Friday, October 4, 2013

A Freaky Fable for Our Times

Back and forth, back and forth, we swang.  Faces wreathed in frosty exhalations, blankets stuffed all around us.  I could occasionally glimpse his face when my arc edged ahead, allowing me to glance across my porch to his. We said nothing.  Not terribly surprising, we were 3, maybe 4, months old.

Our fathers were both young assistant professors at the local university.  Our mothers were "homemakers," tending to us and our older siblings.  That, too, is not terribly surprising, it was 1948 and our fathers were the first "professionals" in their  respective families. 

We grew up as brothers.  Our siblings were set apart by either age or gender, and our lack of actual "kinship" seemed to remove the jealousy and competitiveness that so often clings to those who live down the hall or intrude on "your room."

As we grew up you rarely saw one of us without the other being nearby.  My family spent 1959 through 1961 in Vienna, Austria; his spent a later year in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Upon each return our friendship was untouched and unaffected.  Despite sworn efforts to do otherwise, similar tastes and emerging data processing conspired to make us college roommates our freshman year.

However, we both married our high school sweethearts. I suppose we should have been warned by the fact that despite all of us attending the same high school we had never double-dated.  Turns out the women shared a mutual distaste for one another.  We did the typical guy thing, and drifted apart for a couple of decades.

We next encountered each other when our older daughters entered college.  My daughter chose a school down the road from his house, his, a school a few miles from mine.  It would have been foolish not to take advantage of the new opportunity to reestablish contact - besides, by now email had been invented and we both found ourselves doing the 9 to 5 in technology related fields.  He in the Media Cartel; I, in Big Education. 


Again, the friendship failed to miss a beat, despite the fact that our wives still showed no inclination to bury whatever hatchet kept them estranged.  Not long after this last reestablishment of our friendship, my friend lost his wife to cancer, though not before - I am thankful to say - she and I had established a delightful friendship of our own.  About the same time I lost my wife to irreconcilable differences.

The point is that we have led almost mirror lives, strangely connected, strangely parallel without any effort on our part to make it happen.  How did Paul Simon put it? "Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze, Drifting through a summer night . . Heading for a sunny day."  Certainly, he and I have both been bruised by life and circumstance, but when it comes to our friendship - well, that rolls easy.  Which brings me to the rather bizarre circumstances of the last week.

It was probably over the weekend when I got an email from him.  "Short question - do you remember your phone number in our home town?"  [I'm going to change the specifics here for reason that will soon become clear.] 

Well, of course I did.  When we were growing up, in the days of dial phones, your "phone number" consisted of an "exchange" - a name that identified a grouping of 10,000 customers - and then 5 numbers.  In Glenn Miller's hit "PEnnsylvania 6-5000"  PEnnsylvania is the exchange - you would dial the first two letters of the Exchange P=7, E=3, and then 65000. So the number was 736-5000.  But when you told someone your phone number you would often just say "Pennsylvania 6-5000."  And they would know what you meant. 

So I wrote him back, "Of course.  My number was CLaremont 6-7885 and yours was CLaremont 9-8226."

I didn't hear anything from him for a few days and then I noticed that he had called my cellphone.  It is not unusual for me not to hear or answer my cell.  When I record lectures or teach, I turn the phone to silent mode and often forget to turn it back on.  So I simply hit the callback icon.  It didn't ring. It didn't give me an answering machine.  It didn't give me a busy signal.  Instead it gave me that "Wha, wha, wha" that you get when somebody's phone is off the hook or has been disconnected.  "Weird," I thought.  Tried again, same thing.  Went about my day.

Later that night I tried again with the same result.  So I sent him an email: Did you call me? I see a call from you on my phone, but when I try to call you back all I get is "Wah, wah, wah."

This what he wrote back:

"No, I didn't call you.  I called your old number, CLaremont 6-7885, and eventually it rang your cellphone."

Yes, that's right. He dialed the number of a phone I had last used 45 years ago, in a city I have not even visited for 30 years, a number that had never been registered in my name since it was my father's phone, a number that didn't even have an area code - and my cellphone rang.

That moves beyond weird and creepy to more than a little bit scary.  I have used that combination of letters and numbers as my password in two places: on my now defunct Facebook account and on my still active Google+ account.  But just think of the levels and degree of connectedness and collusion that have to exist for my 45 year-old landline number to cause my 2013 cellphone to ring.