The Rotary Phone

The Barnstable County Fair was in full-swing. It was mid-July; the height of summer. Since moving to Cape Cod, when summer arrives, I look forward to this fair’s return. Of all the  agricultural fairs I’ve enjoyed; this particular one really resonates with me. My partner and I met in July; on an early date we strolled through the fair grounds taking in the unique people, noises, lights and smells. We come back every year religiously. This time Rob and I had my twelve year old son in tow.

“Can we go on that ride? I’m hungry. Can I have fried dough? I want to go back to the rides. I’m thirsty. Let’s get lemonade. I want to ride the roller coaster again.”

We anticipated this barrage of expensive requests. The solution? Go mid-week on a wristband day. A wristband provided access to most carnival rides with one cost-saving purchase. Starting with the amusement rides was always a safe bet, before bellies were full. Ping-ponging a couple times between games, rides and small refreshments, we finally pulled my son away for a real meal. The food trucks are my guilty pleasure. I am a good eater, what else is there to say. 

“Ok, what do you want to eat, Ian? Look around… tons of choices.”

“Can I get an ice cream sundae and more fried dough?”

Any parent would know; his question didn’t warrant a response. 

 “We’re in luck! This is a good fair year! The Polish food truck is here!”

“You can get some kielbasa and pierogi. The sausage is like a hot dog.”

Rob and Ian were never in the mood for cultural food at the fair.  They settled with pizza, a burger, fries and hot dogs. Growing up with a Polish-American grandmother, who spoiled with us with amazing food, I never turned down any chance to sample another’s Polish cooking. My hopes it would be even remotely close to my Gramma’s were always dashed. 

Finished, we roamed around the animal exhibitions. The days of agriculture products and livestock dominating the fairgrounds are long gone. Cape Cod is now essentially a vast suburban sprawl, punctuated with golf courses and tourist attractions. But, there are still  enough animals to provide a sense of farm-like nostalgia. My children always enjoy visiting the hen house. Within are a myriad of various breeds of chickens. The exhibit is run by the local 4H Club. The main attraction is mass of little chicks peeping loudly in the center of the barn. The pen is manned by 4H kids, who are only too happy to scoop up a chick for a fair-goer to hold and coo over. 

“It’s so cute. Feel how soft he is, Dad.”

It warmed my heart watching my sarcastic, pre-teen son hold the baby bird. It brought out the gentleness and uninhibited curiosity he now increasingly hid. 

We were exhausted and slowly walked back toward the gate. Our path included meandering through exhibit halls displaying entries vying for a blue ribbon in their category. The buildings were full of arts and crafts, baked goods and local produce hauled in from Cape Cod’s backyard gardens. One space in the exhibit hall doesn’t get a lot of traffic, but I always enjoy visiting it. I strolled into the empty room. The heat of the day had faded, but indoors was still sticky and warm and there was a musty smell. The industrial fluorescent bulbs above relentlessly cast a glaring light. The room was cluttered with items seemingly pitched aside and forgotten. Most people peek in and walk right back out. Yet, with a more deliberate inspection, one notices this room is an old display of farm equipment. Cape Cod is famous for cranberry bogs and the equipment here was used for cranberry farming. My partner Rob’s family essentially came over on the Mayflower and never really left southeastern Massachusetts. He remembers, as a young boy, watching the cranberry harvest at the family owned bogs. Every year, he loves to point out the equipment his grandparents and uncle used.

Rob was trying to catch Ian’s attention so as to explain the purpose of various cranberry harvesting equipment.

“See here, Kiddo. This scooped up the cranberries…and this…I remember my grandparents had one. Let’s see what was it called…? A hopper, or something like that. It was used to ‘bounce’ the cranberries.”

“Bounce? Why?”

“The good cranberries bounce and the bad ones don’t…”

I wandered off, not paying attention. I had heard the stories before. I was distracted with examining old posters advertising fairs from years ago. To say the room was crowded with old junk was no exaggeration. Probably well organized in the past, it now resembled an old attic.

Having had my fill for that year, I headed for the door when an object caught my eye. It instantly brought to mind fond memories. Nestled amongst the clutter on a table in front of me was an old Ma Bell desk rotary phone. Avocado green plastic gleamed dully. The aura of permanence was palpable. Picking up the handset, I affectionately entangled my fingers in the ringlets of the stretchy cord. Finger in the space for zero, I spun the dial. The old familiar sound of the dial being wound up to the finger stop and then rapidly click-clacking its way back home was gratifying. My son sidled up to me, intrigued by my captivation with the phone. 

