The day after he arrived, he called us to report that after 24 hours of flying plus connections he had arrived in Newcastle, a city on the East Coast between Brisbane and Sidney.
The sound quality was such, however, that he
could have been calling from next door. The world has come a long way communications-wise from when I was in the Navy 40-plus years ago. I called my mother one Easter from Okinawa on something called the MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System), and we both had to say “Over” at the end of each segment of the conversation, so an amateur radio operator could hit the switch that allowed the other party to talk.
My ship had been in the Far East for about six months at that point in time, but it could have been on another planet, so we were both too excited to remember to say “Over” every time.
However, even today kinks in the technology still exist. Shortly after our son called us from Down Under, something strange happened. The phone, which rarely rings more than once or twice a day at our quiet house, rang again. The Secretary of Health and Human Services at our house answered. She could hear our son’s voice, but it was clear that he was talking to a co-worker instead of to her. Apparently, after he had talked to us, he had hung up, but then sat on his phone, causing it to call the most recent number.
Not only that, it happened three more times over the next 15 minutes. I don’t know how much it cost for our son to call us the first time, but I think he’s going to find out soon how much it cost to call us five times in 20 minutes from halfway around the world.
This brought back memories from 20 years ago, when he was in college. We were paying for his dorm phone then, and one month calls to Sao Tome appeared on the bill. Sao Tome?
That’s right, Sao Tome. I had never heard of the place. You don’t see Sao Tome in the parade of nations at the start of the Olympics.
However, the place does exist. It is an island just off the equator in the Atlantic Ocean near Africa. During the slave trade years after the New World was discovered, it was a Portuguese colony and served as a distribution center to which slaves captured on the mainland were sent, and then re-loaded on ships to be sent wherever they could be sold around the world.
The official name of the nation today is Sao Tome and Principe. Like us, our son had never heard of it. The administrator in charge of the college dormitory where our son lived, of course, had heard plenty of stories, but she determined that we were telling the truth and wrote off the costs. Someone had stolen the number and used it to call “home.”
Since only 56,000 people live on the island, my guess is that, should they have been so inclined, the police could have narrowed down the list of suspects rather quickly. But then, a $50 phone bill was the least of their worries, even 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, we sit by the phone wondering when and from where our son’s next geography lesson by phone will come.
Tom West is the general manager of the Peach. He may be reached at (320) 352-6569 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.