Living in the unbelievable past

December 4, 2017, 9:30 am

John Gormley John Gormley

John Gormley is a broadcaster, lawyer, author and former Progressive Conservative MP whose radio talk show is heard weekdays from 8:30 am – 12:30 pm on 650 CKOM Saskatoon and 980 CJME Regina.


Microsoft founder Bill Gates reminds us that we “always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

These days, even the 10-year cycle seems to be accelerating at warp speed.

Change is most obvious when we realize how lost we have become in our own histories.

Many of us recall kids—who have never seen a record player needle or a wall phone—raising a quizzical eyebrow at us as when we talk about “sounding like a broken record” or “hanging up” the phone.

We had some fun on my radio show this week with the following challenge issued by writer Matt Whitlock: “what’s something you remember that if you told a younger person they wouldn’t understand?”

The list was long. Listeners shared their memories, ranging in age from those who remembered, “back in the day,” the sound of a dial-up modem all the way to the truly old days when a dollar’s worth of gas could run a car for a weekend.

Many of the memories were technological: getting off the couch to manually change the two channels on TV by turning a knob; the test pattern; setting the horizontal and vertical hold; and, rotating the antenna on the roof to pick up a better TV signal.

In the automotive world memories spanned “three on the tree” transmissions, the headlight dimmer switch on the floor and rolling down the window.

Starting the car required pumping the gas pedal but not too much lest the engine get “flooded.” In some cases, pouring a little gas in the carb did the trick.

The stories of communications technology were many and varied: next-day mail delivery, telegrams, telex, pagers, changing typewriter ribbons and that fax machine paper that you’d taste only once.
Many things difficult to explain today involved the telephone: four and five-digit phone numbers, party lines, reversing the long-distance charges with collect calls, and person-to-person calls that we all misused to let friends or family know that we’d safely arrived at a destination.

Some of the phone stories were great but long forgotten, like booking a wake-up call from the operator, using a long distance calling card or “call me” card, and even getting the current time by “phoning Time” which, by the way, still exists. Who knew?

For stories that will really puzzle young people, how about stabilizing an 8-track tape cartridge by wedging it in the player with a pack of matches, fixing cassette tapes with a pencil, or blowing on Nintendo game cartridges to dislodge the dust?

Before photocopies there were mimeographs with that funny smelling purple ink; music mixes were made by waiting for a favourite song to come on the radio and then recording it; doctors did house calls and milk was delivered.

In video rental stores the signs were everywhere, “be kind, please rewind.”

From floppy discs to telephone busy signals or smoking in hospitals and on planes, photographs that took days to be developed and printed; and the earliest cell phone “multi-tap” texts where you pressed the same key three times.

Sports fans told stories of flat bladed hockey sticks made of wood and sealer rings to hold on shin pads.

The walk through our memories is an interesting one that we often don’t take until we are prompted.

Whether young, old or in-between, each of us understands change best when we look back and try to explain things to a new generation that is genuinely surprised, if not confused, by what used to be everyday experiences.