Wednesday, December 17, 2014
The Pager: A Remembrance
My third Quill Gordon mystery, due to be released in the early summer of next year, is set in 1996. Part of the fun of writing it has been recalling the technology of that bygone time in order to be historically accurate. Thus, the Maguffin is a floppy disk; people stand by the fax machine waiting for a message to come across; and a laptop with 128MB of hard drive is considered top of the line.
Oh, and one more thing. The protagonist has a pager, which keeps going off and diverting him to another path.
It was in 1996 that I got my first pager. I had signed on to do public relations for a large land-use project in the community, and the person in charge of community relations for the project pretty much made me do it. He said, correctly, as it turned out, that I had to have a way of ensuring that people, especially news reporters, could contact me when I was away from the office and get a quick response.
An Extra Layer of Separation
For those too young to remember, a pager was a device, about the size of a matchbox (but then you probably don’t remember those, either) that was generally worn clipped to a belt. For a modest monthly fee, it was connected to a system that allowed a caller to phone your pager number and enter the caller’s number, which then showed up on a display on the pager, telling you that someone wanted to talk to you pronto.
The heyday of the pager was from the late 80s to about the turn of the century, when cell phones finally got smaller and cheaper. At that point it no longer made sense to have an extra layer of separation between you and the caller.
I must say, though, that at the time I appreciated that separation. When someone called, they were expecting a call back within a half hour, and that gave me time to, for instance, see that the caller was the San Jose Mercury, hazard an educated guess as to what the call was about, and consider my response.
The Trip Was Redirected
One of my favorite pager memories was when I was working on another project a couple of years later. I was meeting with another client 20 miles from my office and had just started back when the pager went off. I got off at the next freeway exit and called the number.
It turned out to be the aide to a county supervisor wanting to know why the hell my client was cutting down trees without a permit on its property. I told him I didn’t know, but would look into it and get back to him in an hour or less. I detoured to the property and discovered that my client’s alleged tree-cutting was actually a case of a neighbor removing some overhanging branches. I put the neighbor on the phone to the aide and got the matter straightened out on the spot, with no negative media coverage ensuing.
Technology is rendering many things obsolete these days, and in some cases, something of value is being lost. The pager was a stopgap technology at best, and there’s nothing really special to miss about it. But in its time, it provided a few memories, and those are worth keeping.