I’ll Tell You a Story if You’re Old Enough

There are reasons why older people ought to hang out with one another.  I mean aside from when your eyebrows need tweezing and there’s a long gray hair growing out of your chin.  Your older friends’ eyesight is not any better than yours so they can’t see those things either.

Furthermore, you don’t have to feign interest in such things as blogging and tweeting and the existence of Facebook.  And let’s not even go there when it comes to popular music and that truly strange art form known as rap.  You can’t understand any of the words and have a feeling that it’s probably better that way.

More important, though, is the matter of historical context.  Increasingly, I am noticing that I draw blanks from younger people at certain points in the stories I have been telling for years.  Like the time I mentioned that my husband had spent his career at the former Bell System.  The young person to whom I imparted that information said, “What’s that?”  “That,” for any young person reading this, was the nationwide telephone system whose efficiency was admired around the world and whose breakup in 1984 mystified the company’s counterparts overseas.  “If it’s the best telecommunications system on earth, why on earth change it?” was the headline on an ad at the time in which the company tried to explain itself.  My husband, who had a hand in creating that ad, said the company caved because an antitrust suit was threatening to drag on for years. And AT&T wanted to be able to compete in the marketplace that was changing the telephone business. Things such as those that now enable blogging and tweeting and the like.

Telephone ad 001Telephone ad 001

Recently, when I told some younger people that I had grown up in New Jersey, one asked why I did not talk like the Sopranos.  Well, for one thing, most people in New Jersey do not talk like the Sopranos.  But the question offered an opportunity for me to tell the story of the remedial speech course I was encouraged to take in college.

I enrolled at the University of Missouri where my Nebraska-born father was happy to send me, perhaps in the hope that I would lose some of my New Jersey accent and also because it was cheaper even for an out-of-stater than the Ivy League.  At the time, back then in the Ice Age, all freshmen were required to take a speech test.  As I recall, it consisted of standing in front of a group and speaking a little about where you were from and what brought you to the university.  As I’ve told the story, a fellow before me was wearing bib overalls.  That’s probably an embellishment but it enabled me to add, in an aside, that in those pre-hippie days I had never seen a person wearing bib overalls.  He related in what I considered a “country” accent that he was from a small town in Missouri and had come to major in agriculture.

I smiled to myself as he spoke.  My New Jersey home was just across the river from New York City, a place we New Jerseyans began making our way to as soon as we looked old enough to get away with lying about our age.  The drinking age then in New York was eighteen, unlike New Jersey’s twenty-one.  So I considered myself the ultimate sophisticate.  Of course I would breeze past this silly test, but that farmer fellow needed help.

So yes, he passed and I failed.  The speech professors trolling for students asked me to stay behind.  “We think you would benefit from our course,” one said.  I exploded.  “This is so unfair!  Just because I’m from a different part of the country.”

“Well,” the other professor said, “didn’t you come here for an education?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“When you leave here, don’t you want to sound like an educated person?”

“Yeah,” I said again.  “What do I sound like now?”

“You sound like a gun moll.”

Now when I tell this story, I get blank stares at the end from younger people, which is disconcerting since it makes the punch line fall flat.  I guess you had to grow up reading Dick Tracy in the comics to know that a gun moll is a gangster’s girlfriend.

I did take the course and learned to watch the pronunciation of certain vowels.  I also spent four years in Missouri and then moved back and forth across country several times.  Once in San Francisco I was being considered for a job in television because, the interviewer said, I had no noticeable regional accent.  I chuckled to myself at that one.

Younger people probably aren’t aware that consumer interest – car loans, credit cards, department store accounts and such – once was tax deductible on a person’s income tax.  A daughter who just learned this was shocked.  “What was the rationale for that?”  Probably a ploy, I said, to get us all hooked on buying on credit.  And look where that got us.

So another of my stories to retire.  Back in our younger days, we filled out our own income tax returns, and sometimes we were audited.  For one of those audits, my husband gathered up all the statements we had accrued in the year and took them in to an IRS office to present to the auditor.  “Where does it show the interest?” she asked.  “I’ve never had a credit account.”  Oooh boy, my husband thought, we are in trouble here.  And we were – until we settled with them.

I have been thinking lately that I need to retire these old stories and find new things to talk about.  But I tell you, I refuse to do it in a tweet.

2 comments on “I’ll Tell You a Story if You’re Old Enough

  1. rdkeyser says:

    Please don’t retire these old stories. Many of us love them. Even if we’ve heard them before, it’s great to read them retold so vividly, in your expert craft.

    So, as we pass these stories on to younger generations, we need to explain how different our world was back then. The blank stares gradually change to a bit of understanding — “Wow! I guess things were really different back then.”

    Zooming in to read that plaque on the wall, from 1982, I wondered if the phone number from the “Bell System” that said, “Call us at 1-800-555-5000” would still work. So I tried and I got the recorded message, “The number you have dialed is not in service at this time…..” Times change.

  2. patnieder says:

    Oh, wow! The Bell System “not in service at this time…” Sad. But thanks for the comment.

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