With cell phones so easily available now, it’s hard to believe there was a time when we were limited to a pay phone out on a field. But that was the life of a barracks soldier in the army.

We didn’t have a phone at all.

Even during holidays like Christmas, our only choices for getting in touch with family was:

  1. Go down to the local community center and pay for a call in their phone center.  It was a pretty nice place to go because it was a private room where you could sit down and no one would interrupt you.
  2. Get a phone card and find a pay phone.  This was Washington State, where it rained a lot and snowed during winter, so standing outside at the pay phone wasn’t always practical.  We had a phone booth outside, between the barracks and next to a grassy field.  Just one, so if someone was using it, then it was off to find another one.

There was also the company phone, but that was pretty limited.  People could call in, and maybe the person on duty came and got you or maybe he took messages.  Maybe he didn’t do either.  You couldn’t use it to call out, except for maybe pizza from Tillicum.

So the barracks soldiers did not generally receive phone calls.  We could call out from the phone booth, but people couldn’t call us.  I still gave the company phone number as an emergency point of contact, though I couldn’t guarantee the person on duty would treat it as important.

One day I got this knock on the door.  It was my day off and early in the morning.  I don’t know why I answered it, because most of the time when I got that knock, it was to tag me for duty because someone else said, “Get a soldier from headquarters platoon!”  

But this time the duty soldier told me I’d gotten a phone call at the desk: “Your father said he was all right.”

What the —?

It was quite alarming, and there wasn’t any other information.  All I could really do was wait until later and then call another family member.  We had sort of a phone chain in my family, with my grandmother being the center of it.  If anything happened, we usually got word to her, and she’d get the word out to everyone else.  It was very odd that my father would call me directly.

But then I tuned in the news.  Southern California had been hit by an earthquake, which was the Northridge quake.  I think my father called the front desk because he knew the duty soldiers wouldn’t have paid attention to my grandmother, who was a bit scatterbrained, but they did pay attention to him — enough that they delivered the message.

The phone system didn’t always work right, but it did when it counted.