“Long distance is the next best thing to being there.” That was the advertising slogan of AT&T back when AT&T ruled the telecommunications industry, back when telephones had cords, back when it cost extra to call someone outside your area code. It was also the phrase that my Aunt June repeated over and over again to Grannie as I prepared to leave home for college and go a full 120 miles away. In Grannie’s mind, however, next best was only slightly better than worst. Grannie wanted to see my face, hold my hands in hers.
I understand. I generally avoid telephone conversations lasting longer than five minutes. If the purpose of the call is to pass on information, five minutes is a gracious plenty. For anything else, a visit is warranted. Not always possible, but warranted. People need to see each others’ faces. People need to hold each others’ hands.
Tonight though, I am willing to break my rule.
I walk out onto the porch, cell phone pressed to my ear. It has been raining, off and on, for days and the cloud cover that stretches from one horizon to the other makes the cell reception inside the house, spotty under the best of circumstances, particularly treacherous. Outside, under the sky, the dampness of the night falling lightly on me like a veil, I will hear better. I will listen better. Ignoring the rocking chairs, I sit down at the edge, my back straight against one of the columns.
The voice on the other end of the line (though it’s not a line anymore, if it ever really was) is one I know well. I would recognize it anywhere. It is a voice I know at every volume, in every cadence, with every inflection. It is a voice that carries with it more than just words. It is heavy with history.
There is no news to speak of, nothing momentous to share. It is not that kind of phone call. It is an “I just wanted to hear your voice” phone call. It is a “Remind me that these things are still true” phone call.
So we just talk. Run-on sentences. Phrases without objects. Subjects without verbs. We interrupt. We talk over each other. We pause to breathe. We laugh, we sigh, I – at least – swallow tears.
In 1977 the Voyager Spacecraft were launched. Neither had any particular destination. If any “advanced space-faring civilizations,” as Carl Sagan called them, encounter either Voyager I or II (Voyager I should pass within about 1.6 light years of the star Gliese 445 in about 40,000 years.) they will find on board the so-called Golden Records. Included among all the amazing sounds gathered to represent our planet – the sounds of whale songs and the Brandenburg Concerto, the sounds of volcanoes and earthquakes and thunder, the sounds of footsteps, the sound of a kiss – are voices.
Human voices making greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages, human voices offered as, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, “a present from a small, distant world, a token ... of our thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
Voices as a present. A gift. An offering.
I am filling up with amazement. Amazement that a combination of plastic and metal and the imagination that came up with binary code are, this very moment, allowing me to make that gift to, receive that gift from another human being, to be connected in a way that is even better than seeing his face, holding his hand. Amazement that the waxing moon, made invisible by the thick gray clouds, is still illuminating my front yard so well that I can make out fencerows and power lines and my mailbox at the edge of the road. Amazement that Grannie and AT&T may have both been wrong, that long distance may well – sometimes, at least – be better than being there.