A teacher friend related that, when presented with a picture of a rotary phone, her kindergarteners could not identify it. For Boomers able to remember the vintage, Waltonesque wall phones of yesteryear while also witnessing current changes in telephone form and function, it is mindboggling that the heavy black phones we used for so many years for so many conversations are no longer recognizable to people born in this fairly new century.
Those same children have also never heard the sounds associated with such ancient relics. There is the slight whirring sound of the dial pulled to a number and its return. My mother always dialed very deliberately, but I remember the sound of the hurried pace created when characters in old movies dialed in anger or haste. A standard ring pealed from those old, black phones – actually in triplicate for our signal on the party line; however, few phones actually “ring” any more. And nowadays it is easier to hang up on someone by “clicking off,” although there is really no sound like the solid thud of a receiver on the phone’s cradle – much more satisfying in a vengeful kind of way.
Another originally-familiar device with its own set of sounds was the manual typewriter. Its keyboard is the sole recognizable commonality with today’s gadgets, although my students never understood how we learned to type without letters printed on the keys. From an early age I was accustomed to the sound of my mother typing on her portable machine. I was more intrigued by the sounds of multiple typewriters in simultaneous use each time the door to the room used for business classes opened in the big study hall upstairs at Concord. Similar sounds filled the GHS business classrooms of Nellie Pickering and Gladys Huffman.
I created such sounds myself during a one semester personal typing course in my senior year. There were key strikes: in my case, 20 of them a minute – on a good day. Business students, however, with their over 50 wpm rate and steady rhythm created quite the typing chorus, which included the ding of a bell signaling the upcoming right margin. The slight bang of a shift key in use and the thunk of the manual carriage return added to the clerical click-clack.
Also gone from most schools today are the grinding sounds of a #2 yellow Ticonderoga pencil in a wall-mounted sharpener, the scrape and squeak of chalk on a blackboard, and the clink of real silverware in the cafeteria.
At home on River Road I loved early summer mornings filled with the hum of busy insects and soft laments of mourning doves. We could hear the 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. lunch whistles from Grimes in Urbana. There was the winter clunk of coal being tossed into the kitchen stove and the summer slap of Mother’s flyswatter against the screen door in frequent insect pursuit. We depended on the sound of the milkers from the barn to determine when to start fixing supper. There was also the click of the television dial between our two available stations and – if we were up late enough – the National Anthem at midnight indicating the “conclusion of the broadcast day.”
I savor other sounds from days gone by, but not from devices nor taken for granted as part of each day. I fondly recall sounds associated with past experiences such as those during springtime at Otterbein. Lambert Hall was the campus music building, filled with classrooms and numerous rehearsal spaces for instrument and voice majors. Otterbein’s student theater department, one of the best around, traditionally mounted its annual musical near the end of the school year. During the run-up to opening night, one had only to pass by Lambert for a preview: through the open windows of all those tiny rehearsal rooms simultaneously floated voices practicing “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon or “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel along with the flute, violin, and piano parts of any song from the musical scheduled for performance – such a delightful college memory.
Also from this category comes the silence-but-for-nature sounds of Vesper Hill at Camp Clifton. Doug Dill assures me that the silent walk to the worship area – with its wooden pews, podium, and cross – for the early evening service continues a tradition in which I participated as a 4-H camper years ago. There is nothing purer than the sense of being close to God in the midst of His own creation.
Similarly, as a participant in the Girls’ School of Missions at Ohio Wesleyan University during the 1960’s, I studied and attended classes with other Methodist teens. Our final activity was a twelve-hour period of silence to contemplate all we had learned. Through open dorm windows on a warm and otherwise quiet summer night wafted the plaintive strains of “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” played on a recorder. Even now, I am transported when I recall hearing that song of personal responsibility played so simply and so sweetly.
I miss the many sounds related to devices and experiences from years past. I also regret no longer hearing the voices of my departed parents and the laughter of innocent delight from now-grown children. I believe, however, that some sounds have the ability to convey powerful emotions and echoing memories – in ways not possible through our other senses.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.