“What is that?”

I regarded him dumbstruck.

It’s a phone…obviously!

My son’s question lingered in the air as he gazed up at me. 

You know…a phone. You call someone and talk to them. 

Those immediate thoughts were quickly followed with the realization he had no experience whatsoever with this kind of phone. Born well after the advent of the touch-tone, cordless and mobile phone, this antique was foreign to him.

“It’s a phone.” 

His curiosity peaked. he shifted his gaze between phone and me. I could sense the questions piling up. 

“How does it work?”

“Well… you pick up the handset.”

I picked it up and presented it to him.

“The end connected to the cord is where you talk; the other end is to listen.”

“How do you call someone?”

“You put your finger in the hole next to the number you want and spin the dial until you can’t go any further. Then you take your finger out and let it spin back.”

This required some demonstration. 

“It’s easier to dial the lower numbers. A phone number with lots of zeros or nines was a pain in the neck.”

Ian spun the dial around a few times. 

“You had to remember everyone’s phone number?”


“That sounds impossible.”

“There was a telephone book for looking up numbers or you could write numbers in your own little phone book. But, you’d remember ones you dialed all the time. I even remember some now! Let me show you my phone number from when I was your age.” 

I dialed the five numbers.

“If my best friend, David, wanted to call he dialed: five, two, nine, zero, two.”

Rob had joined us and frowned as I finished. 

“Bad, Matt. That’s only five numbers. You’re missing two.” 

“Actually, we lived in a small community, so we could call anyone within town without using the first two numbers in the exchange.”

Ian looked confused, but Rob understood.

“Really?” Rob retorted. 

“Yep. But, someone father away would have to dial: three, six, five, two, nine, zero, two.”

“So, what was your real phone number, Dad?”

I slowly repeated the full seven-digit number to him. Instinctually putting the phone to his ear, the cord stretched and he dialed my old number. 

“You know when I was a kid, some of the phones hung on the wall. We had one in the kitchen with this crazy long cord that reached across the whole room.”

“Why?” Ian asked. 

“So you could talk on the phone and still move around to cook or maybe sit at the table. This isn’t like a cell phone. If the cord is unplugged it doesn’t work.”

“Oh.” he frowned slightly. 

I laughed. 

“The cord would get knotted and you’d have to untangle it all the time.”

“So…you could only talk in the kitchen?”

I realized my kids would never know what it was like to talk to your friend on a landline that was stuck on the wall with your parents within earshot.

“Yes…well…no. Your grandparents had a phone in their bedroom. You could talk there too. In fact, someone could be sneaky and listen to your conversation on the upstairs phone. But, only if they were super quiet when picking up the phone.”

This horrified my son. 

“You do group chats on your phone. When I was a kid to do a group chat you had to be on another phone from the same house.”


“Once Grampa was so mad at me because I accidentally pulled the kitchen phone off the wall.”

“How? Why did you do that?”

“I would talk and roam about the room. I developed a habit of walking as far away from the phone as I could. With the cord completely stretched out, I would twirl back wrapping myself up in the cord all the way back to the wall. Then I’d unravel myself back to where I started. Back and forth, I’d roll the cord around me and twirl back to unwind. I liked to blab on the phone after school when my parents weren’t home.”

“Dad!” my son chided.

 I smirked.

“Until….one unlucky day. I stretched the cord too far and the darn wall unit ripped off the wall.”

We laughed. 

The bewilderment and curiosity Ian exhibited when confronted with the clumsy, clunky, out-dated telephone created a memory to treasure. Reflecting, it was one of the first times, I didn’t mind feeling old. I was a keeper of arcane knowledge. The avocado green desk rotary phone and I were connected. Together, we resurrected, momentarily, a forgotten way of life.

Old age is mercilessly denigrated; portrayed as something to despise and fear. The amount of money spent world-wide in futile attempts to ward off the affects of aging is astronomical. We all confront this as mortals. My son, unintentionally, uncovered for me that evening a new outlook on becoming old.  Despite loss and decline, new roles to play also emerge. We can become the archivist or the preserver of the old ways. In a literal sense, we can be the living-record of what was. Perhaps, a sense of gratitude is in order for the experiences we lived through. Yes, I miss the old phones sometimes and the limitations they had. Change is constant, bringing good and bad. I am saddened my children will never experience certain aspects of life as I knew it and overjoyed they are able to avoid others. My kids’ great-grandfather said it best when someone bemoaned the end of the good-old-days

“The best of times are always now.”