Watching life through a cell phone


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



Fifty years ago, I was vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains. Like most folks strolling the beautiful path that led up to Clingman’s Dome, I stared wide-eyed at the smoky valleys and mountain peaks that give this beautiful area its name.

After climbing the tall tower at the end of the path, I stared into the distance trying to see the seven states that are visible from that 6,684-foot height. I walked around, adjusting my sunglasses for the best view.

Then I realized that I was one of the few people looking directly at the scenery. Most of the people were looking at the view through the lens of camera.

They were not merely taking pictures. They rarely took the camera away from their face. Personal movie and video camera were in the earliest stages of development, but there were people who saw nothing if it didn’t first pass the viewfinder of their camera.

I thought about that on Sunday as I watched Phil Mickelson, at the age of 50, become the oldest person to become a major Professional Golf Association Championship winner. It was amazing to watch.

At one point, the network broadcast showed a wide shot of the crowd as they gathered around the last green. There were hundreds of golf fans cheering as Mickelson prepared to putt. It looked as if each fan was holding their cell phone in the air, trying to capture a shot of Phil doing something fantastic.

Instead of watching the action in person, as it happened, they were watching their cell phone. I thought, “Folks, you are there, but you’re missing it. Watch the putt.”

Seeing a sight with my own eyes is very important to me. Debbie and I have gone on vacation before and forgot to take our camera with us. We will occasionally take a cellphone shot remind us of where we were, but rarely do we take dozens of pictures.

Never do we watch our vacation roll by through the lens of a camera.

It is amazing how attached we have become our cellphones.

Like most folks my age (think old dude), I remember when phones were not mobile. Your telephone number was either listed as a home phone or work phone. There were no cell phones.

Most businesses had strict regulations against using the work phone for personal calls. You could make a personal telephone call during lunch or on a break, but it was limited to the use of a pay phone (if you could find one).

Your home phone was either mounded to a wall or sitting on a cabinet or table. The actual handset, the part you held while talking, was attached to the main phone by a cord. The only way to have a truly personal and private call was to use the telephone when the house was empty.

Otherwise, everyone knew what you were up to. Even then, there was the notorious “party line.”

Unless you paid extra every month, your phone was connected to several others in your neighborhood.

One of Mom’s friends, Janet, had the habit of lifting and listening throughout the day. If we were on the phone with our friends, Janet would quietly listen. You would only know she was listening if you heard background noise coming from her telephone. That was our signal to hang up and regret the conversation you just had.

My first memory of our home telephone number was – Ulster5-6781. Thinking back, I have no idea what the prefix Ulster was all about. If you look up UL on the dialing pad of a telephone, it matches the numbers – 85.

Years later, our telephone numbers were changed to only reflect numbers. They also added the mandatory area code. Our phone number, when I young, became 513-855-6781.

Technology has changed tremendously since those early days. We now have cell phones and mobile phones within our homes that allow us to talk on the phone while we walk around the house.

For the younger crowd that is perfectly normal and the way it has always been. For us older folks it is still something of a novelty. I misplaced the handset of our mobile home phone recently. It ended up being under the cushion of our couch, but I had to call the phone number to find it.

I told Debbie, “Wouldn’t it be handy if the hand-set was attached to the main-phone by some kind of curly-cord or something?”

As usual, she looked at me with her special have-you-lost-your mind look. That is fine. By now, I’m used to that look. But I never want to get used to watching life through the viewfinder of a camera or a cell phone.

I want to remember the feel, smell and texture of every moment of life that goes by.

This is the only time we get to experience this life – treasure it.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist