The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

How cold was it back in B.C. (Before Cell)

(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 3/7/2014)

A friend told me this week it has been so cold where she lives, kids have been complaining their cell phone keypads have been freezing. They have had to wait until second period before the keys have thawed enough they can be used to text the youngster across the aisle to set a lunch meeting in the school cafeteria.

Being without a working cell phone is rough, but I guess it is all relative. I bet my daughter remembers being unable to satisfactorily explain the necessity of tying up the home phone to talk to friends with whom she had just spent the day at school. Even that was B.C. – Before Cell.

When I was middle school-age, there was no middle school, and the phone that hung on our wall had a hand crank. You spun the crank to get the operator’s attention – and that of everyone else on the party line, which was everyone on our road. Think NSA, but with everyone on your road listening in.

Alice Bates was the telephone operator, with her switchboard in a room above the post office. From her vantage at the wires, Alice knew who was ill and whose children were home for a visit, which men were dallying across town, and which women did not mind.

Full moon turns the forest into a cacophony of silhouettesIn the year between I started school in Maine and Dad retired from the NYPD and got to live with us again, he would come up every other weekend to visit. When Mom wanted to chat with him between visits, she would go to the telephone office, and Alice would hook her up.

I do not know now why we had a phone at the house, yet went to town to call Dad. It may have had something to do with Mom’s thing about the whole town did not need to know her business. Alice was a friend, and her daughter Rachel babysat for us until I was old enough to assume that responsibility.

During those calls, we three kids – I had a brother and a sister, both younger – would stay in the Pontiac station wagon, burrowed among piled blankets. Although it did not then register as a life lesson, I learned early the benefits of sharing body heat.

We kids did not think it was cold until the thermometer got to zero. Warmer than that, we would ice skate on the lake in front of our house, wearing naught but tee-shirts. I still walk barefoot in the snow, though admittedly not very far.

A bus picked us up the end of our driveway each school morning, meaning we had only to walk the half mile from the house to the hard road. That was great fun, especially if the previous day’s sun had gotten the temperature up to 32-35 degrees by noon, and the lightly melted snow surface then froze overnight. In the morning a youngster could run along the crust, boot-sliding down the dips.

It was a different story on the way home from the two-room schoolhouse, when a diabolical westerly wind would blow down the length of the lake toward town. The road went around the southern shore until it got to the eastern end, where it made a hard turn toward town. The lake was about two miles long, so the wind got a good run before it ran into a kid walking home from school. The first third of the three-mile walk home was straight into the wind that channeled along the tree-lined road.

And those stories about it being uphill both ways? There were three hills between school and the lake’s end

Of course, when you are 11 years old, living out in the woods, you don’t know it is cold, except for that mile between school and the lake.

Or your frozen cell phone keys.


  1. Great story, John.
    We lived in town so had a dial phone but were on a party line.
    Why did you ride the bus to school, but walked home? Sports practice?

    • You don’t realize how long you’ve been around, or how long the kids haven’t been, until you can talk about crank telephones and not be ref’ing mean people.

      I don’t know why the bus to but not from school. If I the driver were still around, I’d ask him, because I thought of that while I was writing. Truth is, I had a younger brother in the same school, but all my memories have me walking home alone. He’s gone, so I can’t even ask him why that was, or how he got home.

      Maybe my memories are colored by a love of being in the woods, not hiking, but wandering. Hunted with my eyes and a camera, except hunting season, when the camera traded for a gun. Got some table meat, but always the real purpose was just to be out there. Brother never seemed into that. He hated hunting, killing Bambi, and it seemed he thought that was the only reason for being in the woods.

      Not to criticize, though. He was a software engineer keeping train rails safe, and I a writer of other stuff.

  2. The first thing that struck me was that kids have phones with keypads. I thought since the invention of the iPhone, no self respecting phone manufacturer would make a phone with anything but a touchscreen.

    • John

      May 19, 2014 at 23:51

      Some of them still are using those horizontal slider style phones. =)

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