save the Queen and me with that pay phone.

I did not think of that night for years until a few hurricanes ago. Our phone systems were fried due to the incessant stopping and starting of the generators. The generators did not kick in quite as smoothly as now and the power surged on one time too many. With no phones we implemented a messenger system for internal communications and deployed walkie talkies at the nurses stations. Cell phones did not work well inside the hospital during normal times, and between many towers being down and overwhelming demand, they were rendered useless. The need for external communication was becoming critical as we could not reliably coordinate supply needs, staffing needs, and outside agency requests. Walking through the lobby I glance at the two lonely pay phones in the corner, now behind palettes of bottled water and thought about that big red box.

I walk over and pick up the receiver and hear a beautiful sound, a dial tone! The second pay phone miracle of my life. Those two pay phones became the new incident command center. A desk was quickly relocated, a few rolls of quarters were liberated from the gift shop and we were back in business. It looked funny to have this hub of activity and decision making swirling around pay phones. Everyone wanted to come down and see the phones that worked. The mundane became special. We got the word out that the hospital had two brand new phone numbers and the phones rang continuously. Every conversation began with “you’ll never guess where I am calling you from”. Things started moving, our sister hospitals were there and help was on the way. I don’t know if anything will save the pay phone from extinction but it has my vote!

O.K., so no one’s answering
Well can’t you just let it ring
A little longer, longer, longer
Oh, I’ll just sit tight through shadows of the night
Let it ring for ever more

Telephone Line–The Electric Light Orchestra


This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 at 4:54 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.