September 23, 2023

The sounds of our lives

Posted on 17. Jul, 2013 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

Thanks to the marvel of electronics, our ears are now exposed to a multitude of tones that regulate our daily lives. Our Big Ben alarm clock bell used to wake us up. Now it’s an electronic tone (or buzzer) that sends us out of bed like a SAC bomber crew running for their plane!

Old A.G. Bell’s invention had a pretty distinctive ring on the customer’s end while the switchboard operator’s side had another (I know because I played at the feet of the Chief Operator for the Bell Telephone Company office in Evansville, Wisconsin). This was in the early fifties before the company went automated. The switching room below the two-story building was a magical place to a young boy, and the friendly switchman, Ed Erpenbach, was only too glad to show this lad how the switches went clickety-clack, on and off. I was mesmerized, transfixed, waiting for the second act.

Sitting upstairs on high swivel chairs, the telephone operators would answer, “Number please, thank you,” and a cord was plugged in to a hole in the mammoth panel, bearing the number of the customer. In larger cities, exchanges had identifiers. When I lived in Milwaukee, our number was Humboldt 35592 (my mother drummed it into my pea brain in case I got lost). Those were the days when a fellow could walk a mile or two to school without fear of being kidnapped.

An auto horn had a fuller, richer sound than the irritating higher pitched ones of most cars today, and each model could be easily identified even if you couldn’t see the car: one for Caddies, one for Packards and another for Studebakers.

At home, our Hoover ‘talked’ to us, commanding our full attention as the huge bag filled with air and the giant metal body clacked over floorboards to get to the rugs. Mixmasters of old didn’t sound like they would careen off the kitchen counter like the fancy ones of today with their high-speed motors that whine at high rpms like race cars at Le Mans. In our parlor (living room), our grandfather clock chime sounded like an operatic baritone doing his scales, unlike the silent stealth digital clocks of today.

There were special washday sounds, too, like rugs being beaten or of sheets being squeezed through the ringer of our modern Kelvinator washer. Our Singer sewing machine’s treadle made a special sound that shared space with other sounds from the non-electronic world. On coal delivery day, I remember the sound of that sooty black fuel sliding down the chute, clunking to its resting place in the coal bin next to our furnace in the basement.

Tones or sounds alert us when something is ready like coffee makers or microwaves, but back then coffee percolated and the brew could be heard and seen through a glass top on the pot. One sound that I will never forget, though, is the air raid siren, whose singular purpose in life was to tell us to head for cover. Living in the Midwest, that usually meant tornadoes, but during WWII (and the Cold War years) it also meant enemy planes…or worse an atomic bomb.

Back then, every child played “Blind Man’s Bluff,” but when I was alone I would sometimes close my eyes and pretend to be sightless as I walked through the house and out the back door onto the grassy lawn, processing each individual sound as I inched my way forward. Life has gotten considerably more demanding, and our sounds reflect it. I fantasize about disconnecting the seat belt and ‘door ajar’ bell, doing away with the irritating chirp of the smoke alarm’s low-battery reminder and all the inane customized cellphone rings.

I wonder how today’s children would fair if they were blindfolded, transported back in time and exposed to the sounds of my youth. Would they be struck with fear without all the familiar beeps that inhabit their world? Anyway, it’s good to know that some things never change, like the sounds of birds enjoying a dip in our birdbath and the yelping of coyotes at a full moon. Think I’ll go out and check the sundial to see if it’s time for my nap.

- Editor

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