On phone booths and collect calls: Lifelines home matter

On phone booths and collect calls: Lifelines home matter

Sundays at Seven sounds like a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie or a Barney Fife-Thelma Lou standing date, one that meant taking in the latest Tracy-Hepburn film at the Mayberry Grand.

Alas, it was nothing so esoteric nor, sadly, nearly as interesting.

No, during my university career, Sundays at Seven was my preordained time to call home to let my parents know that I was still alive and college hadn’t got the best of me … yet.

When I left my little town in fall 1973, I only had a driver’s license for about a year, and that process, unlike the one my friends had seemingly breezed through, gave me an inordinate amount of trouble, most of which was my own fault.

For one thing I never really wanted to learn how to drive. I lacked that vestigial masculine desire to master motorized vehicles in general, and truth be told, I was happiest when I could walk home.

Alone.

High school — in its earliest manifestations, at least — seemed to me to be an endless torrent of needlessly humiliating encounters with the unknown, be it the utterly alien concept of memorizing a locker combination or the requirement I shower in public after gym.

Wasn’t the right to privacy buried deep in the U.S. Constitution?

But I learned very quickly that asking questions like that could only lead to more difficulty, and equally fast, I caught on to the one very basic truth in what would become my high-school life.

To wit: the best way to survive in an alien environment was to find the path of least resistance, which is how I made just good enough grades to find myself accepted at the University of Notre Dame.

On a pseudo-topographic and rather superficial layer of reality that I cheerfully inhabited the summer before I embarked on my collision course with the 13th grade, I assumed a clerical error had been made and that, soon enough, the telephone would ring.

“Hello,” Mom would answer in her affable sing-song contralto.

“Is this Mrs. Dewey?” an officious voice from the admissions department would demand, channeling his or her inner Joe Friday.

Alarm bells were nothing new to my mother, who, as a card-carrying Irish Catholic Democrat, had the survival instincts of a cat, one that had survived dumpster dives and could see around corners.

“And just who wants to know?” she’d have asked, claws extending.

After an uncomfortably long silence of more than a few seconds, the admissions officer — having gauged this was a fight that was not winnable without incurring significant damage — would have said something like, “Well, on behalf of the University of Notre Dame, I’d just like to welcome you to Our Lady’s family.”

To which my mother would have said, “Thank you. It’s an honor.”

Of course, nothing even resembling that exchange ever occurred — more’s the pity — which meant I had to accept the fact I’d actually been accepted. This was not part of my grand plan. I had always assumed I’d go to college as, well, an underachiever, just another face on a seating chart no professor would ever notice.

Notre Dame changed all that. Suddenly, I’d be accountable, vested, the kind of student who was expected not only to do well, but excel.

And as it turned out, that meant calling home Sundays at Seven.

I won’t lie to you. I had to work like mad just to keep my head above water those first few months away from home. Not to blame my high school, but I had absolutely no idea how to study on that level. Carrying 15 credit hours seemed about a dozen too many with all the distractions I encountered, not the least of which were trying to write for the newspaper and be part of the radio station.

Add in making friends and trying to fit in, plus the fact Notre Dame was ranked first in the nation in football … plus the parties and the panty raids (they were a thing back then) and the fact there was no one to make sure I woke up in time for class every morning, and the whole crazy thing threatened to drag me down fast.

And that’s when I found comfort and solace in Sundays at Seven.

In the basement of the library, there was a bank of phone booths, the kind of thing you might find at an airport or in a hotel lobby.

Vending machines, tables and counters filled the bulk of the convivial space, but that oasis of quietude — those five lifelines — offered a chance to block it all out, even if you had to call collect.

And when the operator asked, every Sunday at Seven, “Will you accept a call from Mike?” she’d just ignore the question and talk to me directly, over the noise and static and distraction, saying, “I know you’re doing your best. We both do. We love you so much.”

Part of me wishes I could find a phone bank like that again, but I’m decades older now than my parents were when I made those calls, back when the worst problem I faced was a speeding ticket or a B-minus on a mid-term in earth science, a course I’d very soon ace.

But Sundays at Seven weren’t meant to last forever, just long enough to get me through the worst of being in the 13th grade.


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