When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it.
Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person – her name was Information Please and there was nothing she did not know. Information Please could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway – The telephone! Quickly I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. Information Please I said into the mouthpiece just above my head.
A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”
“I hurt my finger. . .” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me.” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?”
“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger.”
After that I called Information Please for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math, and she told me my pet chipmunk I had caught in the park just the day before would eat fruits and nuts.
And there was the time that Petey, our pet canary died. I called Information Please and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled. Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers, feet up on the bottom of a cage?
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”
Somehow I felt better.
Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.”
“Information,” said the now familiar voice.
“How do you spell fix?” I asked.
All this took place in a small town in the pacific Northwest. Then when I was 9 years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. Information Please belonged in that old wooden box back home, and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the hall table.
Yet as I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me; often in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between plane, and I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please”.
Miraculously, I heard again the small, clear voice I knew so well, “Information.” I hadn’t planned this but I heard myself saying, “Could you tell me please how-to spell fix?’
There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess that your finger must have healed by now.”
I laughed, “So it’s really still you, I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”
“I wonder, she said, if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.”
I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister.
“Please do, just ask for Sally.”
Just three months later I was back in Seattle. . .A different voice answered Information and I asked for Sally.
“Are you a friend?” “Yes, a very old friend.” “Then I’m sorry to have to tell you. Sally has been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.” But before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?”
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down, Here it is I’ll read it ‘Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean’.”
I thanked her and hung up. I did know what Sally meant.