by Richard Vanduyvendyk

Rotary phones were a big step up from the phones that required turning a crank and asking the operator to connect you manually with someone else. Even with rotary telephones, long-distance calls required several operators to connect to the various systems that worked more or less independently.

Our black elongated phone was mounted in a wooden box with a slight edge on the bottom that could hold a pencil. It was located in the center of the house where the bottom of the stairs, the main hall, the bedrooms and the living room all intersected. Before phones, I imagine that this would be the place where families would place their shrines to the deities and communicate with the gods. Long-distance calls were costly and therefore limited to about three minutes. When we called my Oma in Holland for her birthday, you could feel the message going underwater and inching its way to the continent. There was a noticeable delay in the voice responses that required the skill of waiting to respond. My mother sat with an egg timer set at three minutes so as not to incur extra charges. My siblings and I got to say a few words but didn’t wait for the response.

Illustration: Ben Vanduyvendyk

At the age of ten, I remember having to do a project on the Eskimos, as they were still called. Not the Edmonton Eskimos whose players were all familiar to me being from Alberta. Those Eskimos were captive in a shoebox with my other football cards, but the Eskimos that lived way up there somewhere were almost entirely unknown to me. It’s clear to me now that our education about indigenous peoples was sadly lacking. Other kids in the class had taken out the two books on Indians, and somebody had taken away the “E” in the series of World Book Encyclopaedias. Taking away encyclopedias were against the rules of the school library. I had my suspicions that it was probably a girl. There were no other libraries for miles around.

Ineka and Dianne always had beautifully handwritten projects with additional pictures that they drew either from memory or from images she found in the encyclopedia. Betty could have slipped the book out and taken it home overnight. Miranda was the first person in the class to discover that the Calgary library’s main branch had a photocopy machine. For a dime (the equivalent of a chocolate bar or a bag of chips), the photocopy machine could reproduce pictures in black and white of almost anything you could find! We were fascinated by this technology. However, truth be told, I would have opted for the bag of chips.

When it came to projects, I generally found girls to be a pain in the gluteus maximus. They had this nasty habit of completing their assignments ahead of time and stealing all the books. The best projects were hung on the bulletin board, and their origins were always gendered specific. Even my projects, sparse on text, but with numerous pictures roughly cut out of National Geographic magazines and liberally glued to lined paper, didn’t make the grade.

As the weekend and the due day for my project approached, I found myself with no books, no encyclopedia, and no National Geographic with pictures of Eskimos. I felt terrified, overwhelmed and powerless to complete my project. I thought of asking Mr. Vanderveen if I could change my project to one about bare-breasted women from the Amazon that I had found in National Geographic and stowed away under my bed. Still, I knew that this would be inappropriate and even sinful.

My mind was spinning around frantically, a top wobbling, when the answer occurred in an epiphany, a revelation of what had to be done. I would call the operator; she would know all about Eskimos and help me with my project! I mustered up the courage to call the operator and practiced what I was going to say. I had memorized her phone number, it was “O.” Operators were still free like the internet. This wasn’t the first time that I had called an operator for help. Once when I found myself at home alone, a rare occurrence, I called the operator to ask her how to cook a hot dog. She respectfully told me how to safely boil water and cook a hot dog. To this day, I am still capable of cooking a hot dog.

When I got the operator on the phone, I explained my project and the terrifying situation that I was in. I mentioned that the project was due on Monday. With significant irritation in her voice, she said that I shouldn’t be calling the operator about school projects.

Silence.

Then I heard her clear her throat. She said she would tell me what she knew about Eskimos if I never called the operator about school projects again. I crossed my fingers behind my back and promised her the moon. She went on energetically to tell me everything she knew about Eskimos.

I learned about houses made from ice, eating raw seal, coats made from fur and sleigh dogs. The operator even asked me some review questions to be sure that I had remembered what she told me. I thanked her profusely and immediately started on my project.

The cover page was a picture of a toboggan pulled by six Golden Labs, my favourite dog, followed by a guy in a fur coat and sunglasses (faces are hard to draw). Several igloos in the shape of bungalows were in the background. Poplar trees without leaves lined the boulevard. I don’t remember anything about the text that I wrote.

I proudly handed in my project on time. I don’t think the project made it to the bulletin board; I would have remembered that. I realize now that I was on the cutting edge of technology for the times and among the first to use an early version of Google.

I remain roughly at the same level of technological competency today. Someday I’ll join the ranks of the majority and get a cell phone. Until then, I’ll think about calling the operator.